Page Turners

Heart-Shaped Box and the Ghosts of Your Past


Horror has never quite been my genre. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve almost always had an overactive imagination, and feeding that with horror typically lead to a lot of sleepless nights. But there was one outlier to that aversion. Good old Stephen King. My aunt adored Stephen King, and got me hooked on his books pretty early on, and I’ve always had a place in my heart for King’s work. I’ve been following King’s work for quite some time, so I of course became intrigued when it came out that an up-and-coming horror writer named Joe Hill was his son. That’s a little lousy of me, not being interested in someone until I learned they were the son of a famous writer, but that’s what happened. I first read his work from the absolutely terrific comic book series Lock and Key, which really convinced me that Hill had some serious chops, and a very unique perspective on horror stories. But it isn’t just comics that Joe Hill has an interest in, because he’s also produced a handful of very well-regarded and beloved horror novels that I’d had recommended to me several times. I think by now I have all of Hill’s novels sitting on my Kindle, and I decided that it was finally time to dip my toes into his prose, and I checked out my first of Hill’s novels, and coincidentally his first, Heart-Shaped Box.

This novel tells the story of an aging rock-star called Judas Coyne and his live-in girlfriend Marybeth. The two live out on a farm in upstate New York with Jude’s assistant Danny, where Jude putters around, recording music and collecting a menagerie of macabre artifacts. He has snuff films, a witch’s confession, and used nooses. So when Danny gets a message of a person selling a suit on the internet that in theory contains the ghost of her step-father, Jude has to snatch it up. The suit then arrives, folded into a heart-shaped box, and Jude is eager to add it to his collection and forget about it. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem possible, since that very night Jude is visited by the ghost of an old man, wearing the black suit and using a pendulum that ends with a razor, whose eyes are a blacked out mess. The ghost then begins following Jude around, harassing him and terrifying him. And this scares Jude more than he thought possible, causing him to panic and demand that Danny gets him in contact with the seller of the suit. Which is where things get complicated. Because it turns out the seller of the suit was the sister of a former girlfriend of Jude’s named Anna. When Jude broke up with Anna she went back home to her family, and ended up committing suicide. It appears that Anna’s sister and step-father have blamed Jude, and sicced the step-father (Craddock)’s ghost on Jude.

With this knowledge Jude begins trying to find a way to rid himself of the ghost, which becomes more pressing when Craddock begins stepping up his menace. He drives Danny insane, and begins trying to convince Jude to kill Marybeth and them himself. This causes Jude and Marybeth to flee the farm, along with Jude’s dogs Bon and Angus who seem to be able to hurt Craddock, and they start driving to Florida, where Anna’s sister lives. Jude, Anna, and the dogs then flee south, trying to stay one step ahead of Craddock and his ghostly truck. They stop off in Georgia to meet with Marybeth’s grandmother and attempt to contact Anna’s spirit with an Ouija board. This does not end up being very productive, so they keep heading on the road until they get to Anna’s sister’s house. And this is where things start getting twisted. We learn that Anna’s suicide may not exactly have been a suicide, and that Craddock’s vengance is actually a little different. Turns out that Craddock was a pedophile, and had been molesting Anna and her sister for their whole lives. Anna’s sister was fine with it, and became Craddock’s disciple, and they killed Anna when she threatened to expose them. They were worried that Anna had told Jude too much, and that’s why they send the ghost after him. So with this knowledge Jude and Marybeth lead Craddock out into the middle of nowhere Louisiana to the farm Jude grew up on, and defeat the ghost, at risk of much personal harm to themselves.

This was an incredibly effective and creepy novel. When I went into it I wasn’t really expecting it to be that frightening. Honestly, most of Stephen King’s novels are just kind of spooky, and that same part of me that was only interested in Hill when I learned he was King’s son made me think that his writing style would be similar. Plus, I’ve never really thought the idea of ghosts were particularly horrifying. But Joe Hill has proved me wrong. His descriptions of Craddock have really stuck with me, and proved to be utterly terrifying. There’s also the fact that he used Craddock and all of the other spirits present in the novel to represent everything you did wrong in your life helped. Yes, Craddock imposed a real and tangible threat, and his motivations did end up being a little different, but for most of the novel he seemed to be a metaphysical representation of everything Jude did wrong in his life. Which is a very relateable and terrifying idea.  We all have baggage, and things that we wish we could change about our lives. And the last thing you would ever want was a physical reminder of it, following you around. This novel really worked wonders for me, so I look forward to checking out what else Joe Hill has up his sleeve.

Heart-Shaped Box was written by Joe Hill and published by William Morrow, 2007.

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