Joe Hill's horror fiction stands on its own, but of course, he'll probably always be likened to his famous family of writers. Hill's parents are Stephen King and Tabitha King, and his brother, Owen King, is also a novelist. But according to the introduction in Hill's new collection of short stories, Full Throttle, he's not only come to terms with that aspect of his writing; he's outright embraced it.
Westword caught up with Hill ahead of his sold-out appearance at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue, on Wednesday October 2, to discuss his thoughts on fatherhood and progeny, his system for collaborating on comic books, and some of his connections to the Colorado area. Here's what he had to say:
Westword: You said in the notes to the introduction that you’d been thinking about the topic of fatherhood/progeny for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about how that topic has emerged in your life?
When I started out, I was writing as Joe Hill, and no one knew who my parents were. Because I was such an insecure guy, it was really important for me to sell stories to people who didn’t know anything about where I was coming from or who my dad was. I needed to know for me that I sold it for the right reasons, because it was a good story and an editor wanted to put it out in the world.
[It] was a plan that led to a lot of rejection, but I think that was a healthy thing. Those rejections brutally teach you about what excites a reader and what doesn’t. I did sell some short stories and have a modicum of very small-scale success with my short stories, managed to break in over at Marvel Comics and write a Spider-Man tale and had a little good luck. And eventually it came out about the pen name, but even then I persisted and continued to be Joe Hill instead of Joe Hill King.
It’s important to me that the stories are satisfying in their own right, they’re a good time, people feel glad they read them. I’m always hoping to win people over on the merits of the work, not on the merits of my parentage.
That said, I’m really close to both my parents. I’m tremendously close to my dad. We like a lot of the same things. And I love his stories and his books, and you get to a point — I’m almost fifty; I’m 47 years old, and I had a great career that’s been tremendous fun and had some successes — but you get to a point where you want to celebrate your parents and talk about what they’ve meant to you and what they mean to you. In my mom and dad’s case, so much about what they love in fiction has shaped my own ideas of what good fiction is.
Both the stories you wrote with your dad in Full Throttle leverage very believable family ties, though they aren’t really about those family ties. Do you think it was easier to craft those characters and their background with someone who was in your family?
I don’t know about that. To me, the whole point of writing a story is you get a character who’s interesting in some way. They don’t always have to be a likable or good person, but they have to have some interesting wrinkles to them, a unique way of talking and thinking. I want to put that person into peril, into the pressure cooker, and see what comes out, if they arrive at some point of revelation where they learn something new about themselves.
I wouldn’t want to speak for him, but I think my dad also feels the same way; that’s one of the goals of a work of fiction: to see how certain human beings will react under pressure, what strategy they’ll settle on to fight their way out of the corner. A good horror story gives you characters to get invested in and then puts them in terrible trouble.
A good example of bad horror is the slasher films of the 1980s. In Friday the 13th, the most developed character is Jason Voorhees, the serial killer. The teenagers are just kind of types. There’s the cheerleader, the tough kid, the bookworm, the stoner. Because those characters never become fully formed, we don’t care about them when they get knocked off. They fail as horror fiction, but sometimes they succeed as slapstick comedy.
Can you talk about what the collaborative creative process in general looks like for you, whether that’s writing with another writer or working on a comic book with an artist?
I talked a little bit about this in the introduction of Full Throttle, because for a while I was trying to write the kind of short stories they run in the New Yorker, but I couldn’t write those stories. I never read them for pleasure. When I was trying to write those stories, the stuff I was reading for pleasure were these sick horror books by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. I was reading Swamp Thing and Sandman and From Hell. I had always had a very comic-book imagination, and then professionally when I was trying to break in, I had this moment when a talent scout from Marvel had read one of my short stories in a collection, and on the basis of that gave me the opportunity to write for Spider-Man.
I always kind of thought of myself as a comic book writer first. I spent years writing Locke & Key with my pal Gabriel Rodriguez. Writing is a very solitary activity. It’s a thing where you sit in an office by yourself and play make-believe and listen to the voices in your head for a while every day. But working on a comic book, that’s like being in a band. I’m sort of like the drummer, Gabe Rodriguez is the lead guitarist, our colorist, Jay Fotos, is the synthesizer, and our editor, Chris Ryall, is making sure our crap can get cut down to a three-minute single.
In the year to come, I’m writing a couple of horror comics for DC. One is called Basket Full of Heads and another one called Plunge. Basket Full of Heads, arguably my most tasteful title to date, is about a young woman who’s fighting off home invaders, and she’s doing it with an ancient Viking ax, and when she removes a head with an ax, it remains impossibly alive and still talking and thinking. So that was a gruesome idea to explore.
Fans of your inscapes are insanely curious about Orphanhenge. What can you tell us?
NOS4A2 was my third novel, and it’s the story of a man who has a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. This guy, Charlie Manx, has been kidnapping kids for a century and draining their souls and leaving the monstrous remains in a place called Christmasland, a kind of otherworldly amusement park. It’s now a series on AMC coming back for a second season.
There are other places like Christmasland in the world, other disturbing second realities that people can enter into, and one of them is a place called Orphanhenge, and I’ve had a novel in my head about this place for years, and I don’t know if I’ll ever write it. Part of me would like to, but I’m never really sure if I’ll get around to it.
One of the reasons I love short stories, I think of them almost like super-compressed novels. Coming up with weird concepts is something I feel like I’m pretty good at. I can usually come up with — I’ve slowed down; I don’t feel like I’m as inventive as I used to be — but I come up with two or three ideas a week. Coming up with an idea takes a moment, but writing a novel takes three years.
I do love writing short stories, because I can write something and say, “Here’s a novel. I'm going to give you the very best part of it,” and then the reader is free to expand on it in their imagination.
I think some of your short stories make the reader think for a long time afterward. One in 20th Century Ghosts, 'The Cape,' has stayed with me in the same way that Kurt Vonnegut's 'Harrison Bergeron' has.
That is a very kind thing to say. I’m not fit to hold Vonnegut’s jock strap. "The Cape" is a story about a guy who rediscovers his childhood cape and discovers he can use it to fly and then does some things with it that Superman wouldn’t have done. In some ways, it anticipated what James Gunn did with Brightburn a little bit. The Boys on Amazon gets into this. It’s very optimistic to imagine that someone with superhuman powers would selflessly use them for good, when in fact it seems obvious that they would use them for self-aggrandizement — and that’s the best-case scenario.
We’re all obsessed with Colorado here in Colorado, so of course we notice when esteemed writers reference our state. Can you talk about your connections to Colorado?
I always hope to get out there for every book tour, and when I was a teenager, I became friends through my parents with Colorado native Dan Simmons, who wrote The Terror, and I spent a weekend sleeping in his basement back when I was eighteen.
In my last book, Strange Weather, one of the stories is titled "Rain," and it’s about a slowly unfolding apocalypse where the clouds start raining shards of crystal, and if you’re driving through one of these nail storms, it’s like driving into machine-gun fire. People who are caught out in the rain are shredded to pieces. At the center of the story is a woman named Honeysuckle Speck who sees her girlfriend struck down in one of these rainstorms and attempts to walk from Boulder to Denver to tell her girlfriend's father about the death. It was pretty fun to set that in the Boulder-Denver corridor.
Have you ever been to North Pole, Colorado?
Get out! There’s a North Pole, Colorado?
Yes! And it's a little disturbing for people who have read NOS4A2.
I have plausible deniability here. I've never been to North Pole, Colorado, but there are quite a few of these Christmas-themed amusement parks. They were made in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and they have all these giant statues made of molded plastic, and after fifty years of exposure to the elements, all those statues have become profoundly creepy to look at, because they’ve faded to this sinister dingy shade, this almost Trumpian shade of yellow-orange, and they’re all grinning the way they’re grinning... . It sort of looks like a sweet old Santy Claus, but it also kind of looks like he might have an extra row of teeth.
The really heavy right-wing dudes are all obsessed with how there’s a war on Christmas. I don’t know if there was before NOS4A2, but it definitely opened a new front in the war on Christmas. As a horror writer, you’re always looking for something comforting and reassuring and then wanting to rip the carpet from under it.
Can we talk about the end of NOS4A2?
I wrote a really bleak, dark ending to NOS4A2. And I thought to myself, "This is the ending of the book, and I’m going to keep it no matter what my editor says, because I’m a serious artist, and I’m going to shove this ugly, terrifying, upsetting ending in every reader’s face, and I don’t care if I only sell six copies."
I hadn’t even sent it to my editor yet, but I sent it to my mom, who’s always the first reader, and she said, “Joe, it’s wonderful, such a wonderful book, but that ending really won’t do,” and I said, "Okay mom, I'll change it," which pretty much covers the subject of my artistic integrity.
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So the original ending: Wayne returns from a trip to Christmasland, and he’s not quite right. We get a sense that permanent damage has been done. It’s Christmas morning, Lou is still sleeping, and Wayne finds a knife in the kitchen, and he’s sitting at the end of his father’s bed and catches the sight of his reflection in the knife blade, and he’s so happy, and Lou wakes up and says, “Son, what have you got there?” And Wayne says, “Merry Christmas, Dad.”
Wow. I have to say, I think your mom was right.
A short story is dark and dirty; it does its work in thirty pages. My feeling is that the best short stories end with a final twist of the knife. One last really powerful jolt is the way to go out in a short story. But a novel takes anywhere from 16 to 24 hours to read; it’s a big commitment of people’s time. It’s okay if a story ends with some sadness and some sense that the darkness has not been completely driven back, but I do think if someone hangs with me for twenty hours, they deserve a hopeful ending.
Full Throttle comes out today, October 1. Joe Hill speaks at 7 p.m. on Wednesday October 2, at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue. The event is sold out.