One of my favorite ways to replenish the creative well is to saturate my senses with something from the world of dark fantasy or horror. As I stated in my review of Joe Hill’s NOS4A2—when a writer with a well-packed Toolbox offers up the impossible as real, we can’t turn away. Heart-Shaped Box is such a story.
The opening chapter, where we learn of Judas Coyne’s macabre collection, reminds me of Poe, with a sense of foreboding invisibly woven into the fabric of each sentence. The atmosphere is tense and eerie, which normally makes me zoom ahead, but my level of awe was so grand I deliberately slowed down to savor the story’s unfolding.
…when Danny Wooten, his personal assistant, told him there was a ghost for sale on the Internet and asked did he want to buy it, Jude didn’t even need to think. It was like going out to eat, hearing the special, and deciding you wanted it without even looking at the menu. Some impulses required no consideration.
The ghost supposedly inhabits the Sunday suit of the dead man and arrives in a heart-shaped box. The item appears harmless enough when it arrives, then Judas’s girlfriend Georgia asks if he’s going to wear it.
His own reaction surprised him. His skin crawled, went rough and strange with gooseflesh. For one moment, the idea struck him as obscene.
From this moment, just like Dorothy, we know we are no longer in Kansas and the curse that has been delivered to Judas Coyne arrives shortly thereafter.
The black mark on you will infect anyone who joins your cause. You will not live, and no one who gives you aid or comfort will live.
What Joe Hill unleashes from here is extraordinary; he holds nothing back as a writer. He thrusts his protagonist into situations without hope, which leads the reader to believe the only way Judas will survive is through some deus ex machina. Yet somehow, Hill’s storytelling drives forward, navigating through the impossible while continuing to up the tension.
We know from the moment of the curse Judas is heading towards his demise but we believe in him. Here’s a perfect example of how Hill manages to push his protagonist through the worst. Even as Judas appears to be giving up, we feel his strength and that gives us hope.
He clenched his teeth and began to scream. He had always known he would go out this way: on fire. He had always known that rage was flammable, dangerous to store under pressure, where he had kept it his whole life.
My inkling of how Hill is able to maintain such powerful forward motion has to do with the character’s inner turmoil. Hill never allows Judas to rehash what the readers already know. Instead, Judas always deals with his confusion in a state of clear and present danger.
The thought was so urgent, so demanding—get in the car and get out of here—that it set his teeth on edge. He resented being made to run. Throwing himself into the car and taking off wasn’t a choice, it was panic. This was followed by another thought, disconcerting and unfounded, yet curiously convincing: the thought that he was being herded, that the dead man wanted him to run. That the dead man was trying to force him away from…from what?
The Heart-Shaped Box is storytelling at its best. The potential of every character, pets included, is mined—their strengths and weaknesses adding to the complexity of the tale and forcing our protagonist to face his secrets and fears. A truly out-of-the-box tale.