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Heart-Shaped Box

by Joe Hill

(Gollancz, £9.99, 312 pages, trade paperback, March 2007.)

Review by John Toon

cover scanJudas Coyne is a retired heavy metal rock star with a penchant for morbidity. When someone lists their stepfather's ghost on an online auction site, Judas feels compelled to buy it for his collection -- but the seller and the merchandise aren't what they seem.

What's in the box? A pounding, no-nonsense horror story -- the heart (shape) of Joe Hill's novel is plot, and plenty of it. By the end of the first chapter we've got the measure of Judas Coyne; by page 35 we're up to speed with the story and the freaky stuff can begin. Like a hard rock number the book jumps straight into top gear, worming into the reader's brain with its catchy refrain of "The dead drag the living down", setting up the riffs and key changes for later on.

Hill is strong on ambiguity, and keeps us guessing about his characters right to the end. Craddock, the murderous ghost of a hypnotist, has a good reason to wish Judas ill, but his own past provides Judas with the key to defeating him. Admittedly the big revelation comes somewhat out of the blue, but looking back it all makes sense. So in the end there are no real heroes, no spotless good guys. Judas has to come to terms with who he is and what he's done -- something the ghost can't do -- if he and his girlfriend Georgia are to survive their ordeal. To sink this particular demon, he has to dredge up all his other demons.

So although Heart-Shaped Box becomes a road trip, a journey into the South and into Judas' and Georgia's pasts, it's really a journey into the heart of Judas himself. A very strong debut novel.

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