Joe Hill is the author of the horror novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, the short story collection 20th Century Ghost, and the graphic novel series Locke & Key from IDW. His latest novel, NOS4A2, is out now.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
[In case you missed it, Part One of our interview with Joe appeared in our July issue, which is available both in our ebook edition and on our website.—Eds.]
In Part One of our interview, you mentioned that you spent three years on this fantasy novel that never got published. Will we ever see that in any form or will you ever go back to epic fantasy?
I might go back to epic fantasy sometime. If I have the right idea, I’ll write anything. The only thing that I won’t write . . . I get asked a lot of times too about if I’ll ever write something that’s more mainstream, that has no element of fantasy or science fiction or horror in it. And I would, if I had the right idea, if I had an idea I was really excited about.
The one thing that I won’t abandon is suspense, because I believe passionately in suspense being the engine that keeps the reader turning pages. The reader has to want to know what’s going to happen next. You can’t impose on their time and expect them to be interested in something just because you are interested in it. You have to pull them in with the hooks of suspense, and then keep them on the line. For that reason, I wouldn’t write a story about a retired editor living in Connecticut and dealing with his wife leaving him, and his children experimenting with drugs, and his existential crisis, or whatever. That doesn’t do it for me. Because I don’t see why a reader would necessarily think, “Wow, I have to find out what happens in this.” So with that element, I would totally write something with swords and wizards and dragons and elves darting out of the forest and stuff, I guess.
But that particular one is a total loss, I’m getting.
The thing is the most interesting concepts in The Fear Tree found their way into other stories. The underlying concept of The Fear Tree later became the underlying concept of an incomplete novel called, The Surrealist’s Glass which I started to write as the follow-up to Heart-Shaped Box, but I didn’t finish it because it was a terrible novel. That morphed into Horns, and Horns was my third attempt to make the underlying idea work.
Basically the underlying idea was: What if you had a very limited psychic power? What if you could look into someone’s head and see their darkest secrets? Not the good stuff, not the happy memories, but what if you could just open them, and read them for what they hate and what have they done that they’re ashamed of? What if you knew things about other people that the Devil knows about us?
So that became the underlying concept of Horns, and in Horns I was finally able to play that idea out, and it seemed dramatically satisfying.
It seems funny that you mentioned your hypothetical story of the editor: it made me think of the first story of yours that I read which was, “Best New Horror,” about a jaded horror editor—
Who has had the divorce and who has the troubled relationship with his—
There’s a bit more to it than that, but—
Right, but the thing is, this editor has published, for years and years, a book of stories called Best New Horror. He’s published these collections, a yearly roundup of the best horror fiction, and he’s gone from being very passionate about the genre to being kind of burned out, but then he discovers this short story called, “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” that’s really upsetting. A really upsetting and terrifying piece of work written by an unknown, and he becomes fascinated by this writer and tries to track him down to acquire this short story for his collection. That turns out to be very difficult and challenging. There are clues that the reader is picking up on that maybe this writer is not someone you would want to find, but the editor is so lost in his obsession that he’s oblivious to it.
It’s a bit of a meta story: it’s a horror story that’s also a commentary on horror fiction.
Part of the backstory is that a college professor has published “The Buttonboy” in his college literary magazine, and got a bit of blowback on it from the alumni, and so he’s hoping if this editor anthologized this story it would vindicate him in a way. I was just fascinated by all the ways this story explores how people see the horror field and their mixed feelings toward the editor and society, etc.
It was also at a time when I was very angry about the state of horror fiction. Horror fiction at the moment is in great shape, but there was a period in the early double ohs, in the late nineties, when horror sort of fell into an infatuation with torture porn. The Saw franchise became very big. There was a hit with Hostel. And I find most of that stuff kind of . . . yucky . . . I don’t really dig it, it’s not really my thing. I don’t think it’s really all that effective.
Horror is an emotion very closely connected to empathy. Horror doesn’t work until you have characters that you love, and feel emotionally invested in, and then you see them suffer the worst. You’re flinching from it, but you want with all your heart to see them survive, and get out.
I think whether you’re looking at the slasher films of the eighties, or the torture porn that came along later, you do see that sometimes horror fails when it brings on characters that are just ten pins for the bad guy to knock down.
You have the slasher films from the eighties, you had the jock, the slut, the geek girl, the stoner, and these characters are not allowed to be fully-formed: they’re really just one-dimensional, one-note characters. It’s impossible to feel much of anything for them, and you wind up rooting for Freddy Krueger because he has more personality. So when he wipes them out it becomes funny.
You’ve said you think that horror’s in great shape—
Do you think anything’s changed in terms of that set-up: if ever a professor were to publish a horror story in a literary magazine that it would still get that sort of hostile reaction?
I think it might receive that reaction if the story happens to be as thoroughly misogynistic as “Buttonboy” is. The editor would probably be right to get a little bit of grief about it. Freedom of speech is not freedom from responsibility. If you pledge yourself to these odious ideas, you can expect to get some blowback on it.
I think that, though, if you look at horror cinema, or fantasy cinema, or science fiction, when you look at what’s happening in fiction and in publishing and comics, we’re seeing some great stuff right now. Mama was a terrific film with great leads and great scares and a great sense of atmosphere. Warm Bodies was very funny, with a great lead female character. There’s just been a whole lot of really intelligent genre filmmaking and genre writing.
The era of Del Toro and Joss Whedon, with Cabin in the Woods, and the era of Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, has been very good for people who like genre fiction.
I want to go back to “Buttonboy” for a second. Now I’m going to have to go back and reread, but do you see “Buttonboy” as a nasty story that shouldn’t have been published and shouldn’t be anthologized?
I think it’s torture porn, to a degree. I think the editor of Best New Horror is in a mood to be angry with women, because of his divorce. He’s blind to the underlying red flags in that story. There may be some nice, artistic flourishes in that story, there may be some interesting concepts in that story, but ultimately it’s also a story about female degradation, and it’s a little bit skeevy, and certainly very, very upsetting, and you’re not necessarily inclined to root for the female lead. You sort of enjoy seeing her life melt in her own hands. And while it may be genuinely scary in some ways and may have some clever, artistic flourishes, the lead editor on the story who’s an intelligent and decent man, is nevertheless not in a great place mentally as far as his relationship with the opposite sex goes, and that’s why he falls into this trap.
His belief that the story is a masterpiece says more about him than it does about the story, which we only ever get secondhand. We get a summary of the story from his point of view. Our whole impression of that document is very colored by the perspective we’re getting.
Where would you draw that line? There’s certainly female degradation in NOS4A2, right?
To a degree, but I think there’s also male degradation in NOS4A2, and horrifying things happen to men, women, and children. And animals in NOS4A2. It is the nature of the good guys to face terrible pressures and violence and frightening situations. The question is: How are those characters created? Is Vic a cardboard cut-out of a woman, and we’re supposed to enjoy the things she has to endure? Or do we fall in love with her and care about her and feel emotionally invested, and we want to see her fight through? We’re on her side, not the bad guy’s side.
The big warning sign is: Are you being asked to enjoy what the bad guy does? Because if you are, I don’t know exactly how I feel about that story. There can be ghoulish, black humor in some of what Charlie Manx does to, say, Hicks in the hospital.
There’s occasionally room in fiction for the “just desserts” moment that the awful person receives an awful cosmic punishment. Which we wouldn’t really want to see in real life, but in the safe playground of fiction is okay. I’m thinking of the James Bond film where the bad guy first falls off a crane and drops a hundred and twenty feet. Obviously, every bone in his body would be shattered, but they kept him alive to scream when the crane dropped on him. So you actually get to see him die twice. Within the world of the story, it’s kinda funny in a Three Stooges sort of way. It’s okay: there’s room for that.
In an interview I heard you say something that really struck me, that I’d never heard before. You were saying that what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre so scary is not that it is about a madman, but that it makes you feel like it was directed by a madman.
I can’t remember who said that. I think maybe it was Sam Raimi who said that about Tobe Hooper. He was saying the brilliance of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is in persuading you not that it’s a movie about a psychopath, but that it’s a movie directed by a psychopath. That’s not necessarily a bug—that might be a feature, that might be something to strive for.
I want the readers to feel like anything could happen. That they are not just on a rollercoaster, but that they are on a rollercoaster in the dark. They don’t know which way they are about to be snapped or hung upside down or thrown. That’s moving the conversation in a different direction. That’s about genre expectations.
Another way that genre stories can fail is: Something tragic happens, someone dies, and the people who care about him begin to cry. That’s fair enough, that’s a common reaction, but it’s not always that interesting. If you always go for the expected emotional response, you wind up with characters who are kind of trite and not interesting. The truth is, when you get awful news, lots of people don’t cry. Sometimes people just go numb, or they laugh because it seems so unbelievable to them. It can take a while to process your emotions. In my stories, I am trying to find an emotional response that feels true to that character, but maybe isn’t what you would expect. That’s true of plot developments: I never want to zig if that’s what the readers expecting. I’d rather zag.
This goes back to something Joss Whedon said: The storyteller’s job is to figure out what the reader wants the most, and then never give it to them.
I guess how the Tobe Hooper quote connects back to the “Best New Horror” thing in my mind is that I have this conflict because I don’t like torture porn. I don’t like horror stories where the victims are tied to a chair at all, but as a writer, I feel like if the reader knows I don’t like that, knows the story isn’t going to go in that direction, I don’t like that either, because it feels too safe.
You don’t want the reader to ever feel safe. You don’t want the audience to ever feel safe. That’s not healthy for them. They’re there to feel unsafe. That’s why they bought the ticket.
You’re supposed to feel empathy and understanding for the editor of this series who is a flawed guy, and he has a lot of anger issues, and he’s going through a tough time in his life, but he’s not basically a bad person. You can see from his memories of childhood, falling in love with the fiction of Jack Finney and Ray Bradbury, and going to black-and-white horror films. You can see that his love, in many ways, is very pure and understandable: his love of Vincent-Price-style entertainment and everything. He’s just a guy, like so many people, who’s fallen off track a little bit.
He makes this speech at a horror fiction convention about how horror is about caring. Horror fiction when it works is about feeling attached to people. You have a character who’s got to face something monstrous, and you feel invested in them and want them to survive that.
The story is a manifesto. It’s supposed to illustrate the principles that this guy is talking about, and, at the same time, there’s a story within a story, and that’s “Buttonboy,” and “Buttonboy” somewhat subverts or perverts my idea about what makes horror work.
I definitely have to go back and reread that story.
Maybe I do. I may have the thing completely wrong. It’s been a while since I’ve read it. Maybe “Buttonboy” is an awesome story.
You mentioned your graphic novel series, Locke & Key, earlier. Do you want to tell us what that’s about, briefly, just for folks reading this who don’t know what that is?
I started Locke & Key right around the time Heart-Shaped Box came out, and it’s finishing up this year. So, me and my collaborator, Gabriel Rodriguez, have been working on it for about five years, and actually Gabe did illustrations for NOS4A2 as well. Me and Gabe are best friends and have a very close working relationship.
Locke & Key is about a New England mansion called “Key House,” and it’s filled with impossible keys. And each key unlocks a different door and activates a different power or possibility. There’s one key, for example, that unlocks the Gender Door. If you walk through this door and you’re a boy, you turn into a girl; if you’re a girl, you turn into a boy. There’s another key called the Ghost Key, and if you unlock that door, and you walk through the ghost door, your body falls dead, but your spirit can roam free. When your spirit passes back through the door, it rejoins your body. There’s dozens of these keys, and there’s one key that no one should ever use, which is called the Omega Key and opens a door in a cave called the Black Door.
That’s basically the setting and plot of the story. You have a family that has inherited this house, and three kids who find themselves wrestling with the possibility in the keys and fighting off this fiendish creature named Dodge that wants the Omega Key.
In the first collection, there was a boat named after the author Kelly Link. Are you a Kelly Link fan, or what was the story behind that?
I love Kelly Link. I love Kelly’s fiction. You can see a lot of Kelly’s influence in my book of stories, 20th Century Ghosts. The last story, “My Father’s Mask,” that was my outright attempt to see if I couldn’t write a Kelly Link story. She’s better than almost anyone at recreating what dreams feel like in her fiction. I have this thing that I’ve done over the course of my career. Every once in a while, I’ve fallen in love with a story. Instead of reading it once, I’ll read it three times. I read it once for pleasure, a second to familiarize myself with all the elements, and then a third time to reverse-engineer it. And the third time I usually have a highlighter and a pencil in hand. I’ve done that a few times.
The first time I did it was with a short story by Bernard Malamud called “The Jewbird.” As a result of examining that story, I had my first creative breakthroughs, especially with a story called “Pop Art” which is very similar to “The Jewbird.” The two make an interesting pair.
A couple of years later, I read a story called “The Specialist’s Hat” by Kelly Link, and I did the same thing. I picked it apart and did a kind of anatomy on it. I haven’t done it so much with novels, although recently I’ve done it with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell which, I think, is probably the novel that has most impressed me in the last decade.
You mentioned that you’re in the process of wrapping up Locke & Key, and you mentioned the Wraith comic that you’re working on: what other sorts of graphic projects do you have planned for the future?
Gabe and I just got approved for doing a Cape title by one of those big two comic companies. Beyond that, I’m not allowed to say because it won’t happen for a while, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about it yet. Gabe still has two and a half issues of Locke & Key left to draw, and both of those issues are thirty-two page issues, so he actually has what’s more like almost four issues left to draw.
I have another secret IDW project that I’ll be doing late, late in the year. I have a new novel going, and I’ve got it about two-thirds written. I would probably finish it next month if I wasn’t going to be on the book tour for NOS4A2. My primary focus is getting that next book written.
Is there anything you could tell us about that?
The title’s The Fireman. Besides that, I can’t say anything else.
Years ago, John and I went to a horror film festival, and we saw short film adaptations of your stories “Pop Art” and “Abraham’s Boys,” which were both really good. I was just wondering what’s the story behind those, and what do you think of them?
It would be a shame if I didn’t mention that “Pop Art,” which was filmed a couple years ago, is now going to be available on the iTunes store. It’s the first time people have been able to get it, to just pay for it and buy it.
“Pop Art” was something that came about before Heart-Shaped Box was published. I had had a small press edition of my first book of stories, 20th Century Ghosts, published in England. One copy of the book found its way to the hands of a woman named Amanda Boyle. She read it, and was deeply, deeply, deeply into “Pop Art,” really responded to it. She wrote me the world’s nicest letter and said, “I want to do this a short film.” I said, “Go for it!”
She got some work from the Henson puppeteers to create art, and she did an eleven-minute short, and it came out really well. It’s a little bit weird because my story is very American, and in her short film, you have kids playing cricket.
To give readers context, I guess we should say that the first line of the story is, “My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.”
The plot of “Pop Art” is very straightforward. It’s about the friendship between a juvenile delinquent and Arthur Roth, an inflatable boy. Arthur is made of plastic and is filled with air, and he weighs about six ounces. If he sat on a sharpened pencil or a pair of scissors, it would kill him, but otherwise Art tries to be a fairly normal kid. He loves astronomy; he’s a book worm; and the two of them grow close.
The short film is about eleven minutes, and it came out really well, and I think it’s great now people have a chance to get it.
“Abraham’s Boys” was another short story in that book, and that’s the story of Abraham Van Helsing and his unpleasant relationship with his two sons. That was directed by a film school grad in California, Dorothy Street. It’s a terrific-looking piece of work. It looks like an episode of Tales from the Darkside. It has a very kind of Spielberg look to it. That’s never been commercially released. I think it’s played in a few festivals.
So what other works of yours can we expect to see adapted to film or television in the future?
There are two things in the works. The one thing that I’m really excited about, and hope it will come out well, is an adaptation of my second novel, Horns, the story of a young guy who goes on a drunken bender and wakes up the next morning with a pair of horns growing out of his head. And he discovers he’s inherited all the powers of the Devil. That’s been adapted into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe and directed by Alexandre Aja, who did High Tension. They’ve got the film edited into rough cut, and that will be scheduled for release either the very end of this year or the beginning of the next one. I have not seen it yet, but the footage that I have seen is very powerful.
The other thing is that there are still ongoing talks about Locke & Key being done as a series of films. It’s too early to say exactly what’s going to happen there. Locke & Key was adapted as a TV series for Fox, and Mark Romanek filmed the pilot episode working from a script from Josh Friedman, who was the showrunner and lead writer for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I thought the pilot was great. Fox passed over it. They decided to stick with Alcatraz and Terra Nova. Insert your own Terra Nova joke there.
Maybe they made the right choice for them. I don’t know. The complaint that I heard about it was that it was too dark. I think, given the success of American Horror Story and Dexter, and Fox is going with this one with Kevin Bacon called The Following that’s a serial killer show, and now Hannibal has a series, and Bates Motel has a series, I would say that the idea that Locke & Key was too dark for television was probably a bit of a dodge, but it didn’t work out.
It’s probably harder to get a successful TV show off the ground than anything else in entertainment. It’s a little bit like entertainment musical chairs. All these pilots get produced. A network like Fox, they have, like, six new pilots and only two slots to put them in, so getting a chair is as much luck as anything else.
Well, Fox only has so much room on their schedule; they have a certain quota of Gordon Ramsay shows they have to have on the air at any given time.
I don’t diss Fox too hard for it. I loved that pilot, and I’m really sorry, largely for budgetary reasons, that it couldn’t get picked up on cable. We’ll see what happens. It may be that Locke & Key plays better as a series of movies, that it requires a different scale. We’ll see.
[After we conducted the interview, the news broke that Universal Studios had optioned Locke & Key for film, with Star Trek (2009) producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman attached.—ed.]
I saw that you’re going to be this year’s guest of honor at World Fantasy in Brighton. Do you attend a lot of conventions? Have you done the guest of honor thing pretty often?
I’ve never been a guest of honor anywhere. I think I was a guest of dishonor at the World Horror Convention a couple of years ago down in Austin, and that was a lot of fun, that was great. I’ve done the comic conventions and the fantasy and horror conventions, and they each have different pleasures, and can be a good time. I’m looking forward to going out to the World Fantasy Convention. I’m also looking forward to WFC because hopefully Richard Matheson will be there. I’ve never had a chance to meet him, and I revere his work, so that would be terrific.
You actually wrote a story called “Throttle” that is riffing on Matheson’s story “Duel,” right?
There was a book a few years ago called He is Legend, which was an anthology of stories based on the work of Richard Matheson, sort of riffing off his ideas. I actually collaborated with my dad on that. I’d never collaborated with my dad on anything before. We wound up writing a story together that riffed on Richard Matheson’s classic “Duel.” “Duel” is a short story about a man on the highways of California being relentlessly pursued by a faceless trucker. It was later made into a film—Steven Spielberg’s first. It was a made-for-TV film and terrifically well-executed. You can see a lot of the gambits that Spielberg employed in Jaws are on display first in Duel. It’s a terrific work of suspense.
When I was a little kid, my dad had a video disc player. Not a DVD player. This was pre-DVD players. It was actually almost pre-videotape players, and the summer my dad brought home a video disc player, he also brought home three movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, and Duel. We watched those three films over and over and over again. The whole experience of rewatching a film was amazing. Just this total life-changing, wow moment, but we all take it for granted now. But there was a time in my childhood when if you saw a film in the movie theaters that was probably the last time you ever saw it. So the idea that you could rewatch a film was amazing. And when we would go out for drives, we would play the Duel game. I would make truck noises and pretend that we were being chased, and we would try to figure out how we would throw off the faceless trucker. So, in that way, writing the story “Throttle” was just an extension of the game we had been playing when I was a little kid.
All right, so that does it for our questions. Is there any other project or anything else you would like to mention?
No, not that I can think of. I think we’ve covered all the stuff that’s coming out, and I’m reluctant to talk about the stuff I’m working on. You start to blab about the stuff you’re working on, and it uses up all your energy to actually write it, so it’s better to sort of play things close to the vest. I’m hoping to do a little work in TV sometime in the next year. That might be fun. The only genre/form I haven’t had a chance to get into is video games, so maybe that’s next. I’ve done short stories and comics and a little screenwriting, maybe I need to get into video games. I’ll see. I don’t know. I don’t know how open video games are to a literary approach, but I do want to try.
Spread the word!