Retired death metal star Judas Coyne has built up quite a collection of sinister and macabre artifacts over the years, so when he sees someone selling a ghost on the internet, he can't refuse. But when the black, heart-shaped box arrives on his doorstep, Jude discovers this is not just any old ghost, but one which will make him confront the darkness in his past.
Heart-Shaped Box had me utterly gripped from the beginning. To buy a ghost on the internet was a brand-new idea in a world of recycled stories. I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book: was this a quirky dark fantasy or an out-and-out horror? It turned out to be a more straight-forward horror than I was expecting - though perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, since Hill is the son of Stephen King, and from whom better could he have learned his craft? He doesn't take long to launch into a story of suspense, with fear being conjured by descriptions of the wrong sort of nothing, and then when that is replaced by the wrong sort of something, it is narrated so matter-of-factly that it took a moment for what I was reading to sink, which, when it did, happened with a really creeping horror.
The ghost of the story is a far more solid presence than in other ghost stories, possibly because he is quickly named and described as "Craddock" or "The dead man." This haunting is no vaguely hostile threat that may or may not be influencing Jude's world. Craddock is a person, not just a presence, and a particularly malevolent one. Once he appears, the story becomes more standard horror fare - there's something in Jude's house that is out to get him, and might also be in his head. But that's not all there is. There is plenty of variety in Heart-Shaped Box: it is a something-in-the-house horror story, a road trip, a psychological thriller and more. Three or four times, when I thought I had an idea of what sort of story this was going to be, Hill threw in a twist that changed everything.
Jude Coyne is a seriously messed-up individual, and I can't say I liked him. Having an unsympathetic protagonist will usually turn me off a novel - but though I didn't like Jude, he wasn't unsympathetic. He was a man with many layers, a tough history and believable reasons for being who he was. I was convinced at first that his fate was inescapable - and I didn't want that. I wanted him to survive and come through the story unscathed, if not unchanged. (You'll have to read the book to find out if he does or not.) Once or twice, I nearly lost all sympathy with Jude - he does/is/has done some pretty awful things - but Joe Hill kept me caring despite Jude's best efforts. And I loved Marybeth, (also known as Georgia,) Jude's stubbornly loyal girlfriend of half his age.