Guest Reviewer: Scott Smith
In 1993, Scott Smith wowed readers with his stunning debut thriller, A Simple Plan. Thirteen years later, he spooked us again with The Ruins, a horror-thriller about four Americans traveling in Mexico who stumble across a nightmare in the jungle.
The set-up for Joe Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, is appealingly simple. Jude Coyne, an aging rock star, buys himself a dead man's suit. He acquires it online, lured by the promise that the dead man's ghost will be included in his purchase. Jude thinks this is a joke, of course. He also assumes the seller is a stranger. We soon discover that he's wrong on both counts, however, and from this point on the story moves with an exhilarating urgency. Jude wants the ghost gone; the ghost wants Jude dead. We watch, chapter-by-chapter, as they battle for survival. "Watch" is the appropriate word, too, because this is an extremely visual book. Hill's prose is lean and precise, and he renders Jude's world with impressive confidence. It feels solid, every detail both correct and fresh. And this physicality provides a firm platform for the book's otherworldly happenings, which seem all the more frightening for being so securely grounded.
Hill has a flawless sense of pacing. His narrative never flags, nor does it ever move so quickly as to outrun itself. And one can sense his literary ambition pushing at the margins of the genre. There are times when his writing, for all its spare efficiency, seems to jump away from him, stopping one small step short of poetry. An e-mail to Jude from the ghost (trust me, it's not as absurd as it sounds) could even pass for something ee cummings might've written, in an especially morbid mood. And toward the end of the book, when Hill describes a trip down death's "night road" in a '65 Mustang, the passage has a startlingly lyrical beauty.
The story's horror ultimately has as much to do with Jude Coyne's past--his mistakes, abandonments and betrayals--as with anything supernatural. Jude has caused a lot of pain over the years, moving through life with a carelessness that verges on the callous. His battle with the ghost brings this behavior into sharp relief, forcing him to reflect upon his own capacity for cruelty. This dawning self-awareness leavens the book's bleakness and gore (and it is delightfully gory in places) with an unexpected sweetness. Despite our initial impression, Jude is gradually revealed--both to himself and the reader--as an essentially decent, even kind man. It's this kindness, this fledgling ability to love and be loved, that will ultimately be of crucial consequence in his death struggle with the ghost. And it's what makes Hill's debut not only well-written and terrifying, but also--as it draws to its close--surprisingly moving. So go ahead, take a chance, and open his Heart-Shaped Box. I think you’ll be happy you did. --Scott Smith
Guest Reviewer: Harlan Coben
Harlan Coben is the author of the beloved Myron Bolitar series about a wisecracking sports agent, as well as stunning stand-alone novels like The Innocent and his breakout thriller Tell No One. His new novel The Woods releases on April 17, 2007.
You, dear reader, are obviously somewhat versed in making online purchases, so today, immediately after you click on the yellow "Add to Shopping Cart" on the top right hand corner of this page, why not do an online search and buy something totally unique?
Like, say, a vengeful ghost.
That is what rock-star Judas Coyne does, thinking it will be a laugh, fun for his "sick-o" collection of such things. It seems a random buy, but Judas soon learns that it is anything but. This particular ghost is one Craddock McDermott, step-father to recent suicide victim and boy, is he cranky. He demands revenge for his step-daughter’s death, which he blames on Judas’s shabby treatment of her.
Or is he after something else?
There are Amazon readers who will give you a better plot summary. Don't read them too closely because Joe Hill provides plenty of fun surprises. Heart-Shaped Box is a true spine-tingler. I don’t use that hyphenated word much anymore. We have seen and read it all, haven't we? But right away, in the first chapter, there was a subtle line that made the hairs on the back of my neck go up in a way I haven't experienced since I first discovered great horror as a teenager.
Hill writes with a sure hand. The prose is compelling. Like most memorable tales of horror, this book is more about redemption than scary moments--though Heart-Shaped Box has plenty of scares. They are visceral, shocking and very well done. The characters are flawed and real. The father-son relationship adds texture and surprising poignancy.
So here's the thing. My guess is, you won’t find a ghost to buy online, but if you read the Heart-Shaped Box, you will be getting something that will haunt you and startle you and stay with you and yes, visit you in your dreams.
Sleep well, dear reader. --Harlan Coben