• carmillavoiez

Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill - a review and short story


I wrote a short story for my Creative Writing course twelve years ago with the same name and a friend asked me if I had read this book. Now, over a decade later, I have. Here’s the review and I’ll share my short story afterwards, just for fun. It’s completely different apart from the title – which is of course a Nirvana song.


Joe Hill’s “Heart-Shaped Box” had a great second half, so I am glad I persevered. I found part one rather awkward as if the writing devices were foregrounded rather than the story. I could see exactly what Hill was trying to do, but emotionally it left me flat. The heart shaped box motif was shoehorned into place in ways that felt unnatural and silly. Part two was much better and smoother. The race against time and the fight for the lives of the protagonist and his girlfriend (she never seems to be much more than that) all fall naturally into place.


Judas Coyne is an aging rock star who dates women thirty years younger than him and treats them with callous disregard, yet compared to the villain he appears almost angelic. We have a character arc and personal growth, and by the end Judas is calling his girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend by their names rather than the States in which they were born. Yes, really. Judas has “visited” a lot of US States.


I preferred The Fireman, Nosferatu and Horns, but this isn’t a terrible book. I’d give it a solid 3/5 stars.


And so to my (very different) short autobiographical story, “Heart Shaped Box”.


If chaos theory states that a butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo could cause tornadoes in California, is it a giant leap of faith to claim that the suicide of a rock star in Seattle caused my marriage to fall apart? Such is the effect of the unlikeliest catalysts.


I met Simon in 1989, in a smoke-filled Goth club where the dance floor was always full and the Snakebite and Black was cheap. When the club closed that night, Simon and I sat outside talking until dawn. Within three months we were engaged. He frequently told me:

‘You are the only person who truly loves me.’ I thought it was a compliment.


Living together we relaxed. Free from our parents, we spent our weekends in bed playing video games. Our bodies side by side, surrounded by crisp packets and beer cans. Motionless except for our thumbs and minds, we travelled the world of Final Fantasy.


In 1991 Simon fell in love again. It was Sunday evening and we were watching MTV when angry guitars, a hammering drumbeat and those hypnotic lyrics “hello, hello, hello” growled through the mono speaker. Listening to Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time gave Simon goose bumps; his pupils dilated and seemed focused not on but through the screen and the images of tattooed cheerleaders: he had discovered Nirvana.


We didn’t know anything about Kurt Cobain. We weren’t yet aware of his separation from his parents, which mirrored Simon’s own background in many ways; or the singer’s habitual drug abuse and self-hatred. At the time, we were simply entranced by the song. We sat together, shoulder to shoulder, on our hand-me-down settee, glued to MTV and bouncing with the music. We had no idea what impact this broken man would eventually have on our own lives.


On April 8th, 1994, Kurt Cobain was found dead. High on heroin he had put a shotgun to the roof of his mouth and pulled the trigger. Simon mourned as if Kurt had been his father or brother. He cried harder and for longer than when his sister had passed away, a couple of years before.


Simon arranged a séance for the following weekend. Although I was usually sceptical of the paranormal, I felt a real sense of foreboding about it.


On Saturday at eight o’clock our friends started to arrive; three men, all members of a band that my husband played bass guitar for. He wore a black shirt and jeans, but Matt arrived in Cobain-style plaid pyjamas, with a black scarf tied around his arm. A bottle of red wine and a spliff were shared. Simon sipped his wine while he explained to us what would happen.


‘We’ll sit around the table, one on each side, with our hands laid flat, palms down. I’ll speak. I’m going to contact Kurt.’ He removed an elastic band from his wrist and solemnly tied back his long blonde hair. He looked around the room with such sincerity that I had to stifle my laughter. I thought the guys looked incredulous, but if they did, Simon did not notice. He unfolded the sheet he was holding. On it he had drawn letters, numbers and the words yes and no, in a circle only slightly smaller than the table; a primitive Ouija board.


As everyone sat down, Simon asked me to bring in another wine glass. I could tell that my role that night would be one of observer. I didn’t know, at the time, that I would be playing that part for the remainder of our relationship.


I stood back and watched. The room was silent. Normally Simon’s friends were loud and sociable, but not tonight. We all thought he had gone mad.


Simon started talking; what he said didn’t make much sense. I have forgotten most of it. He asked to speak to Kurt Cobain. Nothing happened. Matt said something and was immediately shushed by Simon.


I watched for a while then wandered into the kitchen to make tea. I heard glass smash and rushed back in.


‘Did you see it?’ Simon raved.


‘Holy shit, how did that happen?’ yelled Dave.


‘Does it feel cold in here?’ asked Paul.


The wine glass was lying broken on the table, the bowl severed from the stem.


‘Get us another glass!’ Simon screamed at me. He slumped forward on the table.


‘Can you get some water, Milla?’ asked Matt, lifting his friend’s head. I just stood there not knowing what to think. Simon was smiling. He claimed Kurt Cobain had spoken to him.

‘I have to listen to the Melvins,’ he panted. ‘I have to write a song for Kurt.’


Our relationship started to feel surreal. I witnessed events as if I were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Powders and pills seemed to breed in our refrigerator door. I would open the fridge for milk or food, and stare at the unidentified tablets. Shivering from the cold, I would grab what I needed, make the cups of tea or cook our dinner. The act of cooking or pouring would purge my memory and the drugs would be forgotten.


Alone in bed, with a duvet wrapped around me, I would listen to Simon laughing loudly through the early hours of the morning. On the occasions when he did come to bed, his body was an oppressive presence and I would lie awake wondering what might happen if I smothered him with my pillow.


The intimacy between us faded: a casualty of his drug abuse and strangeness. This worried Simon more than it did me. One night, at a club, he pulled a girl for us; her name was Alice. Alice looked like Courtney Love might have done if she had pillar-box red hair. When we got home Simon made us all drinks; he was agitated and excited. He put his Nevermind CD into our HiFi. We listened to the music together and talked for a short time, then, we all went to bed.


Simon wanted to have sex with Alice, but she told him: ‘I never have sex with men.’


He flung himself through the bedroom door and downstairs.


Alice’s body was new and exciting; her skin felt smooth against my own and her hair smelled like summer evenings. Alice whispered things which calmed and aroused me. I knew I should join Simon and I did, eventually.


That night, the three of us slept together, in the one double bed, chaste and angry at each other.


By the autumn of 1994, Simon was smoking grass every day. He lost all interest in his appearance, rarely even getting dressed. He became paranoid and started being cruel. On New Year’s Eve, 1995, he threatened to kill me. We had celebrated New Year at a restaurant in Somerset. I was driving and he was drinking. He drank heavily.


Midnight came and went. I wanted to leave but Simon wanted to stay. I threatened to drive home by myself, so he followed grudgingly. When we reached the car park, he shouted an insult at a couple. The man approached him and Simon looked ready to fight. I tried to calm the situation and apologised for Simon’s behaviour. The other couple quickly left.


‘For fuck’s sake, Milla,’ Simon growled. ‘Can’t you ever take my side?’ His eyes flashed with anger, but his body language showed defeat. We got into our car.


‘I’m going to kill you,’ he whispered, as I turned the ignition key. I tried to ignore him and drove along the tear-smudged roads, shaking.


‘I’m going to murder you in your sleep.’ Somehow we got home. As I ran up the stairs he called after me: ‘you’ll be dead by morning.’


I went to bed terrified. Simon stayed downstairs. I heard every movement he made. I lay in our bed with the same tightness of chest I had often experienced as a child: camphor burner in my room, my mother sitting with me, willing me to breathe. This time it wasn’t asthma, but fear, and a feeling of slow suffocation, stifling my airways. Eventually Simon stopped moving and I got to sleep, wondering whether I would be better off dead.


Our marriage wheezed on for over two years. I never considered leaving. I couldn’t cope with the idea of losing my house and returning to my parents, so I waited, allowing my emotions to hibernate. In the spring of 1996 we had separate holidays. Simon didn’t come back from his. He wrote a letter, giving me the house. It was a Pyrrhic victory.


I thought about all that had happened between Simon and myself. Did I love him enough? How did everything go so wrong? Perhaps like Dorian Gray’s portrait, Kurt was Simon’s inner reflection. The moment Cobain died all the emotional torment and insecurities transferred to Simon and festered and I did nothing to help him.


Kurt Cobain had complained about rock journalists and their “second-rate Freudian evaluation of [his] lyrics, when 90 percent of the time [they had] transcribed them incorrectly.” This period of my life remains hazy, even after pulling at and probing my memories. I am trying to understand what happened and yet, like those maligned rock journalists, I can never be certain that I have transcribed what was actually there or just what I think was there.




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