I’m scared of electrolarynxes. There, I said it. Ever since I was a child, I found those little gizmos frightening, producing a mockery of speech in that alien, electronic voice. Even today, working in a pharmacy where I see more than my share of health care devices, I still find them a bit disconcerting.
So, when Joe Hill uses an electrolarynx to not only provide an elderly man with an means of communication, but also uses it to allow a homicidal ghost the means to threaten his two protagonists, I was pretty damned creeped out.
In Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s debut novel, Judas “Jude” Coyne is an aging death metal star living in semi-retirement in New York state with his odd collection of macabre and grisly curiosities. When his assistant finds an online auction offering a ghost for sale, he can’t pass up the opportunity. What he gets–a dead man’s suit in the titular receptacle–turns out to be much more than he bargained for.
As a budding horror novelist myself, I found Hill’s work to be both a great study into what modern horror is and an entertaining read. By playing on subtle, irrational fears (such as that of electrolarynxes) and expanding them into larger ones with far greater intensity, he manages to avoid many of the conventions of horrors that might have turned the story into a huge bore. There are few respites for the reader as the story starts to unfold and even these are fraught with tension as Jude and his partner, Georgia, flee from a vengeful spirit, often pausing only long enough to bind their wounds and decide on their next move.
There was little I did not like about the book. The character of Jude was well-executed, a sublime mixture of dark celebrity and everyman who wants nothing more than to live a normal life, but the remaining characters lacked the same depth. I wish some of the players–Jude’s father, attorney, and dead band mates–could have found more room in this taut tale, but to add much more would have reduced the intensity of the work, making even the best characterization worthless. Also, the book ends with a series of choppy chapters that tie up several of the loose ends, an act that could have been done in the same smooth style Hill employed through the rest of the book.
Heart-Shaped Box has received several nods from the literary and horror community, and rightfully so. It is a splendid read worthy of Hill’s father (some writer fellow from Maine) and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a good, dark tale in this darkest month of the year.