Super Dogs and Effective Arm-Crossing: A Review of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ by Joe Hill

I don’t read a lot of horror. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is so it seems counter-productive to give myself nightmares as well; readers of my previous post on the dark days of 1990s YA and the Point Horror novels may understand my view on this.  But I read Joe Hill’s ‘Horns’ a few months ago and found it sufficiently weird and interesting to pick up ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ to read on holiday. I’ll put it out there; I have a long history of reading really weird and inappropriate books on sun beds. Just a few traumatic examples: ‘American Psycho,’ ‘Birdsong,’ ‘The Kite Runner,’ and, most notably, ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (wrestled with in Mexico while my husband happily reclined on the next sun lounger giggling to ‘Yes Man’ by Danny Wallace; it is a miracle both books and partners came home from that holiday).

So, ‘to ‘Heart-Shaped Box.’  The first two paragraphs do a good job of introducing the style and content of the novel, with some basically disturbing bathos thrown in for good measure:

Jude had a private collection.

He had framed sketches of the seven dwarves on the wall of his studio, in between his platinum records. John Wayne Gacy had drawn them while he was in jail and sent them to him. Gacy liked golden-age Disney almost as much as he liked molesting little kids; almost as much as he liked Jude’s albums.

And so the story is established: Jude is an ageing rock star in the Alice Cooper/Ozzy Osbourne mould, with money to burn and an interest in everything creepy and, at times, frankly wrong. It is the combination of these two things which leads him to the purchase of a ghost and its favourite suit; it soon turns out that this was a set-up and the ghost in question has a few issues with Jude.

Rock music plays a key role in the novel, defining Jude and his backstory (we later discover Jude’s unhappy relationship with his father is in part because of the latter’s disapproval of his son’s ambitions) as well as lending some amusing asides; Jude’s dogs, for example, are named Angus and Bon, with the AC/DC connection not explained (which had the happy effect of making me feel just really knowledgeable), Jude met his former girlfriend at a Nine Inch Nails show and he is mistaken at one point for the singer from Metallica. I enjoyed the knowing nature of these references, and they helped to create an idea in my mind of what Jude’s music would sound like.

The southern gothic is evident throughout, from the ghosts, hypnotists and shady motivations of the villain, to Hill’s charming metaphors; when Jude recalls eating a sweet as a child, “he imagined he was helping himself to a chocolate-covered eyeball” and even his musical equipment is “a rat’s nest of cables and pedals and adapters.”  Studying and teaching English has the sometimes irritating effect of rendering me unable to ignore linguistic tropes in the books I read for fun, because I am incredibly cool.

I liked Jude, even though he is clearly a bit of a bastard. His attitude to women (more on this in a moment) is pretty horrendous and he wanders around in his underwear far too much, but he is interesting, growing more so as Hill reveals more of his family background and the story of his band – whose name, by the way, is Jude’s Hammer, which is obviously a terrible moniker for a supposedly hugely popular rock band.  It is Jude’s unlikeability which makes him intriguing; the narrative doesn’t make excuses for him and allows us to consider how awful some of his actions are without being forced to sympathise with him. One recollection of the past tells us, “people wondered how something like Columbine could happen.  Jude wondered why it didn’t happen more,” emphasising the depth of his childhood unhappiness. I enjoyed finding out more about him, as well as the other key characters, as the novel progressed.

I do have a couple of issues with ‘Heartshaped Box,’ however. I think perhaps ghosts will have to join time travel in my ‘literary ideas blind spot’ as I lost track of who could and couldn’t see the ghost and how it was that he still seemed to have a car.  DO dogs really have magical ghost-repelling powers?  Is this a well-known fact that I have somehow missed?  And I don’t know if this was just supposed to reflect Jude’s shallowness and low-level misogyny, but this book is OBSESSED with breasts. Like, every female character is described in terms of what her chest looks like. At more than one point, an angry woman is described as “crossing her arms under her breasts;” is this level of detail truly necessary? Also, I have just tried this and it is far more comfortable to cross your arms over them; otherwise it just looks like you’re trying to mimic the effect of a Wonderbra. Even Jude’s dying father has his moobs described, which I thought was perhaps taking things a bit too far.

I enjoyed ‘Heartshaped Box.’  There are a few big reveals which made me hold the book further away from my face because I was so horrified, but I guess that means the book was effective in terms of what it is meant to do.  It did give me unsettling dreams for two nights and  a more suspicious attitude towards online auction sites, but I’ll be reading more Joe Hill in the future.  I might just check how many times the female form is referenced first.

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