Friday, September 24, 2010

Heart-Shaped Box, a Review

Horror is a realm I rarely venture into. To me, horror is only spooky and eerie as long as it holds on to the mystery of what's going on. Why is there a ghost haunting me? What was that noise in the closet? Once the questions start to get answered (or once you realize that they will get answered, even) the potency of the story drops dramatically insomuch that the genre transforms from horror to thriller/suspense. Unfortunately, few novels can carry the plot long enough to maintain an overall sense of unease, and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box falls victim to this very problem.

Judas Coyne is a fifty-something year old retired rock star. He's spent his whole life running away from his past, eager to leave his Louisiana roots behind and embrace the celebrity world of rock & roll. His songs are hard, angry anthems that sing of hate and sex and good times. His current bed-mate, a twenty-something that goes by the name Georgia, is just another girl in a long line of states.

Jude has long had an interest in the weird. He has a private collection of strange things from all around the world, from a hangman's noose to a snuff film. One day his personal assistant tells him that someone is selling a ghost online and Jude decides to buy it and add it to his collection. He promptly forgets about it until the heart-shaped box package arrives, bearing a dead man's suit. Things will never be the same.

The first hundred-and-fifty pages or so of this book had me hooked. I was reading late at night, and after I turned off the light I felt a little uneasy about some things. A shadow might have moved. A dog might have scratched the bed and startled me. A ghost might have been standing at the top of my stairs. Yes, the first half of Heart-Shaped Box was horror, evoking genuine spookiness.

Hill's descriptions of the ghost are haunting. I had a vivid image of the thing in my head, almost as if I could see it myself. The writing style is perfect for the genre, seamlessly jumping from the "norm" to the odd with a sentence, easily keeping the reader on-edge. The plot is fast-paced, and I admit I turned over pages fast to find out what was going to happen next.

Sadly, the book loses its ability to keep the reader spooked. That's not to say that the story goes downhill or gets stupid, because it doesn't, but it simply morphs into a suspense novel. It's like I accepted the ghost for what it was and now Jude is just trying to get rid of it. It relies on the "here's the problem, find a solution"  formula. There's still otherworldly things happening, but it's no longer eerie, and most of the imagery doesn't seem as fresh any longer.

Still, Heart-Shaped Box was an enjoyable read. Jude Coyne is an interesting character, and watching him develop through the read is as enjoyable as the ghost story. Hill's writing is great and, coupled with the quick-paced plot, the book is a rather short read. Overall I enjoyed Heart-Shaped Box, but I ultimately feel that it lost its edge as it drew to a close. To me, horror is best suited to a short-story environment, but Hill's first half of the book certainly hit all the right notes for the genre, so I'm not complaining. That's better than many others can do.


Kailana said...

I looked at this book the other night at the store, but I just can't decide if it is for me or not. I don't generally read a lot of horror, so I am picky when I do!

logankstewart said...

If you like horror, I don't think I'd recommend this one unless you just had to. While the opening was great, it lost it's horror-ness.

Anonymous said...

great review.. like the critique.

and i agree that horror does seem better suited in short story and that whole single sitting, unity of effect (Poe) thing...much easier to sustain anyway.


logankstewart said...

@L: Thank you. Unity of effect, eh? I'll have to look into this.