Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill

Generally speaking, horror is not really my jam. I prefer my ghost stories poignant and ethereal, usually, and – notwithstanding the odd dystopian fiction or political satire – I tend to gravitate more towards happy and fanciful rather than scary and dark. Especially when we’re talking about books – the last couple of horror-type novels I’ve read have just not hit home at all; The Wasp Factory and The Loney, as acclaimed as they both are, didn’t strike a chord with me at all, and I was left thinking that perhaps horror genre literature just isn’t for me.

So, when someone recommended Heart-Shaped Box by (successful in his own right) son of Stephen King, I have to confess it slipped to the bottom of the to-read list a few times. I’m making a conscious effort this year to take recommendations (plus, with a target of 250 new books read in 2017, I kinda need recommendations!) so I didn’t ignore it entirely, but I was ready to encounter either gratuitousness or yet another narrative that I simply didn’t get.

I do so love being proved wrong by a good book!

I’ll elaborate. The thing I tend to not enjoy about horror in films is the gratuitous nature. Gore by the bucket load, the evillest evil the human mind can think of, things that go bang or boo and can’t be beaten, ever, and not a sliver of light or hope anywhere… simply for the sake of it. The point is to scare, to unsettle, or to gross out… not as part of the story, but just for the sake of scaring, unsettling, and grossing out. They leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth and a distinct feeling of being cheated out of a story (complete tangent, here, but this is why I hate the film of A Woman in Black so much, because they took an amaaaaazing play with a brilliant story and an incredibly clever use of multiple roles, minimal props and one re-usable set and turned it into a story-less scare-fest that made me want to sleep with the light on).

Against my expectations, then, I actually loved Heart-Shaped Box. It’s definitely horror… it’s not a nice ghost story about love lasting through death, or a kooky fantasy novel where creatures of dark are just as complex a mixture of good and evil as people – it’s proper horror, with a malevolent ghost and some thoroughly unlikeable living people. The set up is this: the main character, an ageing metal/rock star who collects the macabre (a serial killer’s letters, an actual hangman’s noose, etc blah blah) buys a ‘ghost’ – the ghost is apparently attached to a suit belonging to the dead man, and said suit duly arrives, folded neatly in a black heart-shaped box. As you can guess, dude gets a little more than he’d bargained for, and scary hijinks ensue.

What kept me turning the pages, though (sometimes reading through my fingers, I’ll confess) was the story. There was one! A good one! The characters are complex and three dimensional, and they grow during the story. People who you think are good turn out to be not so much, and people who you think are pretty despicable turn out to be not so bad, actually, and people who you think are awful turn out to be so much worse. The theme of the cycles of abuse becomes apparent a few chapters in, and Hill writes a distinct and clever metaphor around this. I don’t want to say much more, to avoid spoilers, but the idea that the evil that living humans sometimes work on other living humans can echo through the years is a heartbreaking and powerful one. I won’t give away the ending, either, but I will say I wasn’t left with that horrible sourness I get from the horror I was moaning about above.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, and I’m looking forward now to reading more of Hill’s work.

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