Joe Hill on NOS4A2's reality-bending horror and his appearance in Denver tomorrow
A young woman with a supernatural talent for finding things goes looking for trouble and gets it in the form of a monstrous man who uses children for his own dark ends in Joe Hill's new novel NOS4A2. The book delves into a world where certain special people can make dreams real, then explores what happens when some of those people are dedicated to their nightmares. His first novel, Heart Shaped Box, made the New York Times bestseller list and he's collected a variety of awards for his fiction, including a Bram Stoker award for his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. Oh, and he's also the son of Stephen King.
Given all that, and the fact that he's referred to NOS4A2 as his senior thesis on the horror genre, it's no surprise that the book is an irresistible dive into the dark side of fiction, full of compelling heroes and villains and unforgettable images. Before Hill's appearance Thursday, May 9 at the Tattered Cover LoDo, where he'll read from and sign NOS4A2, we caught up with him to talk about the book, his unified theory of fiction, and why he loves Joss Whedon and The X-Files.
Westword: In NOS4A2 you deal a lot with dreams and the inner mental landscape. Is that a particular area of interest for you?
Joe Hill: Yeah. The book, in some ways, has this idea that people live in two different worlds. They've got one foot in the real world, where there's bad coffee and bad jobs and bad hair and gravity and physics and all the rest of it. But a lot of us spend just as much time in our private world of thought. In the private landscape of thought, emotion is as real as gravity. That's an idea that runs, like a thread, through all my stories, but I tried to take a special look at in NOS4A2. The animating concept of NOS4A2 is that some people are strong enough, creatively, to bring their imaginary worlds into the real world. So we have this kind of vampire, Charlie Manx, who has a private place called Christmasland, that's a place where it's Christmas every morning, and every night is Christmas Eve, and the fun never stops. And Charlie kidnaps children and takes them there and by the time he dumps them in Christmasland, they've been changed. They're not the same any more. They're monstrous. Vic McQueen has her inner landscape, represented by a bridge called the Shorter Way bridge, which she can use to cross vast distances and to find lost objects and to solve riddles.
Those seem like elements of fantasy -- Christmasland and the Shorter Way bridge seem very fantastic. But actually I think it's not that weird. People pull stuff out of their imaginations and fling it at the real world all the time. That's how Keith Richards makes his living. He hears a song in his head, then he grabs his guitar and before you know it, you're hearing his song in your head. So NOS4A2 really takes what creative people do anyway and pushes it to extremes.
You've called this book your "senior thesis on horror." Can you explain what that means and elaborate on that idea a little bit?
Yeah, you know I have always loved dark fantasy and horror fiction, and I have always loved stories of suspense. My first few books were very tightly focused, and I wanted to do an "everything but the kitchen sink" book. I really wanted to do something on a much bigger scale, a much bigger canvas, with lots of characters and a timescale that was big, and a lot of ideas and big action set pieces. That seemed like a fun challenge and NOS4A2 kind of became a chance for me sort of use everything I know about the writing of horror fiction. To kind of explore all the big horror fiction concepts that had excited me when I was a kid.
So then if this is your senior horror thesis, is this idea of the "Inscape" in the book -- the inner landscape of ideas and emotion and fantasy -- your thesis statement?
It's my unified theory of everything. It's kind of this idea that both supports this novel but also kind of supports the novels that came before and, to a degree, Locke and Key, my comic book. There are some concepts there that seem to be essential to my understanding of fantasy.
In NOS4A2 you delve into one of the pillars of horror, the children in jeopardy trope. That's not something you've done much in your other novels, is it?
I actually think there are a couple of other stories I've written, especially in my book of short stories, where you have young adult characters or kids or teens at least who are in jeopardy. I've had some questions like, "What do I make of all the violence against women in NOS4A2" and "What do I make of all the violence against children in NOS4A2?" And I think there's a lot of violence directed against grown-up males as well! It's a horror novel, and it's in the nature of such stories for the good guys to come in for a certain amount of rough treatment, regardless of age, race or gender. I'm a believer in equal opportunity terrorizing.
Honestly, the scene that hit me the hardest so far was a scene where a father of a young child gets the worst of a confrontation with Manx. As a father myself, it kind of put me in that space of imagining my kid having to grow up without me.
And maybe having seen you die! Every parent's nightmare is outliving their children, and by the same token, not much better, is your children seeing you suffer and die. No one wants to put their kids through that. It's interesting that you should bring up that particular character and scene, because a lot of the book is about the boogeyman in the closet and under the bed is scary, but not as scary as being a parent. Being a parent, every day is a new opportunity to terrify yourself and every day is a fresh chance to screw it all up. Having been a parent for a while, I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about how scary it can be to be a mother.
I think a lot of mothers are really badly written. There's a tendency to make moms in stories all wise, eternally patient and utterly focused on their children. They have no inner life whatsoever, they're just there to bake muffins and tuck the kid in. And I don't think that really describes a lot of real mothers, who often times have lives of their own and interests of their own. Sometimes they don't get enough sleep and it's hard to be patient. Your kid does something reckless and nearly kills themselves and you get angry and scared. I think being a mother is a really tough job, and I wanted to write about a woman who is wrestling with what a difficult job that is, and who also had more to her than just being a mom -- also had her own ambitions and and hopes and dreams and fears and regrets.
It's not just mothers, either. With women characters in general, it seems like so many of them are written poorly.
Oh god, it's true! Especially in genre fiction, too. There are some people trying to do better. I credit Neil Gaiman for really changing the conversation, for really changing the attitudes of how female characters are written in genre fiction. He came along with his Sandman comic in the 1990s and then later in his novels, and he presented a really wide range of interesting female leads. Characters that were very funny and rich and layered, with interesting histories. He put a lot of other people to shame.
As far as you writing the character of Vic McQueen, did you draw on real women from your life?
No, some people do write from what they know, and in some ways I do that. I definitely think, that when I was growing up, when I was thirteen or fourteen and other kids had posters on their walls of athletes and movie stars and stuff, all the posters on my wall were pulled out of Fangoria magazine, which is a horror magazine dedicated to splatter f/x guys. Those were my heroes, so in a way I do write what I know. Horror fiction and dark fantasy come to me very naturally. But when I'm writing about characters, when I'm focusing on my characters, a lot of times I want to step out of my comfort zone and explore characters who maybe don't see the world like me, who maybe have had different kind of lives and experiences. Then the experience of writing the story becomes a kind of detective story. Not a "whodunnit" but a "who are they," and I like that. I like gradually uncovering a character, not knowing who they are when I start and letting them reveal themselves by their choices and their dialogue. That's the best part of the job, really.
You've mentioned in interviews that you start with a hook but that will only take you so far, and then you have to have good characters.
Yeah, absolutely. One of the guiding lights of my generation, one of the great creators of my generation is Joss Whedon. I'm a big admirer of his but I've only seen like two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the TV show that made his reputation is not really how I know him. I know him from his work in comic books and from Firefly and from The Avengers. I think the thing that Joss Whedon recognized and has exploited is people want to love a character and then see those characters have great moments. To be forced in a box and have to punch their way out. To be confronted with their worst fears and to have their fondest hopes snatched away from them. He's really great at that. He's really great at finding these characters that you just want to spend time with every week, or as much as possible, and see them experience everything. I think that's the job, to create those characters and then give them their chance to be recognized as hero, coward or clown.
People talk a lot about giving the reader what they want, but I'm also a big believer in what Joss Whedon says about the job is actually to identify what the audience wants and then to never give it to them. To seriously deny it as much as possible. The example I use -- and if you've read other interviews, you've probably heard me mention it in at least one of them -- is people always wanted to know if Mulder and Scully were going to hop into bed together. It seems to me, The X-Files as a series was exciting and dynamic right up to the Rolling Stone cover where they were in bed together. At that moment, it ended. It was clear Mulder and Scully loved each other and people really wanted to see them form up as a couple. And the moment that creative desire was satisfied, the moment that happened, all the underlying power of the show evaporated.
I do think that you also have to recognize that stories require an ending. It may not be the ending that the audience wants sometimes, but you can't just play out the string endlessly.
You've mentioned in interviews that The X-Files is one of your favorite shows.
I think probably The X-Files is the first show, as something like an adult, that I went completely crazy for, that I was a complete basketcase for. We're living in a time of television where it's clear that TV can be as great as American novels. That there's a level of artistry happening in modern television that's unique and new, and you see this in shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and I think to a degree Dr. Who and Sherlock and stuff the BBC has done. The X-Files kind of predated that era of television, and in some ways had some of the problems of television as it used to be, as opposed to how it is now. I think that if The X-Files came along now, it would be even better because Chris Carter would be in a position where he would have the permission to end it, to answer all the mysteries and resolve the underlying tensions of the show. But back then, no one ended a TV show, they just kept it going until no one cared any more.
I love Dr. Who, which is in a lot of ways The X-Files with an English accent. I mean, to be fair, Dr. Who was around way before X-Files, but I think the modern incarnation of Dr. Who owes as much to The X-Files as it does to the earlier periods of Dr. Who and I've had a lot of fun with that. I think that's a pretty great show.
Parts of NOS4A2 are set here in Colorado. Do you have a special connection to Colorado, or was there another reason?
I think the mountains are a little bit beautiful and kind of scary. There's a lot of wrong turns up there in the hills, where you suddenly find yourself in a gully on a road, way up high, thousands of feet above sea level and there's houses with nobody in them and gas stations that have been empty for twenty years, and you're like, "Where the hell am I?" It's like you've discovered an abandoned colony on the moon. That's a little bit scary. My parents lived in Colorado for a very brief period of time when I was little and years later I had a brief love affair with film and I worked in the film business for a little bit. I worked in Utah on some TV movies and I crisscrossed the mountains several times and that sort of stuck with me, what it's like up there.
Anything you're looking forward to doing while you're here?
I'm a bookstore nerd. I love skulking around bookstores. I've done it my whole life, it's still my favorite way to pass time, and the Tattered Cover is one of the greatest bookstores in America. Just a beautiful, beautiful bookstore and I haven't been there in a couple of years. I am really looking forward to getting back. I love it there.
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