Literary Inspiration: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box Collage

You’re a child of the 1990s if you can’t read that title without thinking about Nirvana, but here at least I’m talking about the novel Heart-Shaped Box, a ghost story penned by author Joe Hill.  Hill is actually the nom de plume adopted by Joseph Hillstrom King, son of Stephen.  You probably have heard of him; think he’s written at least one or two things over the years. 😉

Heart-Shaped Box satisfies the “found fortune” requirement of my friend Julie’s reading challenge; I plucked this dog-eared paperback off the shelf of my building’s community “library” (AKA The Dumping Grounds of Grisham, Connelly, Steele, Grafton and Patterson.) That another person in my building, where the average age is about 75, read this rough-and-tumble, punk rock story about an aging rocker fleeing the ghosts of his past is nothing short of amazing to me – I thought all literature in this place began and ended with well-worn copies of Judith Krantz’s Scruples flopping open to the raunchily vanilla sex scenes.

Right, so the deets.  Wealthy, semi-retired, not-quite-washed-up goth rocker Judas Coyne purchases a haunted suit off an online auction site as a lark.  And a lark is all it is; Judas doesn’t actually buy into the goth trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle that has made him a household name.  But something about owning a vintage, possibly ghost-inhabited suit speaks to both the darker AND lighter parts of his soul, and he happily places a bid.

When the suit shows up, neatly folded in a black, heart-shaped candy box, but reeking of the grave and stuck through with sharp, invisible sewing pins (one of which badly pricks his girlfriend’s thumb) the bloom is off the rose.  Judas orders the suit from his sight, but as these things go, bad things never stay down for long, do they?  And the suit is a very bad thing, indeed, as was its previous owner, a sadistic hypnotist who blames Judas for driving his step-daughter – one of the rocker’s many ex-paramours – to suicide.

Heart-Shaped Box Fingers

What follows is a hybrid of the “haunted” novel –  haunted house, haunted road, haunted past, haunted soul – as Judas, his lady Georgia and their two dogs, Angus and Bon, hit the road in a desperate attempt to shake the vengeful ghost nipping at their heels (and hands; Heart-Shaped Box is nothing if not a story preoccupied with brutal, disfiguring hand injuries.  It’s really one of the odder literary quirks I’ve ever encountered.)

To that end, while reading this book, I tried very hard not to fall into the trap of comparing Hill’s work to that of his father’s – it’s an unfair comparison, and one I’ve no doubt he’s been subject to his entire life.  But I’m incredibly familiar with his father’s literary quirks (the graciously grumpy old-timer delivering reams of folksy dialogue, the prescient 12-year-old as a stand-in for the author’s younger self, an aggravating tendency to telegraph major character deaths hundreds of pages in advance) and for the most part, Hill avoids them. His writing is smoother than dear old dad’s, for one thing, the story paying out in an easy, lyrical, constantly-moving fashion. His characters are also more surefooted than his father’s – in King’s novels, when the going gets tough, the tough go insane.  But in Heart-Shaped Box, when confronted with the things that go bump in the night, Hill’s characters just accept it – “Turns out ghosts are real.  Now what are we going to do about it?” It’s refreshingly proactive.

But those rough bits of literary grit are what make King’s novels so beloved in the first place – the perfect imperfectness of the truly weird and wonderful.  Hill deals in a similar sort of marketplace, but it’s a tidy, sanitized one as compared to his father’s junk store of the mind.  Which makes for a really well-written story that clips along like a house on fire, but also lacks any real permanence – once I return Heart-Shaped Box to the solarium library, I probably won’t ever seek it out again.

This tie-in manicure hits all of Heart-Shaped Box’s broader themes – blood, leather and rock ‘n’ roll (especially the leather, here Nails Inc.’s Leather Effect in Noho, a cool textured polish.)

Heart-Shaped Box Collage Bottle

Mosquito Ghost

Mosquito Ghost

All right, who’s up for a real life ghost story to kick off the work week?  Hopefully you guys, because it’s a real doozy (not mine, although it never fails to give ME chills.)  I also HAD to use the punny title of Mosquito Ghost, a play on the title of the 1986 Harrison Ford movie Mosquito Coast – ’twas far too good a fit; I couldn’t just leave it laying there.  The less we say about the nail art, the better (“Nice bee?” asked my husband.)  Now on with the thrills and chills!

*Dims lights and jams flashlight under chin at classic “monster lighting” angle*

Somewhere around the late ’90s, early 2000s a friend of mine and one of her friends traveled to Ghana for a holiday/educational trip.  One night they found themselves staying in a somewhat remote camp comprised of a jumble of little cabins.  It was on the porch of one of these cabins that they found themselves chatting with a couple of local men some hours later who stopped by for a brief natter.  The interaction was a totally innocuous one, just traveler types swapping stories, and the men were on their way with smiles and waves within the hour, but all the same, my friends were suddenly very aware of WHAT they were – namely, white females travelling alone in a remote part of a foreign country after dark.  Maybe time to go inside, lock the doors and call it a night.

But before hitting the hay, my friends went about the cabin locking the wooden shutters from inside, throwing the lock on the door and pushing various obstacles in front of both the windows and the door.  Finally, after crawling into their shared double bed, my friend tended to the most important part of any Ghanaian traveler’s pre-bedtime routine, the hanging of the malaria netting.  On this point my friend conceded that she was pretty OCD, having adapted a unique (but slow and fussy) method for hanging and tucking the netting from another traveler friend.  I said she could – and probably should – be as OCD as she wanted about malaria netting – strikes me as one of those places you shouldn’t be cutting corners.  Then, with the evening’s origami activities all played out, my friends said goodnight, turned out the lights and drifted off to sleep.

At some point in the evening my friend suddenly snapped awake, most likely roused by the sound of her travelling companion’s rhythmic snoring, which was coming from the far side of the bed, her body turned towards the wall.  But if her friend was on the other side of the bed snoring into the wall, then who exactly was laying directly against MY friend’s back?

Rolling partway over, my friend glanced behind her and noted her friend, still turned towards the wall, blissfully sawing away, and then, laying between them on his back, a Ghanaian man, fully clothed, eyes closed, hands resting gently on his chest.  Figuring that this was some sort of half asleep/half awake confluence of middle-of-the-night fears exacerbated by the previous evening’s scare, my friend shrugged it off, rolled over and immediately fell right back asleep.

The next morning she awoke to find her friend already sitting up in bed, distractedly rubbing the sleep from her eyes and staring fixedly down at the space on the mattress between them.  Her friend then uttered a wild, disbelieving laugh and said, “Oh man, I slept like total crap last night.  I had this dream that I woke up and you were still asleep, but there was a man sleeping on his back in between us.  He didn’t move or anything, though, and after a bit I just fell back asleep again.  But it really freaked me out.”

And it freaked her out even more when MY friend relayed her nearly identical experience, right down to the clothes the man was wearing and the position of his hands on his chest. Feeling overwhelmingly confused and terrified, my friends suddenly realized they hadn’t experienced some sort of tandem nightmare.  Rather, a man had entered their cabin in the dead of night and, what, SLEPT between them?  Whatever it was, it seemed to be a fairly “innocent” interaction, but a violation of their safety, trust and privacy all the same. They could not get out of there fast enough.

That’s when they peered out through the gauze of the mosquito netting and saw that everything in the room was exactly as they had left it the night before.  The windows were all still locked and shuttered from the inside, and the door was both locked and blocked. There wasn’t a single item out of place, the cabin just as neatly buttoned up as it was when they crawled into bed and installed their netting.  And on that point, my friend’s netting, an origami-like arrangement pretty well unique to her and her alone, was completely undisturbed, still neatly tucked and folded into the mattress…from within the bed.

*Ghanaian ghost mic drop*

So what do you think, friends – ghost or pervert?  Because I can tell you which option my friends preferred, and not too surprisingly, it was the more supernatural of the two! Personally, I like to think the sleepy ghost man saw his opportunity to innocently bunk down – literally – with a couple of cool girls for the night.  It probably gets pretty lonely being a ghost trapped in a cruddy cabin in Ghana; I’d go looking for somebody (or somebodies) to lay beside every now and then, too.

Alternately, he died of malaria and was just in total awe of my friend’s prowess at hanging a mosquito net.  One of these options is slightly more romantic than the other.