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Heart-shaped Box (Anglais)
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1. I don't normally like horror stories.
2. I don't usually like novels that have to do with the supernatural or life beyond the grave or any of that - with some notable exceptions. Many of them simply don't seem all that engrossing. Gross? Maybe. But captivating? Not usually.
But this book grabbed hold of me from the start. It could be because I've been thinking about mortality lately and so the plot (centering on life and death, love and revenge) was compelling to me. But I don't think so. I think it is truly a good book.
Judas Coyne (known simply as Jude to most) collects macabre objects, even snuff films (and yes, this is a sign that his soul is a bit awry and aching). But when he buys a dead man's suit he isn't prepared for what is coming to haunt him.
Joe Hill, the author of this novel, did such a fine job creating the atmosphere and characters in this book that I didn't want to put it down. Jude Coyne, the main guy in this one, isn't prone to staying in relationships and he can be a cold, hard man. As the book progresses, I found his evolution and development to be compelling. I was rooting for him. Would he be able to face his internal and external ghosts, past and present, and become a better person for it? I really wanted to know and I found him to be believable, however flawed (and maybe more compelling because of his flaws).
The author has a firm grasp on the art of creating cliff-hanger endings for chapters. Take this sentence: "And who knew that getting a finger blown off and losing half a pint of blood could be so good for your sense of humor?", for example. It may not be a main sentence but it gave me pause because...
It takes a gutsy author to pull off a sentence like that but it works, amazingly. If the thought of that intrigues you even a little, I suggest you grab this one. It is now available in paperback. Next to building the Eiffel Tower in Legos, reading this book was the most entertaining - and challenging - thing I did all week.
It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a horror/supernatural book in that way. When I saw the great reviews for Joe Hill's Heart Shaped Box, I got my hopes up and hurried to get the book in my hands. I was not in the least disappointed.
Heart Shaped Box is a bit of a horror tale, more than a hint of Southern Gothic, a road story but above all it is a tale of redemption. Judas Coyne is a heavy metal rocker who used his music to express the anger and hurt of his own abusive upbringing, and is now living in luxurious if semi-meaningless retirement. He manages his holdings, has a succession of much younger girlfriends named after states, and has a collection of oddities bought off the internet or purchased over the years. So he can't resist the opportunity to buy a real ghost, which comes attached to an old fashioned suit the ghost used to wear.
As soon as the ghost arrives, however, Judas finds there's much more at stake. He's been set up, and this ghost-or whatever it is-has a very personal vendetta with him. He and everyone close to him will die, the ghost promises. The rest of the story unfolds the plot against Judas, and his attempts to outrun the ghost and its vengeance, saving his own life and that of his latest girlfriend. In the process he tries to redeem not only his own humanity, but that of Georgia, the latest girlfriend, and Florida, the one whose tragic death set the entire ghostly plan into motion.
Like my favorite STephen King books, there are moments of absolute realism and moments of almost absurd grossness that is nonetheless unforgettable. The plot is tightly wound and never loses steam, and even better, both Judas and the other main character, Georgia, develop into people I was genuinely rooting for. I read this book in less than a day and eagerly await more from Joe Hill. If you like good horror and good suspense, this is one to check out.
Heart-Shaped Box is definitely a fast paced, action packed ghost story. Hill does an excellent job in characterization. He is really masterful at making the characters and their personalities come alive as we empathize with both Coyne and MaryBeth as the tale unravels and Coyne slowly begins to understand why Craddock has come back from the dead to seek his revenge. In fact, Hill does and excellent job in conveying the personality and character of the ghost as the reader learns more about Mr. Craddock and his past. As the story develops, with wild harrowing scenes, Coyne begins to learn how he might just be able to survive this haunting. For its fast pace and excellent character development Hill definitely should be commended.
But there is a dark side. Frankly as the novel moves along it starts to read, at times, like a B grade horror movie, which for this reader was a bit of a turnoff. The later scenes get more and more sappy where Craddock started reminding me of Freddy Krueger from the movie Nightmare on Elm Street and the story really started getting rather campy. As a result, I found the novel entertaining enough, but rather average on the whole.
The plot involves aging rock star Judas Coyne who, in the course of his rock-and-rolling career, has casually amassed an assortment of freaky memorabilia (sketches of the Seven Dwarfs by John Wayne Gacy, Aleister Crowley's childhood chessboard, a three-hundred-year-old confession signed by a witch, etc). On a whim, while viewing an online auction site, he purchases a ghost for a thousand dollars, this ghost being embodied in the dead man's old-fashioned Sunday suit. Not until later does Jude find out that that auction site was meant for him - and him alone...
Jude thinks nothing more of his purchase until, some time later, a UPS truck drops off a black, heart-shaped box housing the suit. Immediately after, eerie and unsettling events begin to happen, starting with Jude's alarming glimpse of a shadowy old man sitting in his hallway one ominous night. From there, it gets really, really frightening and perilous as he and his lived-in, much younger girlfriend Georgia (he always calls his girlfriends by their state of origin) are mercilessly haunted and terrorized by the vindictive ghost.
The ghost is written as such a powerful and malevolent entity that I really couldn't fathorm how Jude and Georgia could possibly end up on the sunny side of things. Thru the course of the novel, we find out that the spirit, whose real name is Craddock McDermott, had been a celebrated hypnotist and dowser while alive. In life, his preferred tool of trade was his razor blade dangling from a chain, which he had used as a focusing point for his hypnotisms. Now it serves to add to the boo factor. In death, Craddock's powers of persuasion seem to have increased exponentially as, now, he is able to rapidly and even more insidiously influence his victims. Craddock also has a way of inhabiting radios and televisions as he uses these mechanical objects to further harass Jude and Georgia, and, in one instance, influence a non-involved driver to nearly run them down. Each progressive encounter with Craddock finds Jude and Georgia more wounded and devastated as their terrified flight from the ghost becomes rapidly tinged with an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
One of the reasons I picked up this book is that, sometime last year, I read (either in Daily Variety or Hollywood Reporter) that Joe Hill was, in fact, the son of my all-time favorite horror writer, Stephen King. I was curious to see if the horror gene is transferrable. The answer seems to be...yes. HEART-SHAPED BOX is Joe Hill's first full-length novel, but it doesn't read like a rookie effort. The pace and aura of dread are relentless. And, thanks to Hill's uncompromising, fully-realized characters, he imbues the supernatural story with a solid grounding. Pretty much everyone in the book has been hurt in the past, at one time or another, emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically. The protagonist himself, Jude Coyne, is, a lot of times, an unmitigated bastard and an unapologetically thoughtless and cruel protagonist. Jude's road to fame is strewn with the sad results of his wild excesses, friends he had betrayed, and women he had casually flung aside. Hill thoroughly covers Jude's tortured past, detailing in full why he's turned out the way he did. That the reader ends up ultimately empathizing with him is a credit to Joe Hill's writing.
In fact, the author does a good job of fleshing out all of his characters. I particularly find intriguing Jude's relationship with current "love" Georgia (real name MaryBeth). Georgia is almost 30 years his junior, yet the age disparity doesn't dissuade her from being firmly in love with him. Jude, for his part, is kind of fond of Georgia but isn't sure how deep his feelings for her go. Much more painful to read are the flashback portions narrating Jude's doomed, earlier relationship with the troubled Florida (real name, Anna), who, by the way, plays an integral part in why the suit ended up with Jude.
Hill has a talent for writing wicked scary sequences. There are well-executed passages early on which lay down a sense of foreboding, which Hill later brings to full realization with pay-off scenes of spine-tingling chills. I'll say it again, this ghost is one formidable and implacable mother. HEART-SHAPED BOX is creepy and suspenseful, and, sure, it's uncomfortable reading, at times, as Joe Hill doesn't pull his punches. But he weaves his story so well and so intimately that you can't help but be caught up in his story. And if you enjoy HEART-SHAPED BOX, then I definitely recommend Joe Hill's excellent 20th CENTURY GHOSTS (an earlier compilation of 15 of his short stories, not all horror, but all pretty darn good reading).
So, c'mon, get in that vintage Mustang and coast down that nightroad and join a 50-something-year-old rock god, his sweet groupie girlfriend, his two faithful dogs, and his two ghosts, one perhaps benevolent and the other wickedly restless as hell. But you might want to leave that radio off, huh? You just never know...
The story is also one-dimensional. In King's best work, there are many things happening in the lives of the major characters. In this story, maybe Jude could have been struggling with a drug problem, or the demands for a come-back tour, bankruptcy, or anything else. But, it is just Jude and the ghost, Jude and the ghost, all the way through: Jude acting frightened and confused about the ghost. The ghost doing something to make him yet more frightened and confused. Jude resolving to stick it out though he is confused and frightened. Cue the ghost to do something frightening and confusing. Etc etc etc. No buildup of suspense, no gradual introduction: the ghost is just thrown in there at the start, whereas effective ghost stories are effective when you don't actually see the ghost, when it's just some background presence you're not even sure is really there.
This is too obviously a first novel, and I think Hill's connections have set him at a disadvantage, rather than an advantage. Most first time novelists will have to get to the top of their game before they make it. Hill didn't, whatever the PR story about whether his agent/publisher knew his parentage. If he has what it takes to stand on his own feet as an author, we're still waiting to see it.