Friday, October 22, 2010

Joe Hill - Heart-Shaped Box

“You deserve whatever happens to you…We both deserve it.” (p. 137)

Heart-Shaped Box’s greatest strengths is the voice of Jude Coyne. Jude’s voice is down to earth and unadorned, and the action is conveyed more through description and events than through introspection, but the heart of the character comes through all the same.

The book’s early horror builds off those events. The ghost is a hypnotist, and the prose – our entire connection to the character and his world – writhes like a snake in our hands when the ghost steps on stage. The same voice that drew you in on page five is, suddenly, wielding the knife that’s cutting towards everything you love, and the effect is one of the most acute betrayal, as if it was our own limbs being wielded against our own family.

That betrayal, however, is only a symptom of something much larger, an issue that is lying beneath every word of Heart-Shaped Box. It is Jude that tells us the story, Jude whose eyes we see through, Jude who has our sympathies, yet Jude does not exist. Jude is a construct: His own identity was his first and single most forceful creation, the machine which had produced everything in his life that was worth having and that he cared about. He would protect that to the end. (p. 65)

Underneath Jude’s callous disregard for those around him is another man, one whose every reaction and thought is subverted and subverted again to create an icon, an icon so all encompassing that the man that left home years before has all but ceased to exist. There is a more sympathetic character inside Jude, a man who cares for his girlfriends as more than kinky lays differentiated by state of origin, and yet, all we see of Jude and his world is what is written on the page, and, as far as we can tell, that other man does not exist.

That leads us to the core of the book’s success: Jude is in the wrong. The original sin in this book, the first deed of near unpardonable cruelty, is Jude’s. His girlfriend before Georgia, known as Florida and named Anna, was sick, out of her mind and in dire need of help. Jude turned her away. Forced to return to the life from which she’d fled, Anna killed herself. Jude cloaks his wrongdoing in the same self assured voice that he tells us everything in, only the hints of the deed escaping and refusing to go away, along with the other, more humane man inside Jude who understands the wrong of what he’s done. Everything that the rock-god Jude is was forged by avoiding confrontation, by viewing things in his own light and ignoring everything that doesn’t fit his world view:

The ghosts always caught up eventually, and there was no way to lock the door on them. they would walk right through. What he’d thought of as a personal strength – he was happy to know about her only what she wanted him to know – was something more like selfishness. A childish willingness to remain in the dark, to avoid distressing conversations, upsetting truths. He had feared her secrets – or, more specifically, the emotional entanglements that might come with knowing them. (p. 176)

Jude is in the wrong. His act is one that is almost impossible to forgive. It would be one thing if he was unrepentant, if he truly did not care for his girlfriends and tossed them aside when they posed the slightest problem. If that was the case, it would be a simple matter to simply despise Jude. We could cut ourselves off from him, detach ourselves from his story, even root for his death, and so lessen the pain to ourselves. Horror [is] rooted in sympathy, after all. (p. 295)

Yet, Jude is not all black. He regrets what he’s done, though he only gradually comes to realize that regret. More, it’s the appalling circumstances that he and Georgia are placed into, and the growth that they undergo as a result, that makes them characters worth loving. It’s that sympathy – our knowledge that, despite his horrible acts, Jude is a man worth saving – that make the book come to life for the reader and prevent them from ever looking away, in the same way that it is Jude’s love for Anna, and later Georgia, that makes his betrayals so horrible, that make it so affecting when Georgia says:

“I’ve been with a lot of bad guys who made me feel lousy about myself, Jude, but you’re something special. Because I know none of them really cared about me, but you do, and you make me feel like your shitty hooker anyway.” (p. 137)

No change of heart, however, can erase the crime, and it was the knowledge that, no matter the lengths the characters went, they could never completely atone that made the book so powerful. Which was why I was so disappointed when, two thirds of the way through, all moral ambiguity went out for a smoke and ended up stepping on a landmine. The main characters are, it turns out, absolved of any crime, because what they thought was a suicide was actually an elaborate plot, and all that soul searching and growth that Jude and Georgia went through turned out to be sort of unnecessary. The vengeful ghost, a stepfather who came back from beyond the grave to avenge the horrible wrong done to his daughter? Nah, he’s now just a scary, evil ghost. Oh noes.

Also, perhaps because the tension leaves at this point like the air out of a punctured balloon, I got to thinking around here, and it occurred to me that, while Vengeance From Beyond the Grave is undeniably badass, it would be far simpler to have vengeance on this side of death’s veil, wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t that avoid the whole having-to-kill-yourself-first thing?

Heart-Shaped Box ended as an enjoyable read, and the characters of Jude and Georgia were well drawn enough that my day felt brighter for their happy ending. That being said, the book’s chance for greatness died with our belief in Jude’s wrongdoing, and what’s left is a far cry from the excellence I was sure I was experiencing as I tore through the first hundred or two pages.


  1. That was a fantastic review. It had a little Morgan Freeman narration there that was really cool. I have this on my selves and it's on my mind as of late, you know. Fantastic to hear that it's if not brilliant, enjoyable.

    With this being said, how did the ghost haunt Jude?

  2. Thanks for the comments. Heart-shaped Box is definitely an enjoyable book; I ended up finishing it the day that I started it, which says quite a bit. Not great, but still a good Halloween read, I think.

    The early hauntings were mostly visions or weird happenings (threatening words inserted into the middle of a DJ's spiel, that kind of thing), though the ghost soon moved to focusing on hypnosis and the like.

  3. My thoughts exactly. I really enjoyed the first hundred and fifty pages or so, but after then, the book took a fundamental shift and turned into a suspense/thriller novel instead. Still, it was a fun, quick read, and the opening scenes with Craddock were superb.