dark packages

At the weekend I read Joe Hill‘s debut horror novel, Heart-Shaped Box, and it was a smooth and enjoyable ride into dreadful territory.

The story revolves around Judas Coyne, a 55-year-old rock star, who collects things and people: goth girlfriends, rare and weird items, and damaged people. He’s offered the opportunity to buy a ghost that comes attached to a suit that looks like one of Johnny Cash’s cast-offs, and agrees without thinking it through.

The suit arrives with its phantom inhabitant, and soon Judas is on the verge of killing himself and his current girlfriend, Maybeth, due to the mesmeric suggestions of the vengeful revenant. It becomes apparent that Coyne’s past is catching up with him: in particular his treatment of his ex-girlfriend Anna, along with memories of his boyhood in Louisiana, where he lived on a pig farm and was beaten by his father.

Hill’s prose is deceptively simple, the kind that draws you into a story and sucker punches you with brutality on occasion. I do want horror in my horror novels, and Hill succeeds in amping up the creepiness factor throughout the book. His central character, Judas Coyne, is established as a complex man who hides his emotions and vulnerability underneath a veneer of callus and cynical disregard. It makes his character likeable, even when he’s being a bastard. As the situation escalates Coyne has to confront the personality traits that have landed him in the predicament. Thankfully there are no overblown melodramatic scenes of repentance, but instead the story escalates into a satisfying confrontation between Judas and his demon.

I’ve a couple of minor gripes about the novel, but the one that occasionally irritated was the repetition of small pieces of information. Perhaps it was necessary for people not paying attention, but for me it lent the details a little too much significance. The final chapters tied up loose ends a little too tidily for me, and yet I suspect that will be to most people’s tastes. Hill’s pacing, however, is impeccable. It keeps the action pumping at a breathless pace, and only allows for the occasional respite before it plunges back into chases and hauntings. The wonderful dogs were a special bonus too.

Heart-Shaped Box is an impressive first novel, and marks Hill out as a horror writer to watch in the future.