Jude Coyne is a former rock god. Think Ozzy Osbourne but with fiercer dogs. He is a collector of all things morbid: drawings by a serial killer, a skull belonging to a victim of exorcism, a woman’s written confession that she is indeed a witch, a genuine snuff movie.
So when his assistant draws his attention to an online auction site that offers a ghost for sale, Jude is immediately intrigued and puts in an offer to buy it. The ghost arrives in a heart-shaped box. Initially Jude is slightly put off that ‘nothing happens’. He feels as if he’s been conned since a heart-shaped box with a ghost in it does not meet his usual standards of morbidity. So he clears it out of the way and soon forgets all about it. This is when the truly spine-chilling stuff begins to happen.
Well, maybe that is what author Joe Hill would have us agree with, but the truth is that for a tale of horror, the horrific occurrences are few and far between. The ghost appears, Jude’s dogs bark at it and the temperature in the room suddenly goes down a few notches. Ah well. In the meantime, the reader could not care less. It would help I suppose if its characters were likeable. Horror occurs when we feel involved; when we care so much for the characters that their horror becomes our own. It is difficult to care for a protagonist who names his sexual conquests after the American states he found them in and inevitably forgets their real names. The potentially likeable characters are two-dimensional and flat. I cannot decide whether this marks a bad writer or whether Hill thinks their badly-drawn personalities serve a purpose. If the latter is the case, I shall have to read the book again and see if I can figure out what he tried to do. I fear, however, that my former assessment is nearer the truth and Hill is still finding his feet as a novelist. It seems he is too obsessed with the plot to write three-dimensional characters.
I must admit that for a first novel, Heart-Shaped Box is a passable and entertaining enough attempt at an original ghost story, albeit one that is paradoxically heavily influenced by M.R. James and Stephen King. I eagerly await his next novel, which will hopefully give me proper nightmares.
If you like, you can add Jude Coyne and his girlfriend Georgia as friends on MySpace. Guess I was wrong about them not being very lifelike. More info can be found here: http://www.joehillfiction.com/