You know those moments where you’ve been talking about something and suddenly things line up exactly right to prove your point? I’ve recently had a moment like that, and I love it because it reaffirms that I haven’t completely lost my mind (in regards to my genre arguments, at least).
Some of you may remember my post a while ago on sexual victimization in horror and how I felt it was mostly unnecessary and was rarely handled well. I felt a little bad that I couldn’t provide a lot of examples of where it actually makes sense and is treated respectfully in a story (I managed one or two, but it was hard to find examples for that post).
Whilst in the thick of whatever crud/cold/zombie plague I’ve fallen into, I didn’t have a lot of energy to do much except think and read. Since I’ve got a stack of titles to catch up on, I began reading Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box…and suddenly found the best example ever right in my lap.
Without giving much away (though it’s been out for a few years), the title is about a metal singer who collects odd things and buys a ghost (well, haunted suit) on an online auction site. The book jacket is a little deceptive, but I get why it was phrased the way it was. You come to find out that he has a personal connection to the ghost’s family, and he and all who help him are being stalked by this ghost until he dies. The pacing is great and you’re left guessing for the longest time about how all the pieces fit together. No character is totally likable or unlikable, and the author does a great job of building suspense but also crafting a really great paranormal horror story.
In the latter portion of the book, you come to find out that the reason why he’s being haunted isn’t quite the reason he assumed, and there’s a whole other subplot about sexual abuse and incest. Now, like I said before, I really dislike those plot elements, but I have to say they were handled really, really well here. For one, you NEVER see anything up close. Not in flashback, not in present tense, not in any part of the story. It is definitely part of a character’s back story (and that of her family), but you NEVER see it. It is NEVER used to sexify the goings on – in fact, there’s a HUGE difference in tone between any time those elements are mentioned and any sort of actual sex between two of the main characters (the singer and his girlfriend). In contrast, those scenes are also subdued and fade to black, and they fit the characters, but they’re almost beautiful. You can feel the attraction between the main character and his girlfriend, despite their problems, and it’s treated as something adult but good, whereas any mention of the abuse and incest makes no bones about the fact that it is wrong, it is dark, it is not right, and nothing to be glorified or accepted.
I appreciate the fact that though the activity is mentioned, it’s done by referencing the past, the victim realizing it really happened, and by vague mention of a series of photographs. They’re never described, but by the use of tone you know it’s serious stuff. The thing is, as a reader, I don’t NEED to see any of this stuff happen. I don’t NEED to know what those photos are. The author deftly uses the victim’s reactions, the main characters’ reactions, and the reactions of the guilty parties trying to cover up their own mess to convey how heavy this subplot is. It doesn’t need to be over-emphasized and described to the nth degree. It’s almost worse when you’re forced to connect the dots on your own.
What’s also great about this title is that these elements remain a subplot. It’s not crammed into the reader’s eye sockets. It’s a development, but you don’t have to read hundreds of pages of it to get the idea that abuse is bad and the victims need to be avenged and/or freed. At the end of the day, it remains a ghost story, a horror story, with adult elements that are treated in an adult way.
And that is how it should be done across the board. I never thought at any point while reading this “Wow this isn’t horror enough” or “Why aren’t I seeing all this blow-by-blow?” There’s enough grit in other sequences of the book, enough haunting elements, and enough human darkness to keep the pages turning. It’s balanced so well, if it was over the top on those or any other elements, it would ruin the book. This is definitely a title worth checking out just because it’s incredible, but also because this SHOULD be how you include elements that could be questionable. THIS not only treats the subjects like the atrocities they are, but doesn’t need to slam it into a reader’s face. It gives the victims something to say and is partially about where can someone go with their life after being exposed to something like that. It was a refreshing discovery – a horror book that had heavy subject matter in it, but treated its readers like adults – what a bold concept!
If you haven’t read Heart-Shaped Box or anything else by Joe Hill, I heartily recommend it.