Joe Hill – Horror Author

Posted: June 5, 2013 in Review
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JoeHI was recently at an event with Joe Hill, who was signing copies of his latest novel ‘N0S4ATU‘ and anything else that people brought along, as well as posing for horn-waving photographs!

First of all, thanks to Jim McLeod of the Ginger Nuts of Horror blog, for quizzing Joe with a calm demeanour that a TV presenter would envy. Those Southern Comforts afterwards appeared well-deserved. And Ellie Wixon, of Blackwells Edinburgh, deserves the highest praise….she arranged the event through the ingenious initiative of sending Joe’s publisher a heart-shaped box containing a key….

The event was held in the Pleasance Theatre on a Friday evening. It was very busy with a wide range of people. Jim and Joe had a good and wide-ranging chat, ranging from comic novels to Joe’s latest book NOS4ATU. Joe was very forthcoming and candid about his own writing and ideas… unbelievably, he was rejected for his first collection, ‘20th Century Ghosts’. He is a naturally pleasant and relaxed person and it felt like we were all sitting in a living-room/writing-den or around a table in a micro-brewery bar somewhere. It was the end of a gruelling month-long tour and the queue for signings must have seemed a mile long, yet Joe was cheerful until the very end… he thanked the audience for their passion for reading and writing, which certainly seemed to enthuse him.

Now, to Joe’s writing. I know he has an illustrious father, the horror author Stephen King, who some may know. The resemblance between Hill and King is quite eerie… big, beards, glasses (I think King has a second writer son and a daughter in the clergy, by the way). I first read ‘Heart Shaped Box’, which – to be honest – I didn’t enjoy as much as I had hoped. I was maybe prejudiced because of the Hill/King connection, either expecting a work of genius or a cynical celebrity publishing deal. Now, this needs to be said: Joe Hill has never traded on his father’s name and does his absolute utmost to promote his writing on its own considerable merit. Paradoxically, that makes it even more surprising his first collection was rejected and doubles the credit he deserves for maintaining his own identity. Anyway, enough of that relationship for the moment.

As I said, I didn’t greatly enjoy Heart Shaped Box (HSB) but that’s probably down to my own tastes in horror, which are possibly quite peculiar…. Dean Koontz, for example, is one of those horror writers who is perfectly good and very popular, but (with a few notable exceptions) who I just don’t get. In addition to HSB, Hill has published a short-story collection (‘20th Century Ghosts’, hereafter 20CG) and ‘Horns’ (just ‘Horns’ will do). I’ve read one recent log review which slated Horns but praised HSB. This made me feel better, as I thought the opposite, that Horns was an outstanding and complex novel, literary as well as horror-fantasy, and the different responses from readers indicates a writer who has no fear of experimenting with his craft.

Hill has mentioned Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ as an influence behind Horns,  and it is a complex novel which deals with loss, guilt, identity and relationships, wrapped up in a horror package that might well be subtitled ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. This novel deserves a far wider audience and is a Generation X/Y/Z literary classic.

20CG is a short story collection best described as ‘the Led Zep 4 of horror anthologies’ (by me). There are three horror collections that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest: Clive Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’, Peter Straub’s ‘Magic Terror’ and now 20CG. All are unsettling, provocative, original and – most importantly – without any B-side stories. ‘Pop Art’ is a literary masterpiece which proves there are still original ideas out there; ‘You Will Hear The Locust Sing’ is another Kafka-inspired tale in which Gregor Samsa meets the Atomic Age (and a reader favourite); ‘My Father’s Mask’ is deeply unsettling; and ‘Voluntary Committal’ is a classic horror fantasy and strange tale that would make Ray Bradbury proud.

Most recently, we have NOS4ATU. This is a beast of a book and a good read; 700 pages or so. I enjoyed it and whizzed through the book; certainly a page-turner. The plot concerns a vampiric combination of Silver Ghost car and aged owner (Charles Manx), preying on children’s souls. However, the story focuses mainly on the protagonist, a Generation X-er called Vic, who has a “lost and found” teleportation ability since childhood. Hill discusses the novel in terms of Dracula and the memorably-repulsive Renfield character is called Bing, obsessed with Manx’s alluring-yet-evil alternative world of Christmasland. Hill has developed the concept of ‘inscapes’, a landscape-of-the-mind accessible from reality, and conveys this very well. As mentioned already, it is an enjoyable book. However, I found the antagonist Manx to be mysterious and remote: my mental image was of Mr Burns from The Simpsons. Hill mentions that he wanted to “show not tell” Manx and keep him shrouded in mystery; he is working on a graphic novel which should show-and-tell more of Manx and this is very good news. The other main problem I had as a reader of N0S4ATU was Hill’s frequent references to the ‘landscape of Castle Rock’: there are a number of notable Stephen King features, creatures and places which crop up. I didn’t like this, to be honest, as it took me out of Hill’s books and into King’s books.  However, after listening to his recent talk and thinking more about this, it hopefully means that Hill is growing comfortable with the King legacy and confident enough to weave it into his own writing. It is undeniably part of his background, after all, possibly an elephant in the room.

But Joe Hill is his own elephant, without a doubt, and he is essential reading for horror fans and those in search of more literary escapes and inscapes. In fact, I can’t think of any other writer of his generation and genre who I would use as a reference point in exploring horror fiction, particularly American writing.

  1. Excellent review. I had no idea Stephen King had a writer son; it must feel like pretty big shoes to fill. I laughed at your mental image of the antagonist as Mr. Burns. If I ever read N0S4ATU, I’ll be sure to look out for him (“Excellent” *clasps hands*).

    • iainspaton says:

      I don’t want to seem unfair to Joe in terms of his antagonist… NOS4ATU is a great read! But I was a little disappointed not to see more of Charles Manx and his back-story…. the image of Mr Burns popped into my head because of the archaic speech employed by the aged Manx. However, we’re promised further sights of Manx and his car that may explain, entice and horrify. I neglected to mention the theme of parenthood… Joe mentioned this as an inspiration (as a parent) and the struggles of grungy mother Vic in raising her son, and her pursuit of the abductor Manx, are vividly told.

      And, to reiterate – 20th Century Ghosts and Horns are both undeniable modern masterpieces of horror and writing.

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