Horror Is In Joe Hill's Blood. Literally.
About a month ago, writer Joe Hill decided to publicly put a price tag on his own free time. “6 books read so far this year… and have discarded 1 book without finishing,” he wrote for all of his nearly 300,000 Twitter followers to see. “Personal goal: abandon more books without finishing them in 2020. This weird thing, where I have to finish everything I start reading, it’s a misguided impulse. Earn my interest or I gotta go.”
As a frequenter of the paranormal, supernatural, and everything else that’s just plain scary, Hill himself is the writer of four of his own novels, a wide variety of comics, and four more short story collections. The 47-year-old has written quite a bit since his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box was released in 2007; in that time he’s also publicly revealed his identity as the son of one of the most famous authors in the world (Stephen King) and seen four major projects based on his writing become either feature films or TV series.
“It probably happened when I looked in the mirror and saw all the gray in my beard, and realized soon I will be dead,” Hill told Men’s Health about the decision to be less forgiving with his time. “The dread of my own encroaching mortality has made me less patient with the stuff that’s eating up valuable time when I could be doing something I love.”
That philosophy is hard to argue with. When it comes down to it, time is the most valuable currency anyone has; someone should work hard to get any percentage of it, big or small.
In fairness, he says he asks himself the same question about his own writing. “Everyday when you sit down to work, there has to be some part of you that’s asking, why the fuck would anyone care about this?”
6 books read so far this year… and have discarded 1 book without finishing. Personal goal: abandon more books without finishing them in 2020. This weird thing, where I have to finish everything I start reading, it’s a misguided impulse. Earn my interest or I gotta go.
For someone to make that investment in one of Hill’s books it would take a good bit of trust: they aren’t exactly short. His last two novels, NOS4A2 (a modern-day vampire story) and The Fireman (a rather timely epic about the rapid spread of a plague where people spontaneously combust) are both around 700 pages long. In Full Throttle (a short story collection) and Strange Weather (a collection of four novellas), he makes an even more complicated ask to potential readers: stick with me for not just one, but multiple journeys.
“I really feel like in our distracted times, with so much to watch on Netflix, so much to read. So many games to play—I mean, 1000 video games to play—we’re entertaining ourselves to death,” he says. “In that kind of entertainment environment you really have to fight to earn anyone’s attention.”
Hill is currently riding the high of his comic series, Locke & Key, finally making it to television after years of on-and-off development. After the series’ initial five-year run in print for IDW Publishing, Locke & Key was a hot property, albeit one that continued to run into issues along the way. A produced pilot was rejected by FOX in 2011; at one point a series of films were planned by Universal before those too were cancelled; a Hulu pilot was in production and eventually rejected. Finally, the show made its way to Netflix.
Some watching Locke & Key might feel a natural inclination to collate the show to another Netflix Horror/Fantasy mash-up series centered on a group of precocious teens: Stranger Things. But Hill doesn’t feel the need to make that comparison.
“”Everyday when you sit down to work, there has to be some part of you that’s asking, why the fuck would anyone care about this?”
In fact, he counts himself as one of Stranger Things’ biggest fans. When that show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, were film students, they wrote a short film based on one of Hill’s stories, Abraham’s Boys. And his loyalty to their current mega-hit hasn’t waned.
“If I had to name the point of my creative compass, my dad is due north and Steven Spielberg is due south,” he says, making reference to the most obvious points of reference in all three Stranger Things seasons. “And those are two guiding points for my own work. And so to see a series that so embraces their work, and thrives on it is terrifically exciting.“
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Speaking of Dad, son is just as excited as everyone else about some other projects on TV (“The Outsider is sooooo good!” he says at one point). And while Mr. King and Hill both have multiple projects on the air right now (King with The Outsider, Mr. Mercedes, and countless more on the way; Hill with both Locke & Key and AMC’s adaptation of NOS4A2), he sees no reason to feel competitive.
“I mean, me and Dad are on the same team,” he says. “We’re on the same team of people who think that TV shows can have the values of novels; they can have the richness of characterization, and the same kind of emotional depth.”
And when he says he and his very famous father “are on the same team,” well, he’s being pretty literal. Not only have legendary novels been dedicated to Hill, but the pair have literally worked together both recently (in writing short stories like In The Tall Grass and Throttle) and long ago. When Hill made a cameo as a paramedic in the last episode of Locke and Key, it was his first IMDB acting credit since George A. Romero’s Creepshow at just 10 years old—a movie that was, coincidentally, the screenwriting debut of one Stephen King.
The story of how Hill and King together wrote In The Tall Grass has been well documented: Hill had gone down to Florida to spend a week with his parents (mother Tabitha is also a novelist). After being picked up at the airport, the two ended up having a meal at IHOP. Both had just finished working on longer projects, and decided that they would decompress and write a short story over the course of the week; by the time the pancakes arrived, they had figured out the story’s plot.
The pair essentially went back and forth with one another, writing a few pages at a time and sending it over for edits, before adding more. Hill says this echoed a game his family would play when he was a kid, when his father would leave a typewriter locked and loaded with a piece of paper in it; he would write a few sentences on the page, and walk away. That meant it was someone else in the house’s turn; the process continued until the King family had written a collaborative short story.
That sort of quick game would seem to be the type of exercise in idea generation that helps Hill nowadays come up with so many interesting ideas—even the ones that don’t necessarily end up happening. Once he pitched an idea for a “steampunk Terminator,” where the Arnold character went back in time and killed women in the east end of London; this, of course, provided a Tarantino-esque explanation for the infamous legend of Jack the Ripper.
“I mean, me and Dad are on the same team.”
Another idea involved a more-grounded, comic series version of a Chuck Norris horror movie called Silent Rage. But Hill also frequently looks for ways to write horror stories based around something happening in the real world.
While he says he wouldn’t write a story about something like the Coronavirus (after The Fireman, he doesn’t have any interest in doubling up on stories about outbreaks, though he says it’s “probably the scariest thing happening.”), there’s something he’s seeing out in the world that’s starting to plant the seeds of a story: the idea of people who are locked into their beliefs and utterly against anyone who disagrees with them. Take people who think that way and combine them with the social media age, and, well, that might just make for a future Joe Hill story.
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We had a hell of a good time last night at the Somerville Theater. One of the happiest events this cat has ever been part of, basically because my Dad is the best. Thanks to Porter Square Books for hosting us and to everyone who came out to listen to our schtick. Photo courtesy of @GretaLovesM on Twitter.
“There’s a lot of forces in our society that have made it easier to live in your own fortress of personal preferences and beliefs, and on social media, the gloves are off,” he says. “Your distance and your anonymity gives you the power to be just as nasty as you want to be to people who think differently.”
He continues, clarifying that the idea of a stubborn all-knowing attitude is something that’s sort of always been a pillar of people in the American society, but that the internet has certainly amplified it. And as shows like Black Mirror and Watchmen, along with much of Hill’s own work—particularly his short stories in Full Throttle—have shown, the scariest writing is that with roots in our reality.
“Basically what I’m saying here is that the world is burning down around us, but it’s giving me great material for my fiction, so who cares? As long as I’ve got something to write about, that’s the priority,” Hill says with a laugh. “It’s all about priorities.”
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