I just finished Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, a Southern Gothic, heavy metal ghost story. I barreled through the plot like the main character’s cherry red Mustang, clicking my e-reader device furiously into the night and feeling that sweet pain when you don’t want a story to end but can’t stop reading because you like it so much. It hit a lot of notes for me on both a genre and personal level. The tropes are familiar (aging rock stars! the occult! family dysfunction! Goth chicks!), but so well-written and fun they never feel corny or cliché. It’s also really scary, starting off uneasy then dropping suddenly into something much worse.
This wasn’t supposed to be a goopy book review. Heart-Shaped Box got me thinking about the nature of ghosts, an idea that hovers in the background of my mind next to 90s teen sitcom plots, then gets shoved front and center when I read or see something spooky and affecting. It also got me thinking about beautiful old cars and chicken-fried steak. But mostly ghosts.
In Heart-Shaped Box, the main character notes that the ghost’s power lies in getting in his mind, that it’s as much him as the specter sitting in his living room. If he can keep the ghost out of his head, he wins. The idea that ghosts are both mental and supernatural makes sense to me. Souls of the departed, sure. But really, a spirit is something internal made otherworldly and powerful – your insides taking form and hovering in the mirror, on the bus, in the corner of your eye when your thoughts start to wander and skip.
Sometimes they’re sweet, light particles that float through office windows on late, gray afternoons. I am watching Sinbad in Ida’s apartment. I am maybe six or seven. She is my Aunt Louise’s mother, who’s not really my aunt (she’s my mom’s friend) but she pretty much is so I call her my aunt. My aunt calls me in to visit with great-aunt Ida and I am scared by her pale, thin face and glowing eyes, she looks half on the other side. We talk about something and she gives me a macrobiotic cookie. The cookie is weird and I’m still nervous, but she’s nice to me and it’s a real kind of nice, which brings my shoulders down. I sit on the corner of her bed and she tells me about her special diet, how it’s supposed to be good for cancer. I don’t know exactly how cancer works but I know she’s going to die. And she does die, and they have me sing something in Hebrew at her funeral, and I remember rehearsing, “This is a song Ida would like.” in my head. Like, not liked. She’s dead but she’s still there, and as I sing the ghosts of funny old Jewish ladies protect me, Ida and great-grandma Sophie who I never met and all the rest, lined hands and lively eyes and Rosie, come over here.
And then there there are the ones not dead, just long gone but vivid as ever, that girl from 7th grade and your dad who you haven’t talked to in over a decade and that guy you were with for a fairly miserable eight months. Long gone but alive (you keep them alive). Her face was smooth and impassive save for a little smile when she told you they were walking away now and then they did, but you kept trailing them and then she turned around and bellowed, you jumped and they snickered. His movements were quick and jerky as he walked through the house, saying he was leaving. You could not see his eyes, he moved too fast, but if you could they would be hazel and strange. You’re watching a movie on your former boyfriend’s couch and he’s telling you how all girls have daddy issues. All of them. Sometimes in the early morning or late at night you feel their cold hands on your shoulders, creeping up to your cheeks and chin, filling your mouth so you can only scream inside your head.
The only way to get rid of a malicious ghost is to confront them head-on, again and again, throwing words and movements and therapy at the poltergeists of the past and present. Until then, they remain. Behind the door, at the bottom of a bottle, threaded throughout everyday interactions like gray tendrils. If you can’t make them go away, all you can do is not let them in.