Besides, Jude thinks he knows all about ghosts, Jude has been haunted for years…by the spirits of bandmates dead and gone, the spectre of the abusive father he fled as a child, and the memory of the girl he abandoned, who killed herself. But this ghost is different. Delivered to his doorstep in a black heart-shaped box, the latest addition to Jude’s collection makes the house feel cold. It makes the dogs bark. And it means to chase Jude from his home and make him run for his life…"
It was the modern slant within the premise of this novel which reeled me in initially. After all – why not someone seeking to sell a ghost on the internet? Dante Knoxx famously sought to auction his soul to the highest bidder via ebay before he was banned for doing so for breaching one of the firm’s policies and the listing was pulled by the site. (This also puts me in mind of the occasion upon which GameStation inserted an "immortal soul" clause into online contracts as an April Fool’s Day joke.)
Heart-Shaped Box, is however, much more than simply the promise of its premise and a powerful page-turner – although it is undoubtedly both of these too. Joe Hill's debut novel is, ultimately, an examination of the human condition with psychological depth.
At the outset of the novel, Jude Coyne, the main protagonist, is a man who has “worked his way through a collection of goth girlfriends” who have “stripped, or told fortunes, or stripped and told fortunes, pretty girls” adorned with “ankhs and black fingernail polish” who he names solely by their “state of origin”. His present girlfriend, whom he has dubbed Georgia, is twenty-three to his fifty four years of age. He appears to demonstrate little real regard for her, beyond an appreciation for her goth “adoration” and other adult-oriented benefits of her youth. Indeed, his stall is set out early in the narrative when he notes that each of his girlfriends, Georgia included, want the “harshness” he provides for them – thus no-one goes away “disappointed”. Even if at first the end of the relationship and necessity to leave isn’t appreciated by them, they “always” work it out “eventually”.
The clever aspect of the narrative is the manner in which Hill “strips back” the layers surrounding Coyne’s heart and provides us with a man seeking some form of redemption and forgiveness. Gradually, we learn that the last of Jude’s former girlfriends, Georgia’s predecessor, so to speak, whom he had nicknamed Florida, fared badly as a result of his treatment, given she was predisposed to depression – something Jude had found himself unable to cope with once it spiralled out of control. Now Craddock, the girl’s stepfather (and the ghost whose suit is proffered via the website in the heart-shaped box of the title) is out for revenge. This affords us the opportunity to explore Jude’s disquiet over the manner in which he shipped Florida back to her family, particularly once he becomes aware that her background was considerably more complex that he had envisaged and the support he had presumed would be afforded her was lacking. Via the gradual breaking down of barriers, we come to see that Jude is far removed from the unsympathetic character we are introduced to at the outset of the narrative.
Heart-Shaped Box is very much a novel centring upon haunted individuals in both the literal and figurative sense. Jude, Florida and even Georgia, or Mary-Beth Kimball, as we come to know her during the course of the novel, are haunted by their past, whether as a result of their own previous actions or those of others in their interactions with them. It is once these actions are confronted that they take on genuine resonance for the reader – once we come to know them fully, “warts and all”. Broken and flawed, capable of mistakes, sometimes multiple, we feel for them nevertheless. Confrontation leads to knowledge and acceptance and, in the case of Jude and Mary-Beth, becomes a dialogue of love against the odds. Ultimately, this is a touching rumination on the possibility of redemption and human frailty in its various guises.