I woke up one morning this week craving a horror story, something that would have me jumping from the sounds of traffic outside or leave me convinced that the disembodied voices of my flatmate’s Zoom meetings were really demons. I wanted something I wouldn’t be able to put down, and something by a new-for-me author. A quick search on the Internet brought countless lists of horror must-reads, and at the top of the majority of those lists was a book called Heart Shaped Box by Joe Hill. I had my book!
The premise of Heart Shaped Box is eerie as hell. An aging rock star, Judas Coyne, enjoys a fairly quiet life on his farm, taking care of his dogs, sleeping with whichever young thing he happens to be carrying on with at the time, and adding to his collection of creepy occult items. When Jude buys a supposedly haunted suit off an auction site, though, things quickly take a turn. As soon as the suit shows up in its heart shaped box at his house, Jude begins seeing the previous owner of the suit, an old man with a razor blade on a chain, which he dangles back and forth like a pendulum. Jude soon finds out who the man is and why he’s come, but escaping him is another story entirely.
I wanted to love this book, and I tried to love it — I really did. I read it cover to cover in just a few days, even purposely reading it at night to up the creepiness factor, but it just didn’t do it for me. I’m not sure if it’s that the book wasn’t scary enough, or if it didn’t reach as far into the psyche as I’m used to Stephen King’s novels doing, but it wasn’t the horror story I’d been hoping for. It was creepy, sure, and a nice, spooky ghost story, but it certainly didn’t have me pulling the covers over my head or shivering with horrified delight. I also had some qualms with the ending, but I’ll save those so as not to spoil the book for those who’d like to read it.
The main problem was this: I didn’t like Jude. It’s hard to love a book when you don’t care much for the main character. Now, I know that Jude is supposed to be pretty rough around the edges and that showing his development throughout the story is kind of the point. However, when I find myself either not caring what becomes of the protagonist (or worse, rooting for the villain), it’s disappointing. I hated the way Jude treated the women he was with; although this is a big part of the story and will ultimately play a role in how he faces his situation, it turned me off to him from the get-go. I found myself reading more for the sake of the female characters, Georgia/Marybeth and Florida/Anna, rather than for finding out what happens to Jude.
Aside from Jude’s character being a total jerk, I also felt the book was unnecessarily obscene in some parts. I’m pretty open when it comes to literature, and I like raw and gritty stuff, but there were certain elements of Heart Shaped Box that seemed vile only for the sake of eliciting shock value. I get that some of it needed to be in there due to the subject matter of the novel, but I couldn’t help but feel it went a little overboard.
All in all, I enjoyed Heart Shaped Box and it gave me something fun to read while I’m cooped up at home in my self-imposed quarantine. The quality of the prose is superb, and I’ll definitely be interested in seeing what else Joe Hill has got in his bibliography. I’ll keep you posted on what I discover. However, if you’re a fan of horror and looking for something truly scary to keep you up at night, this is not your book.