I’ve been tearing through a host of books lately, and last night I devoured Joe Hill’s A Heart Shaped Box. I found it by accident on the Take Shelf here at work, and pulled it down, curious. Alright, actually it caught at my eye like a fish hook, drawing me up short as I twisted my head around to gaze at the title, thrilled. I’ve wanted to read this book since I read some of Joe’s short stories.

It’s an odd find, since it’s a Harper Collin’s book, an Advance Reader’s edition replete with an introductory letter from the Editor on the first page. The kind of book the publisher will send out to all the book sellers and critics they want to impress, I’m guessing, though this happened back in February. I tucked it under my arm and headed back to my office, wanting to sit down and begin reading it right away.

Read it all through my lunch break, sitting on a bench in a tiny park ensconced behind a church several blocks north of my office. Devoured Pad Thai and turned the pages, until I realized I was late and had to run back. Read it on the subway, one hand gripping the stripper pole, swaying and jostling up to Times Square, and then across into Queens, turning the pages and oblivious to the world. Read it in the park across from my apartment, sitting on a bench before a chain link fence over which leaned incredibly tall sunflowers, as if they wished to read over my shoulder. Read it in the kitchen after it got dark, water boiling and pasta sauce bubbling, pausing only occasionally to check on the food. Finally I finished it a little past 11, and set it down to rub my eyes.

Excellent book. Creepy, immediate, different, imaginative, solidly written. Joe has an excellent sense for the strange and disturbing, knowing just when to slow things down, when to speed them up, when to relate a frightening anecdote and when to heat up the action and spill blood. He knows how to draw out the suspense, how to make the darkness ache, and isn’t afraid of breaking molds and clichés. For example, ever since Poe and Lovecraft the archetypal protagonist of any horror story has been a young man, sensitive and learned, educated and imaginative. Not in this book. Jude Coyne is an aging heavy metal star, an Ozzy Osborne that managed to keep his mind, avoid the worst of the drugs, that went platinum too many times to remember but avoided the pitfalls that did away with his other band mates. He’s tough, resourceful, angry and smart. The wrong bastard to haunt, and when the situation darkens and the shadows begin to lengthen, it’s a delight to watch him raise his chin and take the fight to the bad guys.

What I particularly enjoyed was how Joe never let up on the pressure. There was no ‘down time’, no moments where I became disengaged. Even when Jude was reflecting on his past, or on what was going on, the story felt immediate, visceral, and dynamic. The whole story takes place over the period of several days, perhaps a week at the longest, and you’re glued to the page from the moment you crack open the book.

The greatest fear, said Herr Lovecraft, is the fear of the unknown. Joe’s novel is creepy and disturbing right up until we learn enough about what’s going on, about halfway through the novel, and then it becomes a thriller. I think as soon as the reader is able to figure out the rules of the game, learn what the bad guy can do and what he can’t, he stops being afraid and instead becomes engaged. My fear ended with my suspense; as soon as Joe made clear what the bad guy could do, and delineated his limits, I went from fearing him to simply rooting for Jude. This is why I don’t think Vampires or Werewolves can be scary, and Zombies can at best these days evoke revulsion. Fear of the unknown, said Lovecraft, and these days we know our monsters better than we know our neighbors.