Even though it has been three years since his last solo tour and even longer since the dissolution of his legendary heavy metal band, Jude’s Hammer, the charismatic Jude Coyne still looms large in the imagination of his fans. He now lives in relative isolation on a farm in upstate New York with two former groupies, one to keep the persistent public at bay and the other to share his bed, and two devoted dogs, Bonnie and Angus. A collector of occult memorabilia, Coyne places the winning bid on an intriguing Internet auction itemthe restless ghost of a woman’s stepfather. When the dead man’s suit arrives from Florida in a heart-shaped box, the plot is set in motion. In chapter 3, which is composed of only one sentence, the reader is told that Coyne puts the box in the “back of his closet,” deciding “to stop thinking about it.” The box, or rather the suit inhabited by the ghost, has plans of its own, and it will not be content to become a static, dust-collecting addition to Coyne’s eccentric collection.
The box in question makes indirect reference to the title of a song by Kurt Cobain of the American rock group Nirvana. Cobain was in the habit of exchanging with his wife, Courtney Love, heart-shaped boxes that served as repositories of items of significance to their relationship. According to some accounts, one such box is preserved by Love as a container for a lock of Cobain’s hair and a suicide note written shortly before he died in 1994, presumably from a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
This real-life memento mori parallels the fictional items that make up Coyne’s somewhat gruesome collection, such as a “three-hundred-year-old confession, signed by a witch” and a “stiff and worn noose that had been used to hang a man in England at the turn of the nineteenth century.” However, the box that a UPS truck delivers to Coyne’s door contains more than a vaguely sinister inanimate object; apparently the “black Johnny Cash suit” is haunted with the malevolent spirit of Craddock McDermott, a self-styled “mentalist” who is ostensibly out for revenge over the death of a stepdaughter that he accuses Coyne of having exploited and then abandoned.
As his name implies, Jude (Judas) Coyne is no stranger to betrayal. Perhaps, for example, he could have done something to save his bandmates Dizzy, who died from AIDS contracted through sharing contaminated syringes, and Jerome, who drove his Porsche into a tree in despair over his divorce and failed finances. The novel hints that Coyne’s own personal emphasis on self-reliance may have been his justification for expecting others to fix their own problems. Perhaps he could have been more understanding in the case of his girlfriend Anna May, “Florida,” whose most recent breakdown unnerved him to the point that he sent her back to her dysfunctional family and thus sealed her doom. Her sister, Jessica Price, who sets up the online auction, claims that Coyne is to blame for Anna May’s suicide because of his presumably corruptive influence.
Most reviewers have pointed out that it is impossible to avoid comparing the work of Joe Hill to that of his famous father, horror genre icon Stephen King. In regard to Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s first novel, the reader soon discovers that the predicament facing the main character places Jude Coyne in much the same camp as Arnie Cunningham in Christine (1983) or Paul Sheldon in Misery (1987). The beginning of each of these novels finds the protagonist already cut off from others and from himself; the crisis that arises from the advent of some outside threat impels the main character, ironically enough, to make positive adjustments by reexamining his past and reprioritizing his future.
In the case of Coyne, the clear and present danger posed by the ghost of McDermott, who is hell-bent on destroying the aging death metal rock star and anyone who comes to his aid, requires that the would-be victim learn all he can about his dark adversary. Coincidentally enough, as he peels back the layers of McDermott’s biography, Coyne sheds successive strata of his own carefully constructed public persona.
McDermott’s specialty is psychological coercion, and he preys on other people’s weaknesses. In the case of Coyne’s assistant, Danny Wooten, McDermott works on the young man’s unhappy memories of his mother’s suicide to get him to follow suit. The relentless ghost very nearly succeeds in getting Coyne’s girlfriend, Marybeth, or “Georgia,” and even Coyne himself to do the same.
When he is not fending off the very...
(The entire section is 1893 words.)