The author of Horns, about a man who thinks of the devil as the first superhero, has himself been harbouring a very dark secret: that he’s Stephen King’s son
God, says Joe Hill’s antihero in his new novel, Horns, is “an unimaginative writer of popular fictions, someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots”, while the devil “is first a literary critic, who delivers this untalented scribbler the public flaying He deserves”.
Hill has so far managed to avoid any public flayings – although, as the son of horror supremo Stephen King, he might have expected a few cries of nepotism. But then, Hill’s path to publication involved him taking great pains to prevent anyone knowing about his famous father.
Sitting in a Covent Garden hotel, exhausted at the end of a whistle-stop UK book tour, Hill talks of how he started out writing mainstream novels “about divorce and problematic children getting to know their parents”. Unfortunately, though, “they were just boring as hell, they were terrible stories”, and he eventually found himself moving into the fantastical horror for which he is now becoming known.
Pop Art, a sad, surreal tale about a juvenile delinquent becoming friends with an inflatable boy, was the first story he wrote that made him feel like he was in the right place. “That story came about because I got thinking about the phrase pop art, and I thought what if it did? So I wrote a story about an art that can pop,” he says. “My leaping-off point is usually unlikely. Almost every good idea I’ve had began as a thought that made me laugh, and then I’ve gone ‘Hang on a minute, I think I can do something with that’.”
Wasn’t it a little bit irritating, though, to discover that what he wanted to write – what he was good at writing – was exactly what his father was famous for? No, he says emphatically. “I was never worried about what anyone would say because no one knew who I was. So it wasn’t the son of Stephen King writing horror – it didn’t matter that that was what my dad had done. I could do it too because I was this different person.”
It took him 10 years to craft the 15 short stories which he eventually published as 20th Century Ghosts, and he had to convince his agent – who had never met him, and knew him only as Joe Hill – to try and sell the collection. “He said ‘Joe, I’ll try, but short story collections are a very heavy lift.'” He was right: they failed to sell in the US, but Pete Crowther, at tiny UK independent PS Publishing, picked up the book.
Like Hill’s agent, Crowther had no idea that Joe Hill’s full name was Joseph Hillstrom King, but the critical buzz around 20th Century Ghosts built regardless: it won the Bram Stoker award, the British Fantasy award and the International Horror Guild award for best collection, while the story Voluntary Committal won the World Fantasy award for best novella. This helped Hill sell his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box – still under his pseudonym – and he suddenly found himself being asked to meet the public through readings and signings.
“I went out to support it and almost right away fantasy fans began to say, ‘doesn’t he look familiar…?’ And they began to poke at the name: my dad had dedicated a book to Joe Hill King. So then they started to blog about it and discuss it on message boards, and I would contact them methodically and say can you take that off your blog? And they always did – because everyone loved the idea of helping to keep this secret. But I knew once it stole onto the internet that I was stamping on fires, and that I was never going to have enough feet and hands to get them all.”
The secret crept out, but Hill had already achieved his goal: publication for the quality of his work, not the fame of his name. “I just thought there was too much danger that if I wrote as Joe King, a publisher would latch onto a mediocre piece of work and say ‘oh let’s publish this, we can make a quick buck on the last name’, and I felt like that would be a recipe for a really short career,” he says. “Readers might flock to your first book because you have a famous last name, but if the book’s no good they won’t follow you to the second. I wanted to have the longest career I could manage.”
Heart-Shaped Box, which tells the story of a past-it rock star who buys a ghost on the internet, was indeed good enough to keep the readers coming. “A top-notch piece of horror fiction,” said Time magazine. “This book is so visually intense that its energy never flags,” said the New York Times. His second, Horns, is equally compelling, although perhaps not quite as scary (reading Heart-Shaped Box alone at home while drying my hair, I had to keep turning off the hairdryer because I thought there was someone coming up the stairs). It tells the story of Ignatius Perrish, who “spent the night drunk and doing terrible things” to wake the next morning with a headache, a pair of horns and the ability to know people’s worst thoughts and desires. Part horror, part love story, part murder mystery (and also extremely funny), the novel follow’s Ig’s quest to find out who assaulted and murdered his girlfriend Merrin a year earlier, as his horns become progressively more pronounced, and his skin turns a darker shade of red.
When I tell Hill I think Horns is just as much about Ig and Merrin’s romance as it is a horror novel, he shouts with laughter, and reveals that a man posted on his message board to let him know that Horns “was crap: the first 100 pages was a horror novel, then it turned into a love story on me and that’s not what I paid for”. Hill didn’t mind. “I just wrote him back and said that’s OK, hope you find someone you do like, who’s more to your taste. But I wasn’t really hurt by it – I like to write about love and relationships. I think I’ve got plenty of stories in me like Heart-Shaped Box where it’s pedal to the floor, go-for-the-throat horror, but I also think there’s also room to occasionally shift into other modes.”
Just as in Paradise Lost, Horns gets its readers rooting for the bad guy. Who wouldn’t appreciate a man who describes the devil as the first superhero? “‘Think about it,'” cajoles Ig. “‘In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners being held naked in a third-world jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality.'” Someone should really write this: a graphic novel for the Dawkins generation.
Hill is delighted that I’ve picked out this section: a lifelong comic book fan who is also writing his own comic series, Locke & Key, he’s all about the supervillains and adored Stan Lee’s Bring on the Bad Guys as a child. “So I thought who is bad? Whom can I write about who can be really disturbing, but whom I can redeem? And I thought – how about the devil? He’s to blame for everything: wars, disease, cellphones; he’s on the hook for all that’s bad in the world. And I thought, if I can get people to root for him for 200 pages, that would be pretty fun. The book isn’t completely free of notions about religion and morality, but I didn’t want to write a 380-page theological argument. This devil is very much the kind who wanders out of blues and rock’n’roll lyrics.”
Hill – who describes himself as a man with “some religious views but not a big fan of organised religion” – has been asked if he was “worried if the book would catch me flak, that it would be perceived as anti-Christian”, but he doesn’t think it plays that way at all. “I don’t think that many dedicated Christians would enjoy it, but not because the book is anti-Christian. I’m quite certain it isn’t. I think they wouldn’t enjoy it because it’s so filthy … one ungodly perversion after another,” he says, with detectable glee.
Perhaps it’s the tiredness, or perhaps he’s always like this, but Hill’s attention jumps all over the place as we talk. “Did you buy a devil-themed notebook?” he asks, looking at my red-and-black pad, then later, spotting a used pot of mint tea on the table, is inspired by its greenness into a series of rapid-fire questions about absinthe: have I tried it? Do I like it? How’s it made? “Do you think it’s true absinthe used to kill people? I know they’re bringing it back but do you think it’s the real absinthe?” Unfortunately I am no absinthe expert and fail to satisfy.
With a dinner later this evening, a signing tomorrow and a publicity trip to Canada before he heads home to the US, Hill shows no sign of slowing down. Coming to England has been “awesome” for his writing, he says – he’s written 28 pages over the last two days – and his publicist tells me that the two of them will be walking down the street, when Hill will suddenly dart into a comic book shop to check out what’s on offer. Nessie, too, derails us for a while: do I believe in the Loch Ness monster? Hill tells me he’s planning a story about her. Can he say anything about it? Yes, no, yes, no – he hems and haws at high speed. “Maybe I shouldn’t, someone might take it,” he continues to ponder. “I’ll tell you after the interview’s over.” He does: it’s a cracker.