When I was a kid, I read as many scary books as I could get my hands on. I knew the word "poltergeist" before I knew how to pronounce it. I read about demons, haunted people and property, werewolves, Satan, black arts and magic, vampires, ghosts and unexplained phenomenon. I wore a cross for six months in junior high after reading Salem's Lot. I feared torrents of unexplained blood. So when I say I know scary, trust me: I know scary.
And Heart-Shaped Box is scary.
Jude Coyne, an aging rock star, has a penchant for the macabre. When he is offered a chance to purchase a ghost, he goes for it without a second thought. After all, most of his trophies are harmless (to him, at least): a snuff film, a hangman's noose, a cannibal's cookbook. His girlfriend is very young (at least half his age) and very Goth. He sings about death and Hell in his heavy metal songs.
One could suppose he's on a first-name basis with the Devil, based on his stage persona and his interest in the macabre and death. Only Jude is pretty much an ordinary guy with ordinary hang-ups and baggage: a divorce, alienation from his family, loss of his longtime friends to death and caution toward forging new relationships due to his fame and money.
Then comes the invitation: for a mere $1,000, Jude can purchase a suit that comes with the ghost of its previous owner. Is he interested?
Absolutely, and his assistant purchases it tout suite. Within days, he is owner of a heart-shaped box containing a dead man's suit (and, he hopes, a ghost). From the time he opens his UPS package, you know this is no lightweight story: it draws blood from the start and it keeps going for the jugular.
You see, the ghost is no ordinary ghost. This is not a harmless spectre, someone or something that cries "Ooooooo!" and uselessly and impotently floats around. It's the relative of someone from Jude's past, someone whose family has a bone to pick with him, so to speak. This is a ghost with presence — and power (not to mention the scariest eyes in modern fiction). No one is immune, no one is safe.
Nothing, no one, will stop this ghost from achieving his goal: Jude's total and utter destruction.
What can a ghost do? Oh, you'd be surprised. I was. With every chapter, Joe Hill came up with some fabulously scary stuff. Nothing is as it seems, whether it's the radio, the "muscle" car renovated for the love of it, faithful dogs, family history, Denny's — not even a person's past, and certainly not a person's future.
Hill is a great writer. His first collection of stories, 20th Century Ghosts, won awards and recognition from his peers and readers (including the Bram Stoker Award, the British Fantasy Award,and the International Horror Guild Award). Only as his novel was about to hit the street did he admit to his representatives the truth: he is the son of Stephen and Tabitha King.
This news did not win him points in my book. Instead, I wanted him to make his bones with me. I read his dad's good stuff. I also read enough of his dad's not-as-good stuff to know that not everything King is gold. I needed proof that I could trust this author to scare me.
And he earned that trust. (However, every time I walked past the book, I sang the first verse of "Joe Hill.")
David and I read a chapter a night aloud, and it was very suspenseful and scary. More often than not, I would clutch David's arm as I read because the story or the images in the story were too creepy. I would not, could not, read ahead — for a number of reasons: chiefly because I was too scared to read it alone.
I am not the only one. My friend Lois told me she stopped reading at page 57 — and when we got there, I understood why. Without my Reading Buddy, I would have stopped before then.
I strongly recommend Heart-Shaped Box, but do not risk it without your Reading Buddy. This fabulous book is not to be read alone.