I used to read scary books all the time. When I was a kid I was all over R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books. I’m not sure what made me stop reading them on a regular basis, maybe it was because I could actually watch horror movies after a certain point. I’ve read a few here and there in recent memory, though I think The Exorcist was the last one I tacked and that was soon after college. I also accidentally read The Omen movie adaptation which I thought was the book the movie was based on (not the case). So why did I want to read Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box? Two reasons: I was interested in Hill’s books after really enjoying the first volume of his IDW comic Locke & Key and also because I stumbled upon a copy of it for $2 at a used book store in New Hampshire.
Whatever the reason, I am SO glad that picked this book up. I started reading it in October and slowly made my way through (picking up Skate 3 for the 360 has been a lot more alluring than I thought), just finishing the other night. It was amazing.
It’s been a long time since a book so completely creeped me out and not just on a supernatural level. Don’t get me wrong, I did have one night of reading where I put the book down and turned off the lights and couldn’t help but imagine the main ghost standing in my hallway. But, as the book progresses there are more human acts of depravity and desperation that made me feel gross. In fact, I was at the dentist office while reading a few chapters just last week and felt awkward, like the people around me could sense what I was reading. One of Hill’s many skills is his ability to take things further than you expect. I’ve read and watched enough stories to get a pretty good idea of where things are going, but Hill always bobbed and weaved away from the expected, which I really appreciated.
I guess I should explain the story of the book a little. I will say that I went in completely blind, knowing absolutely nothing about the book. I’d suggest doing the same, but you’re more than welcome to read ahead, I will keep all kinds of spoilers to a minimum. Our hero is an aging rocker named Judas Coyne who’s kind of in the vein of Ozzy, but with less going on in his older age. He’s a big fan of the occult and winds up purchasing a ghost on the internet. He thinks it will make a good addition to his collection of oddities, but it turns out there’s a lot more to this ghost and its sale than he expected. The ghost has a mad-on for Jude and anyone who helps him which includes his girlfriend. The pair go on a bit of a road trip to both avoid and get rid of the menace which culminates in the home of Jude’s abusive father.
The imagery and mythology that Hill created in the book is what really absorbed me initially. Many times, when it comes to ghost stories, I get annoyed that there’s always an old person around who knows all the details and bestows that information onto our protagonists. That’s not the case in this book. Sure, there are a few things said here and there, but not in the way that, say, Insidious rolled out an oldie with all the info. Jude and Marybeth really have to discover everything on their own or through dreams inspired or influenced by the dead. But really, the most effective element of the supernatural in this case is the fact that the ghosts have squiggly black lines where their eyes should be. I can not get that imagery out of my head. It’s so simple, yet so damn creepy when you really think about it.
I had a great time reading this book, but I also had a brand new experience while making my through: some semblance of contact with the author. I joined Twitter a few months back as @PoppaDietsch as a way to get my posts out there more and link to my professional writing. But I’ve also discovered the pleasure of following writers and artists who I like and seeing them talk about their process. It’s also cool being able to tell someone you’re reading their book, which I did at one point. Hill even responded which was very cool. While reading the book, I saw him do a Q&A which wound up spoiling one aspect of the story that wasn’t such a big deal. That was my fault for reading past the spoiler tag. Anyway, I highly recommend reading Heart-Shaped Box and following Hill on Twitter because he really talks about what he’s doing (he just finished the first draft of his most recent novel). I now want to read the rest of his Locke & Key series as well as his other books!