Interview: Joe Hill
May 20, 2013 10:08 a.m.
Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts Reporter
Joe Hill, Author of "NOS4A2"
Related Story: Joe Hill On His New Book 'NOS4A2'
ALISON ST. JOHN: Joe Hill is the author of two novels, Heart-shaped Box and Horn. He has a collection of short stories. 20, Surgery (inaudible) and a comic book series Lock and Key. His new novel is literally called NOS482. Hill is an award-winning writer and also the son of famed horror novelist Stephen King. Hill came to San Diego last week for a book signing at mysterious galaxy bookstore. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando spoke with the author himself.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I'm outside Mysterious galaxy where author Joe Hill did a book signing. I'm about to go inside and find out what it is people like about Joe Hill as a writer.
NEW SPEAKER: To me what stands out about his writing to me as he does not focus on visceral scares. Joe Hill is able to bring in a mental approach to his or her writing, which is something that a lot of horror writers moderately ignore.
NEW SPEAKER: My name is Vincent Kirkville. I like how visceral it is. Like how he creates a world that you are instantly a part of. From the first page. He establishes a world so clearly that it is fully believable and immersive and I love that.
NEW SPEAKER: My name is Christy, my favorite book is Horns. It's about a guy who wakes up from a really bad hangover and he's growing a pair of horns on his head. It's great, the writing is crisp.
NEW SPEAKER: My name is Joshua Napier. I love Joe Hill's work. I think he's a beautiful writer. I discourage anybody from comparing him to his father. And yet I just think he is twisted and dark but also his books have such a macabre beauty to them that anybody should go out and read them.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Those are fans of Joe Hill at the mysterious galaxy book signing at Kearny Mesa. I'm Beth Accomando, KPBS Arts reporter and I'm speaking with Joe Hill. I want to ask you about the title of your book, but since I'm someone who tends to sit behind cars baffled by their license plates, I want you to it introduce the book.
JOE HILL: The title is NOS 42 which is a vanity license plate on the bad guys automobile and if you spell it out. It spells Muster onto which is the German word for vampire.
BETH ACCOMANDO: In this case was the title came to in the story or the story came first?
JOE HILL: The title came to me fairly early in the book is full of wordplay and puzzles and I wanted the title to represent that in some way. He wanted the title to force the reader to stop them sort of scratch their heads and say what the heck is that and I think readers enjoy that sort of thing.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Can you fill in a little bit as to what the story is about so I don't you give us a thumbnail of what the novel is about.
JOE HILL: Nosferatu, or NOS482 is about a wicked man with a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. This man, Charlie makes has survived by over a century by taking his passengers, usually children on long drives and over the course of the life he dreams of something essential from them, some essential life force and when he's done with them. There's nothing left except (inaudible) and teeth, and he takes the kids who are now monstrous and drops them in this horrible amusement park called Christmas land. So, that is the villain of the story, and he's used the energy from them that the car sucks out of them to keep himself young and he's opposed by a woman named Victoria McQueen, who has an likely impossible right of her own name triumph Bonneville motorcycle which can warp reality. Charlie makes, uses his right to destroy lives, Victoria McQueen uses are powerful right to save lives and the two of them find themselves in opposition across 25 years and thousands of miles.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Can you give us a little sample of your book, read a little something from it
JOE HILL: Sure, this is really on the story. There's a nurse named Ellen Thornton, who works in a secure hospital wing where they keep comatose patients from a super max prison and one of the prisoners is Charlie makes. In all the time. She'd been working at FCI Englewood in the super max prison infirmary. Ellen had never seen Charlie Manx with his eyes open. She'd been on staff for three years and he'd been comatose all that time. He was a free list of her patients a Frankel code fragile code of skin with bones inside his heart monitor would like a metronome set to the lowest possible speed the doctor said he had as much brain activity is a can of creamed corn. Nobody ever determined his age but he looked older than Keith Richards he even looked a little like Keith Richards about Keith which a mouth full of sharp little brown teeth. There were three other, patients on the ward which the staff called quarks. When you are around long enough, you learned all the quirks had their quirks. John Henry Damien who burned his girl and her kids to death went for walk sometimes. Of course, but his feet peddled weakly from under the sheets. There was a guy named Leonard who had been in a coma for five years and was never going to wake up. Another prisoner had jammed a screwdriver to his school and into his brain. But sometimes he cleared his throat and which outline now as if you were a small child who wanted to answer. The teacher's question. Maybe opening his eyes was makes his work and she just never caught him doing it before. Hello Mr. makes, Allen said automatically, how are you feeling today? She's mouthing meaningless smile and hesitated, still holding the sack of body temperature blood. He caught her wrist she screamed. Couldn't help it. And drop the back of blood. It hit the floor and exploded in a crimson dash the hot spray drenching her feet. She cried, “come it smelled like fresh port I. Your blame, Josiah, Charlie Manx said to her, his voice grating and harsh, there's a place for him in Christmas land with the other children. I could give them a new life. I could give them a nice smile. I could give him nice new teeth.
BETH ACCOMANDO: That's great. I like the way it both creates some horrific images, but also there is a sense of humor going on to some of the description as well.
JOE HILL: When I was a kid all the posters in my walls were torn out of a magazine called (inaudible) which was dedicated to celebrating the art of the gross out special effects artists of the 80s, the guys who did the effects for Friday the 13th and Alien. And I've always felt a sort of spiritual affinity for the special effects guys and I find it interesting that in that business, in the business of disturbing special effects, they call a particular fact like the alien bursting out of someone's chest a gag. I think that is significant, because I do think that there is a very fine line between horror and humor. If you see Larry hit Moe with a hammer, you laugh. If you see Charlie Manx beating someone with a hammer, you scream. It's the same scene, it's just played differently.
BETH ACCOMANDO: I'm speaking with author Joe Hill. You grew up also with comics and there's a tradition of horror in comics. Did comics influence you at all in terms of how you view horror and your interest in it?
JOE HILL: Comics are known as the medium that explore the adventures of men in tights and capes but when I was a kid I didn't read those comics. The comics I read were the ones written by Neil (Gaymon) and his groundbreaking series the Sandman and Alan Moore, who had a remarkable run on or series called Swamp thing about it pilot talking mouse, and also my father had a hardcover collection of tales from the crypt, the notorious comic from the 50s about the crypt keeper, and the old witch and it was an anthology series telling. Stories of the grotesque and the horrifying. It was wonderful. Just, it absolutely captured my 13-year-old imagination. Comics originally in the 30s and 40s and 50s, they always, superheroes were always popular, but I think in nearly days. They were just as well known as a place to read stories of crime, suspense and horror. What happened in the late 50s was the congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency led to a connection in the popular mind between the horror comics and the boys acting out. And as a result, the comics code was invented and comics are cleaned up. And I think that that was a great disaster and the repetition of the comic book industry to the state has not really fully recovered. This is an issue which is personal to me because I write an ongoing comic series called lock and key. Lock and Key is about a 250-year-old New England mansion filled with impossible magical keys. Each key has a separate power and there is one key that no one should ever use called the Omega key and naturally there's a beastie that wants to get his hand on it.
BETH ACCOMANDO: One thing I was wondering when you are working in the comic book form how do you build tension and suspense in the sense that you have these page turns where you can kind of surprised some in because they are not seeing what is coming next. Visually and I'm wondering if you use that in particular way when you are writing a comic?
JOE HILL: Absolutely, Neil (Gaymon) one said when he was talking about short stories, books, movies, all the different forms that Neil writes it he said at one point he felt the most certain of his power when he was writing a comic book form because he felt that he had utter mastery over the reader's eye. At any one time, he knew what the writer, the reader was looking at and I think that is the key role you want to be aware of what that reader is seeing and when and you can use that to create tension and suspense. So, for example every time you turn a page to the next even-numbered page. You are turning to ever feel that can potentially be a jarring surprise or something, Jack-in-the-Box waiting to leap out at the reader. But you can go even further than that. Because the reader turns the page. They have a tendency to look at the first panel but not the second. So if the first panel does not have a revealed the second panel. The test can be even more shocking because the reader started to relax. The think okay, nothing terrible happened yet on oh, oh got there it is.
BETH ACCOMANDO: You work in horror, which is a genre that is sometimes maligned or not taken seriously, but what you think makes for good horror?
JOE HILL: Or it's the sensation that comes over you when you found a character you really care about. Someone who seems emotionally satisfying and interesting, someone with a history, someone with regrets, someone who is a little bit of a puzzle to solve. A character you are interested in and you see the character forced to struggle with the worst, faced with terrifying darkness and you feel empathy for them. And that's a very humane emotion. When our fails it is because it never asks you to feel that emotion and instead asks you to sympathize with Freddy Krueger or the guys running the hostel. The diabolical killer and saw who puts people in his sort of ridiculous razor wire mouse traps, just to watch them get sliced up. I like to root for the bad guys. I like to root for the good guys.
BETH ACCOMANDO: You have a famous father Stephen King. I wanted to ask you recently we just saw David Cronenberg's son just made a film, Brandon Cronenberg made Antiviral you see the family connection but you do not sense that this is a son working in his father's shadow and there's a bit of that with you, that you've kind of ended up in a similar, same shot as your father, there's like a family gene going on there, but very distinct and different styles and I'm wondering what kind of influence did your father have ended you feel summer you are destined to work in the genre?
JOE HILL: For a long time I was scared of my debts influenced and wanted desperately to carve out my literary identity and one of the things I did when I was in college as I did some thinking about my last name and finally decided to drop it for professional purposes. So instead of being Joseph King, I became Joe Hill and I submitted all my work anonymously. My first breakthrough story was a short restart street called pop art about the friendship between a juvenile delinquent and inflatable boy named Arthur rock he weighs 6 ounces and a sharpened pencil would kill him and I have so much fun writing that story and I sent it out and the third place I sent it to bought it. As soon as I started to write stories of dark fantasy, it was like the key turning in the ignition. And the car came to life and suddenly I was moving.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Do you think to be a good horror writer you need to in some way shape or form embrace the darkness?
JOE HILL: I don't know if I can precisely as the question but I tell you what, we read nonfiction to resolve questions that have concrete answers. We read fiction to address questions that do not have concrete answers. For example, what happens to us when we die. Another question that we ask ourselves is, what will it be like when I finally have to face my own death. What would it be like to have to face a bad death. Most of us are probably not going to be devoured by Hannibal Lecter but some of us would be devoured by cancer. I think we go to fiction because fiction is a safe playground to explore questions that are scary. Basic monsters, facing inevitability of our own death is scary but it's a safe playground affection when instead of cancer. It is Hannibal Lecter we can have some fun with it and maybe at the same time we learn something about how we want to be when we have to face our own dark moments and in that sense I think fiction can be preparation for the harder passages in life. And so in that way. I think that fiction is one of our more positive intentions.
ALISON ST. JOHN: one last thing. Is there anything that scares you still?
JOE HILL: You know, I'm a father. I have three boys, and I think what scares me is bad things happening to them. In some ways, the new book NOS482 is about the terror of parenting. Vic McLean is a young mother and has carried as the bogeyman in the closet is that's nothing compared to how frightening it is to be a young parent and to see all the ways and all the knives. The world has in wait for your child and to try to figure out how best you can protect them from the most serious injuries, whether it's physical injury or emotional injury or whatever. So, that is the thing that I live with, like every can.
BETH ACCOMANDO: Well, I want to thank author Joe Hill. Thank you for being here.
JOE HILL: Thanks so much for having me on.
ALISON ST. JOHN: Joe Hill's NOS482 just came out. You can listen to the full interview online at our website KPBS.org.