Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill (2007)

This book was absolutely terrifying. It was also absolutely mesmerizing. By page seventy I had already put the book down several times wondering if I would be able to sleep if I kept reading, but I could not stop picking the book back up. It was so well-written, with such compelling characters and a truly unique (albeit super scary) bad guy, that I swallowed my fear and plunged ahead.

The main character Jude, an aging rock star whose celebrity is fading, has lost his interest in the wild life and anarchist persona of his earlier career. Largely retired to a farm in New York with his much younger girlfriend, Jude lives among a large collection of dark, occult souvenirs (books bound in human skin, lobotomized skulls, spell books) given by fans believing his heavy metal, devil-worshipping stage act. When an email comes in offering Jude a chance to own a ghost who will come haunt his house, he does not hesitate before buying it. By the start of the third chapter, the haunting has begun.

Immediately upon receiving the ghost, the lives of Jude and his girlfriend MaryBeth begin to unravel. The ghost is everywhere at once, moving objects, causing wounds that won’t heal, dredging up horrible fears in the minds of the people in the house. This haunting is particularly terrifying because there is no escape and no way to defend against the ghost’s influence. Day and night, wherever Jude goes the ghost follows, altering his thoughts, controlling his actions, and putting the people around him in danger.

Jude realizes that the ghost cannot be ignored and its malevolence is very personal. In order to make sense of the horrible things happening, he must look closely at his past and bring to light dark moments he thought were long behind him. Slowly it becomes clear that the answers and relief Jude seeks will only come from confronting his past.

The story is really wonderful, told with the perfect balance of terrifying action and deep character study. Even though I really want to dislike Jude, I come to care about him and want to see him safely through this ordeal. A wonderful book for October, but be prepared to look over your shoulder a bit while reading.

NOTE: In addition to being scary, this book also includes descriptions of sexual violence which are very disturbing. If you are sensitive to these topics, I would pick another selection.

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