Joe Hill's debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, opens with the description of a collection, belonging to the novel's protagonist, Judas "Jude" Coyne, of objects macabre, grotesque, and just plain creepy: drawings by John Wayne Gacy, the trepanned skull of a sixteenth century peasant, a witch's confession, a hangman's noose, a snuff film. In a few paragraphs, Hill establishes the first of three storyforms with which he shapes the novel's plot—the collector of ersatz objects of wonder who comes across something truly wondrous, or in this case, truly horrific. When Jude's assistant comes across an online auction offering the titular box, said to contain the ghost of the seller's stepfather, Jude cavalierly puts in a bid and thinks nothing more of it. The readers, meanwhile, are fastening their seat-belts and getting ready for a bumpy ride.
Jude is a middle-aged rock star of the death and gore variety, living in seclusion on a farm in upstate New York with only his assistant, his dogs, and his girlfriend du jour, Georgia, to keep him company. The heart-shaped box's arrival quickly disrupts their far from idyllic routine. The ghost, unsurprisingly enough, turns out to be real, and a call to the seller reveals that it didn't arrive on Jude's doorstep by accident. The seller's sister, Anna, was Georgia's predecessor, who killed herself not long after being sent away from Jude's farm. Her recently deceased stepfather—in life, a hypnotist and occultist of some renown—plans to exact vengeance on Jude by hounding him, and anyone he cares about, to their deaths. The second storyform reveals itself—the sinner haunted, from beyond the grave, by the victims of his callousness and indifference.
Judas Coyne, however, was haunted long before Anna's sister and stepfather began plotting against him—by his dead bandmates, felled by the excesses of the rock star lifestyle, and his guilt for outliving them; by the memories of his abusive father; by the relationships he deliberately drove into the ground. His reaction to the news that he is being persecuted by a powerful and vengeful entity, even as he and Georgia set out to confront Anna's sister and force her to lift the curse that now lies on both of them, is to obsessively replay his relationship with Anna and wonder whether he might have prevented her death. Jude's sin also turns out to be more complicated than the use-'em-and-throw-'em-away mentality that Anna's sister ascribes to him (and anyway, the circumstances of Anna's death turn out to be far more tangled than the novel would initially have us believe). It is the sin of detachment that Jude is truly guilty of.
Almost from his first introduction, Jude is portrayed as being deeply ambivalent about the trappings of his role as a death metal rocker, and he is outright disdainful of the people who embrace his music and its messages. "I know a few angry souls myself," Jude tells Anna's sister after she reveals her true intentions. "They drive Harleys, live in trailers, cook crystal meth, abuse their children and shoot their wives. You call 'em scumbags. I call 'em fans." (p. 35) Nevertheless, Jude does nothing to distance himself from the unsavory aspects of his chosen field. He is "uncomfortable about possessing" (p. 1) the snuff tape, but possesses it nonetheless, and even uses it as a weapon against his wife when her influence threatens to drag him away from his nihilistic lifestyle. Jude chooses not to think about the implications of the horror with which he surrounds himself. He has the impulse towards decent, mature behavior, but is too lazy to express it until forced to by the novel's circumstances.
Near the end of the novel, and of Jude's desperate attempt to escape his pursuer, he comes to the conclusion that "Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst." (p. 262) Which is, obviously, both accurate and incomplete. The people who flock to see movies like Saw or Hostel don't do so because they hope to sympathize with the stories' protagonists, and alongside sympathetic horror there also exists the kind rooted in the very antithesis of sympathy—in sadism. At the beginning of Heart-Shaped Box, Jude perceives himself as the purveyor of that second, sadistic brand of horror—in spite of the fact that his music also appeals to victims of abuse like Anna and Georgia, who find in it an expression of their pain, and the fact that even he occasionally finds salvation in his art. As a young man, he used it as an outlet for his rage, a form of rebellion against his father's tyranny, and an impetus for escaping it. In his middle age, music offers Jude a respite from fear and uncertainty. In a motel room in the middle of nowhere, Jude forgets his troubles by composing his first piece of original music in years. He titles the song "Drink to the Dead," a play on the ghost's refrain that "the dead drag us down"—transforming sadism into sympathy.
Heart-Shaped Box is silent, however, on the question of whether this realization—that horror can also appeal to people looking for more than a sadistic thrill—is something Jude had forgotten, or something he had never known. Did he, as a young musician, believe in the power of his music, no matter how controversial or offensive, to cut to the heart of his listeners' pain, only to lose that knowledge as his youthful conviction was eroded by the tedium and the compromises of middle age? Or was he always playing a role, producing a toxic product and holding the people who consumed it in disdain, until his own suffering taught him the existence of another way? If this seems like a meaningless distinction, it might be worth noting that the death metal rocker is the musical equivalent of a horror writer.
In its premise, Heart-Shaped Box bears a great similarity to "Best New Horror," the short story which opens Hill's excellent 2005 collection, 20th Century Ghosts. The story's protagonist, Eddie Carroll, is the editor of the titular anthology, an annual collection of gore and depravity, the preoccupation with which has, at the time of the story's beginning, cost him his wife, who leaves him to get away from "all your horror shit, and all those people who are always coming to see you, the horror people. Sweaty little grubs who get hard over corpses." (Ghosts, p. 13) Eddie is bored by a genre that seems to have played itself out, until the editor of a small literary review sends him a story that shocks him out of his apathy—a fusion of naturalistic and supernatural horror, which follows the disfigured victim of a brutal assault as she unsuccessfully attempts to reintegrate herself into society, and is ultimately recaptured by her assailant. Thrilled by the promise of fiction that still has the power to thrill, Eddie travels to meet the story's author, and discovers a character out of a horror narrative, into which he is quickly subsumed and forced to play the role of the victim.
Eddie and Jude are alike in several ways. Both are collectors of occult artifacts who have ceased—or maybe never even started—to believe in the occult; both are shaken out of their complacency when they encounter the real deal; and both are ambivalent towards their chosen topic, but choose not to question the corrosive effect it might have on those who create or consume it. In his review of 20th Century Ghosts, Graham Sleight calls "Best New Horror" "a moral piece" for engaging with the very questions that Eddie and Jude refuse to face, but that engagement comes to no definite conclusion. In spite of the fact that it appears to present a simple cautionary tale, "Best New Horror" ends on a curiously exuberant, almost optimistic, note, even as Eddie begins to run for his life:
"he felt a giddy surge of emotion, a sensation that might have been panic but felt strangely like exhilaration. He felt as if at any moment his feet might leave the ground and never come back down. He knew this forest, this darkness, this night. He knew his chances: not good. He knew what was after him. It had been after him all his life. He knew where he was—in a story about to unfold an ending, and if anyone could find their way out of these woods, it was him." (Ghosts, pp. 27-8)
Eddie's choice to immerse himself in sadistic horror brings him to the point of becoming the victim of that horror, but it also holds out the possibility of salvation. Even faced with his sin—the choice to treat depravity as entertainment, to ignore the horrors of the real world—Eddie remains unchastened, still a fan of sadistic horror even as it threatens to claim his life. The ambiguous ending turns an already powerful story into a disturbing, thought-provoking piece. Heart-Shaped Box's ending, by comparison, is pat: Jude learns the error of his ways, embracing sympathetic horror (and sympathy in general, as his relationship with Georgia deepens) and rejecting sadistic horror. This is the novel's third storyform—the sinner redeemed. Whereas the previous two forms had been somewhat subverted—Jude's snuff film is as potent an example of 'real' horror as the ghost, and as previously mentioned Anna's death isn't the real reason for Jude's persecution—this one is served straight up. If "Best New Horror" was a moral work, this choice by Hill turns Heart-Shaped Box into a moralistic one.
Which, in itself, isn't a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with taking a firm moral stance, especially one that calls for human suffering to be treated seriously, not as entertainment, and Hill certainly doesn't hammer the point in or sublimate his characters or his plot to it. There are scenes of great intensity in Heart-Shaped Box, and others of great humor. Jude is a wonderful creation, a fascinating blend of immaturity and world-weariness, lovable because of, not in spite of, his many flaws. (Georgia, unfortunately, is less finely sketched, descending quite often into stereotypes of white-trash girls turned Goth.) By the end of the novel, we are genuinely rooting for a happy ending for this man, by which we mean not only survival but a second chance at a happy, meaningful life. It's hard to begrudge Hill's choice to give him one, but the path by which he arrives at that ending—the complete renunciation of sadistic horror—flattens the impact of the story, giving the readers no more and no less than what they expect. Heart-Shaped Box is a good novel and worth reading, but it belies the promise of Hill's short stories by being, at heart, entirely conventional.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction and the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.