“Heart-Shaped Box” by Joe Hill

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Hear-shaped Box” is that, in a novel filled with violence, fear, child abuse, self-harm, and maiming and with the overwhelming presence of a truly evil spirit, the real focus of the story is how a man in his fifties gathers his courage to confront who he has become.

It’s that focus on character, on the person’s history, the choices they’ve made, the grief they carry, the things they don’t challenge about themselves but which make them miserable, that gives this novel its power. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Joe Hill comes up with a truly sinister, evil and believable ghost that is bent on murder and that he doesn’t flinch from taking his character to dark and terrible places.

In the beginning, the plot seems simple: complacent, rich goth-rock star, Judas Coin, buys a ghost on the internet that turns out to be the real thing and which seems intent on harming him but even at the start it’s clear that the plot is not the story. The story is about the self-discovery of Judas Coin.
Judas Coin is a man who doesn’t like himself much but who also doesn’t feel a need to do anything about that. He’s built a comfortable, unchallenging, mostly empty life for himself and is happy to roll with it. Until the ghost arrives and brings his life into focus.

At the start of the book, we’re given the take-it-all-for-granted it-is-what-it-is view of Coin’s life. Yet, even then, things snagged my attention. Coin has lived with a string of young goth women half his age. He shares that he has trouble remembering their names so he names them after their State of origin. He calls his current bedmate Georgia. He knows the women don’t like this because most of them want to forget where they came from but he does it because it’s easy and because they let him. Even on a first pass, this made me think Coin was an asshole. As the story progresses and Coin’s fate becomes linked to a Florida, a young woman he threw away when he was done, it finally occurs to Coin that he’s behaved like a shit, just because he can.

The slow shift in Coin’s self-perception is skilfully done.

The ghost, which arrives in the form of a dead man’s suit is deeply menacing. I loved the way Joe Hill slowly builds the ghost from a joke purchase on an Internet auction site into an apparently unstoppable supernatural threat. At the beginning, while I was fairly sure the ghost was really there, I was willing to go with the idea that Judas Coin voices, that says, perhaps ghosts live only in the heads of the haunted. Either way, it was clear from the start that Coin was set to suffer. My initial reaction to that was, “Well, he deserves it.”

Of course, Joe Hill made me revise my opinions. The ghost became horribly real and Judas, who was originally named Justin, became someone I was less willing to write off.

The book is told mostly from inside Justin’s head, giving the reader the chance to watch how Justin’s perception of himself and what’s happening to him changes. Identity is at the heart of this novel. The main challenge is who Justin is going to choose to be.

At the start of the novel, he’s definitely Judas Coin. When, as a young man, Justin created his Judas Coin persona, Justin transformed himself from an abused farm boy to a rock star. He set himself free. Except, now that he’s a man in his fifties, he’s been wearing the Judas Coin persona for so long it has become the self he recognises when he looks in the mirror, the one he thinks he will offend if he does something that rubs against the grain because it’s inconsistent with who he is. We are told that Judas/Justin believes that:

“His own identity was his first and single most forceful creation. The machine that had manufactured all his other successes. Which had produced everything in his life that was worth having and that he cared about He would protect that to the end.”

This is Justin’s central problem: he wants to protect Judas. Yet Judas was the one who betrayed with a kiss. The one who placed pragmatism and survival ahead of love and hope. The one who ultimately couldn’t live with himself. It was as Judas that Justin has been so careless with his own life and the lives of those close to him that he is now surrounded by nothing but wreckage. It’s Judas that the ghost wants to kill.

If Justin wants to avoid the ghost’s silver razor on the gold chain, wants to erase the dark scribbled across his eyes that the spirits of dead he sees wear, it seemed to me he’d have he to throw Judas under the bus.
The resolution that Joe Hill comes up with is both cleverer and truer than that. The man Justin is by the end of the book hasn’t repudiated Judas Coin, he’s just not in the driving seat anymore.

As I listened to the “Heart-Shaped Box”, I found that the scary bits – the ghost with the scribbled over eyes, the compulsion to self-harm, the sight of things that aren’t there but which still make you sweat with fear – rolled over me. I could see that they were well done, original, powerful, deeply envisioned, but it was like a polished sex scene about an orientation or fetish I don’t share. I could see it, admire it, but I didn’t feel it.

Yet when Joe Hill got me into people’s heads, when Judas Coin is honest with himself, when Georgia opens up and shows the person she’d like to be and how dragged down she feels by the person she’s been so far, THAT I felt. It felt true. It felt real. It made me hungry for more.

Stephen Long does a great job reading the “Heart-shaped Box”, although I would have enjoyed it more if Harper Audio had resisted the urge to add music. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear Stephen Long perform (and the irritating music at the beginning).

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