Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

'Buy my stepfather's ghost' read the e-mail. So Jude did. He bought it, in the shape of the dead man's suit, delivered in a heart-shaped box, because he wanted it: because his fans ate up that kind of story. It was perfect for his collection: the genuine skulls and the bones, the real honest-to-God snuff movie, the occult books and all the rest of the paraphernalia that goes along with his kind of hard/goth rock.

But the rest of his collection doesn't make the house feel cold. The bones don't make the dogs bark; the movie doesn't make Jude feel as if he's being watched. And none of the artefacts bring a vengeful old ghost with black scribbles over his eyes out of the shadows to chase Jude out of his home, and make him run for his life…

Joe Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, is the story of an ageing, dislikable heavy metal musician who has been ground down by the death of his bandmates, guilt that he has let people down and intense self-loathing. In his fifties and the last man standing, Judas Coyne spends his time bickering with whichever young, gothic girlfriend happens to be living with him at the time and adding to the macabre collection that opens the book of witch confessions and trepanned peasant skulls.

One day an odd email gets sent to him, offering him the suit of a dead man being haunted by his ghost. Thinking that it would be good for his public image, Jude buys it and immediately forgets about it. That is, until it turns up in a black heart-shaped box and the ghost of a old man with black scribbles instead of eyes moves into his house. Unfortunately for Jude the ghost has a personal vendetta - to see him suffer for the death of a suicidal girlfriend he abandoned years before.

Normally I wouldn’t have picked this up as I tried to read another of Hill's’ books, Horns, and found it hard work, but I read Heart-Shaped Box for a book group and actually found this to be an effortless read, with a complicated anti-hero and some genuinely very creepy moments, the least of which being an old man appearing in your living room with black scribbles where his eyes should be.

Though this is supposed to be the story of a man being haunted by a literal ghost, this is actually more of a story about a man haunted by a whole range of ghosts, from the child abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, to the dead bandmate he introduced to drugs and the ex-girlfriend with serious mental problems he sent home, unaware that she was suicidal. The actual ghost, spiritualist and hypnotist Craddock McDermott, is more of a plot driver rather than the central focus, forcing Judas and his girlfriend Marybeth to hit the road, pursued by Craddock in his truck, to try to figure out a way of escaping his murderous intentions.

Interestingly it is 23 year old Marybeth who really steps up in the story. You might have expected her to either run away or die fairly early on, but she stands up to the punishment and really comes into her own, whilst Judas takes a lot longer to face his past demons. I was impressed by this book and although it does get to the point where it starts getting far too over the top in terms of who Craddock really is, it is fast paced and has some interesting ideas in it. It’s not a book where you are scared of the ghost, but it is a book where you can be scared of the horrific things people will do to one another.

8/10 Heart-Shaped Box is fast paced and has some interesting ideas in it

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