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BOOK REVIEW

Hill's 'Heart-Shaped Box' guaranteed to keep you up at night

Joe Hill (above) takes after his father, Stephen King. (SHANE LEONARD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

Heart-Shaped Box, By Joe Hill William Morrow, 384 pp., $24.95

Jude Coyne, the hero of Joe Hill's gripping, "stay-up-all-night-reading" ghost thriller, is a 54-year-old former rock star with a fascination with the occult. And while jaded Jude is obsessed with the dead, he has absolutely no use for the living. He has dumped a series of 20-something Goth girlfriends, disposing of them whenever they cramp his "me-first" lifestyle. He is alienated from his family back in Louisiana, where his father is dying, and he loathes his personal assistant.

Hill, a son of legendary horror writer Stephen King, opens the story with a bizarre Internet auction. Jude goes on line to buy a ghost from a Florida woman, who ships him an old suit in a heart-shaped box. After the suit arrives at Jude's New York home, so does the suit's spooky owner. As in all great ghost stories, nothing is as it first appears. The ghost turns out to be the stepfather of one of the women Jude has dumped. This woman, Anna McDermott, apparently killed herself shortly after Jude had put her on a Florida-bound bus. Now the ghost of Craddock McDermott wants Jude dead.

"Heart-Shaped Box" is an intricately constructed, fast-paced tale of the mano- a- mano battles between Jude and the ghost. At first, Jude seems to have no chance at all. The ghost soon inhabits Jude's thoughts, creating a surreal mental landscape that's on the border of reality and hellish imagination. During one encounter, Jude is barely conscious and finds himself in flames: "Jude was beginning to burn. The smoke was coming out both his sleeves now and from under his collar. He clenched his teeth and began to scream. He had always known he would go out this way: on fire." Yet Jude proves more resilient than the ghost expects.

The story really takes off when Jude escapes in his Ford Mustang, with his current Goth girlfriend, Marybeth, and races south. The ghost follows, of course, but the flight is really a metaphorical journey into Jude's own troubled past. It is in this past -- his and Anna McDermott's -- that Jude will find the strength to battle Craddock's ghost. Hill skillfully brings this essential backstory to the surface, showing us flashbacks of Jude's abusive father, Jude's dark history with bandmates, and how his selfishness destroyed his relationship with Anna.

After Craddock's ghost attacks him at a Denny's restaurant in South Carolina, Jude realizes an essential truth about his personal history: "The ghosts always caught up eventually, and there was no way to lock the door on them." Jude decides to take the fight to Craddock's lair in Florida, and uses a Ouija board to contact the ghost of Anna for help. From Anna, Jude learns an important twist about Anna's death.

With both Jude and Craddock's ghost seeking revenge and trying to destroy each other, a bloodied Jude escapes to his childhood home in Louisiana for the story's ultimate, epic encounter. Hill masterfully keeps the action moving and the drama escalating, giving readers just enough revelations to keep them on board this Southern train of a ghost story. Jude's desperate journey, as he races from and then finally confronts the demons that would see him dead, will keep readers holding fast to Hill's haunting narrative well into the darkest hours.

Chuck Leddy is a writer and book reviewer in Quincy.

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