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Author Joe Hill On NOS4A2 And Horror

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With AMC's "NOS4A2" renewed for a second season Cinema Junkie digs into the archives for a 2013 interview with author Joe Hill at the KPBS studios. He talks about his best-selling novel, horror, and comics. Plus he reads a selection from his novel and we'll hear from fans about what they love about his writing.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 I was hoping to start by having you answer a question for me. Who was Charlie max? Kelly Banks isn't a real man. He doesn't drive a real car or live in the real world. He lives in Christmas.

Speaker 2: 00:23 He steals Kates and tastes him there. Dick McQueen's, not like the others. She's needs to get punish. Naughty girl. You caused all kinds of problems. We'll fight Christmas. I'm going to burn it to the ground. You will be the one to burn.

Speaker 1: 00:53 Past June, AMC launched an adaptation of Joe Hill's novel, Nosferatu starring Zachary Quinto is Charlie [inaudible] and Ashley Cummings as Vic McQueen. Ben at comic con, they announced the green light for a second season. Do you know what happens to those who can find their way off? I'm not even, I'm Beth Armando. This is listener supported KPBS cinema junky podcast.

Speaker 2: 01:29 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 01:29 I had a chance to speak with author Joe Hill in 2013 when he came to mysterious galaxy bookstore for a signing of his novel Nosferatu. But before playing my interview, let's hear from a few of his fans who came to get their book signed at mysterious galaxy. I'm Tom Davis. And what stands out about Joe Hill's writing to me is that he doesn't focus too much on you. Like visceral scares. Joe Hill is able to bring a more mental approach to his horror writing, which is something that a lot of horror writers modernly ignore. My name is Vincent Kirk. I'm from Chino, California. I like how visceral it is. I like how he creates a world that you're instantly a part of from the first page. He establishes a world so clearly that it's fully believable and an immersive, and I love that. My name is Christie. My favorite book is horns.

Speaker 1: 02:25 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 writings. Chris. My name's Joshua Napier. I love Joe Hill's work. I think he's a beautiful writer. I discourage anybody from comparing him to his father. Uh, and yeah, I just think he's twisted and dark, but also his books have such a, um, McCobb beauty to them that, um, anybody should go out and read him. Hopefully that whetted your appetite to hear from author Joe Hill, who if you don't already know is the son of fellow horror novelist Stephen King.

Speaker 3: 03:00 Don't be frightened or scared away, but we have to take a short break and then I'll be back with my interview. That includes Hill reading, a favorite selection from his book since I'm one of those people who sits behind cars and tries to figure out what their license plates are saying. Um, I'd like to, have you introduced the title of your book?

Speaker 4: 03:22 Yeah. The title of the new book is nos four 82, which is the vanity license plate on the bad guy's automobile. And if you sound it out, it spells Nosferatu which is the German word for vampire.

Speaker 3: 03:36 So in this case, was this a title that came to you first and then the story or did the story come first?

Speaker 4: 03:42 The title came to me fairly early on. Uh, the book is full of wordplay and puzzles and I wanted the title to represent that in some way. I wanted the title to force the reader to stop and, and sort of scratch their heads and say, what the heck is that? Now when the book was creeping close to publication, there was a lot of discussion about whether we should stick with that title or not. There was some argument for calling the book race because my bad guy drives in 1938 rolls Royce Wraith and I kind of didn't like that because I thought it was trying too hard to be Ooh, spooky. So that was talked about. We talked about Christmas land because my villain takes his kidnap passengers to an evil place called Christmas land. And I thought that would be great if we, if we were going to release the book in the, you know, the last two weeks of December, but not so good in may.

Speaker 4: 04:29 And it would also give the false impression that the book is a Christmas book, which it's not. Most of it takes place in summers. So in the end I kind of fought for the title, which I thought, you know, I thought was intriguing and challenging. And that was something that when people figure it out, they have some fun with. It's kinda like when you look at one of these pictures of a vase and then suddenly you realize it's two faces looking at looking at each other. Um, it's, it's a, it's a trick and I think readers kind of enjoy that sort of thing.

Speaker 3: 04:56 All right. You've hinted a little bit as to what the story's about, so why don't you give us a little thumbnail

Speaker 4: 05:01 of what this novels about? Yeah. Nosferatu or nos. 42 is about a wicked man with a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. This man, Charlie Manx has survived for over a century by taking his passengers, usually children on long drives. And in the course of these drives, he drained something essential from them, some essential life force. And when he's done with them, there's nothing left except hate and teeth. And he takes those kids who are now monstrous and drops them in this horrible amusement park called Christmas land. So that's the villain of the story. And he's easy. Use that 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 unlikely impossible ride of her own, a triumph Bonneville motorcycle, which can warp reality. Charlie Manx uses his ride to destroy lives.

Speaker 4: 06:00 Victoria McQueen uses her powerful ride to save lives, and the two of them find themselves in opposition across 25 years and thousands of miles. Can you give us a little sample of your book? Read a little something from it? Yeah, sure. This is from early on in the story. There's a nurse named Ellen Thorton who works in a secure hospital wing where they keep comatose patients from a supermax prison. And one of these prisoners is Charlie Manx. In all the time she'd been working at FCI Englewood in the supermax prison infirmary. Ellen had never seen Charlie Manx with his eyes open. She had been on staff for three years and he had been comatose all that time. He was the frailest of her patients, a fragile code of skin with bones inside his heart monitor, blip like a metronome set to the slowest possible speed. The doc said he had his much brain activities that can of creamed corn.

Speaker 4: 06:53 No one had ever determined his age, but he looked older than Keith Richards. He even looked a little like Keith Richards, a bald Keith with a mouth full of sharp little Brown teeth. There were three other coma patients in the ward. What the staff called Goertz when you're around them long enough, you learn that all the Gortz had their quirks. Don Henry, the man who burned his girl and her kids to death went for walks sometimes he didn't get up of course, but his feet peddled weekly under the sheets. There was a guy named Leonard pot who'd been in a coma for five years and was never going to wake up. Another prisoner had jammed a screwdriver through his skull and into his brain, but sometimes he cleared his throat and when shout, I know as if you were a small child who wanted to answer the teacher's question.

Speaker 4: 07:39 Maybe opening his eyes was Manx his quirk and she just never caught him doing it before. Hello, mr Manx. Ellen said automatically, how are you feeling today? She smiled, a meaningly smile and hesitated, still holding the sack of body temperature blood. He caught her wrist, she screamed, couldn't help it and drop the bag of blood. It hit the floor and exploded. And a Crimson gush. The hot spray drenching her feet. Ah, she cried. Ah. Oh God. It smelled like fresh poured iron. Your boy, Josiah. Charlie Mack said to her, his voice grading and harsh. There is a place for him in Christmas land with the other children. I could give him a new life. I could give him a nice new smile. I could give him nice new teeth

Speaker 3: 08:31 that was authored Joe Hill reading a selection from his novel Nosferatu that was recently turned into an AMC series one last break and I'll be right back with Joe Hill talking about the mix of horror and humor in his writing. I like the way it both creates some horrific images, but also there's a sense of going on through

Speaker 4: 08:56 some of the description as well. Yeah. When I was a kid, all the posters on my walls were torn out of a magazine called Fangoria, which was dedicated to celebrating the art of the gross out special effects artists of the eighties the guys who did the effects for Friday the 13th and alien, and I've always felt a kind of spiritual affinity with the gross out effects guys. Dudes like Tom Savini and Rob bought-in and Stan Winston and I. I find it interesting that in that business, in the business of disturbing special effects, they call a particular effect like the alien bursting out of someone's chest, a gag. And I think that's significant because I do think that there's a very fine line between horror and humor. If you see Mo beating curly with a hammer, you laugh. If you see Charlie Manx beating someone with a hammer, you scream.

Speaker 4: 09:50 It's the same scene. It's just played differently. You grew up also with comics and there's a tradition of horror in comics. How did comic books influence you at all in terms of how you viewed horror and your interest in it? When I was a kid, uh, I w I had a very comic book imagination and all the writers that really mattered to me came out of the world of comic books. And to this day, comics are largely known as a medium that explores the adventures of men in tights and capes. But when I was a kid, I didn't really read those comics. The comics I read were the ones being written by Neil Gaiman and he, you know, his groundbreaking series Sandman and Alan Moore, who had had a remarkable run on a horror series called swamp thing, about a pile of talking Moss. And also my father had a hardcover collection of tales from the crypt, the notorious comic from the 50s, uh, about the crypt keeper.

Speaker 4: 10:40 And, um, the old witch and it was an anthology series, uh, telling various stories of the grotesque and the horrifying was wonderful. Just it was absolutely, absolutely captured. You know, my 13 year old imagination comics originally in the 30s and forties and 50s, they always, superheroes were always popular, but I think in their early days it's fair to say that they were just as well known as a place to read stories of crime, suspense and horror. What happened in the late fifties was the congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency led to a connection in the popular mind between the horror comics and little boys acting out. And as a result, the comics code was invented and comics were cleaned up and a horror comics largely disappeared. Lots of artists and writers were driven out of the business and there wasn't an as an art form, it nearly died. It had kind of a near death experience.

Speaker 4: 11:37 I would just note as an aside that the congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency that attacked the horror comics prefigured every single cultural battle that we have had in the decades sense, everything they said about the horror comics was then repeated about. Elvis was later repeated about slasher films in the 80s about Marilyn Manson in the 90s about call of duty and video games. Now when we want to blame something besides guns, we turn to whatever seems like the most outrageous form of entertainment because it's easier to say the comic books are the problem, not ready access to semiautomatic weapons and high capacity clips or, or you know, whatever else caused the latest catastrophe. Well, it's interesting to think what might've happened to comics in the United States if that hadn't happened. When we look to Japan, which has [inaudible], uh, you know, have developed along a completely different way than our comic book tradition has the government stepped in and use their power to destroy the comic book industry as an adult business, as a place where you could discover adult art, where someone over the age of 13 could potentially be entertained.

Speaker 4: 12:50 And I think that that was a great disaster. And the reputation of the comic book industry to this day has not really fully recovered. Um, this is an issue which is pretty personal to me because I write an ongoing comic series called lock and key. It's a horror comic. It's very much coming from the same emotional place is tales from the crypt and also the children of tales from the crypt, which would be Sandman and swamp thing. And some of the adult horror vertigo comics that appeared in the 1990s lock and key is the story of a 250 year old new England mansion filled with impossible magical keys. Each key has a separate power and there's one key that no one should ever use. A called the Omega key. And naturally there's a Beastie that wants to get his hands on it. Well, I wanted to ask you about locking key because that's being done by IDW, which is a San Diego company.

Speaker 4: 13:39 Yeah. So how did you get hooked up with them and how did you get that series going? Well before it was a published novelist, I actually was a comic book writer and my biggest breakthrough was getting a chance to write an 11 page story for Spiderman for Marvel comics. I had written a number of short stories, some had won prizes and been in best of collections and a talent scout at Marvel spotted one of my stories and said, would you be interested in writing short stories but about men in masks punching each other? And I said, sure. Because I desperately craved an audience and I felt, well, I could keep writing the kind of short stories I'm already writing. But if I made Spiderman the protagonist, instead of having 300 readers, I'd have 30,000 so I did one story for Marvel comics that wasn't terribly good. I followed that story with several pitches, ideas for ongoing series.

Speaker 4: 14:32 I remember I did one about baby Hulk because at the time I had a two year old and I found his tantrums fairly terrifying. And I thought, what if he was strong enough so that instead of throwing a plastic truck at me, he could throw an actual pickup? And I remember that was turned down, lock and key was one of the other pitches which was passed on initially by Marvel. But about a year later, IDW had also noticed some of my short stories and had asked about adapting them. And I told them, no, no wait, I've got something better for you. And I pitched them on lock and key and I told them I could finish the whole thing in six issues. And they actually believed me. And of course, as you know, as a result, I started running the series and now we're almost 40 issues in and [inaudible]

Speaker 3: 15:15 now you were talking about these keys and one of the keys opens the head of the character and allows you to look in which has a certain kind of, it can have potentially terrifying.

Speaker 4: 15:25 So key house in Lovecraft, Massachusetts is full of these enchanted keys and every key has a different power. So for example, there's one key called the gender key. And you can, you can stick it in it's door and open the door. And if you're a boy and you walk through, you turn into a girl. If you're a girl on walk through your turn into a boy, there's another door called the ghost store. And if you walk through it, your body falls dead and your spirit continues on without you and you can fly around and do the things NGOs do. And then you can reenter the house and jump back into your body. In some ways you could argue the most powerful, the keys that the one you just mentioned, the head key. This is a key that you can stick into a lock that appears in the back of your neck, a keyhole that appears in the back of your neck and you can twist it and the whole top of your head and disappears.

Speaker 4: 16:09 And you can look down into the inner landscape of your mind, a world populated by all the stuff you care about, all your dreams and memories, all the things that matter to you, your regrets, phone numbers, books you've read. And you can take things out and put things in. So if you want to read a book in a hurry, you can just grab it and stick it right into your head. You know? And I always thought that would be wonderful because I'm a guy who reads really slowly and if I had the head key I could probably have a couple of hundred. I could have as many books as I wanted.

Speaker 3: 16:40 Talk a little bit about the difference between writing pros for a novel and writing for a comic book where you know that your words are going to be accompanied by illustrations. In some ways it's the difference between writing, writing a

Speaker 4: 16:51 play and writing a Shakespearian sonnet. The comic book form, the 22 page comic book form is has a very formal construction and a lot of readers, most readers and even some writers, aren't really aware that it has a very formal set of rules that are rarely discussed. But are there an underlie? The surface readers are not aware of the rules except when they're broken and when they're broken. The reader kind of recoils and goes, wow, that comic was really lousy and didn't make sense. I don't know why it just didn't work. Um, and it's because the writer, uh, step left when they should've stepped, right? They didn't understand the way to frame things so that it suits the construction of that 22 page comic novels are more open, open-ended and writers have to bring their own structure to them. And in some ways I think that the greatest challenge of any novel is figuring out its underlying structure.

Speaker 4: 17:47 Because there is, well there are some prefab constructions, there are, you know, cozy cat mysteries have certain certain elements, certain aspects, the hard-boiled detective thriller, these things, we think of these things as cliches because they have an underlying architecture that has been used and reused and reuse so many times that they become kind of like ranch houses in the suburbs where you know, you can go into a development and every house looks the same. Every hard-boiled private detective novel kind of looks the same because they're all using the same underlying architecture. But I think most novelists discover themselves if they're trying to do anything, even vaguely original find themselves forced to invent a unique structure, a structure that could only exist for that particular story. Um, and that's, that's in some ways that's why novels are so hard to write.

Speaker 3: 18:37 Well, one thing I was wondering too, when you're working in the comic book form, how do you build tension and suspense in the sense of you have these page turns where you can kind of surprise someone because they're not seeing what's coming next visually. And I'm wondering if you use that in any particular way when you're writing a comic.

Speaker 4: 18:55 Absolutely. Neil Gaiman once said, when he was talking about short stories, comic books, movies, all the different forms that Neil writes in, he did say at one point that he felt the most certain of his power when he was working in a comic book form because he felt that he had utter mastery over the reader's eye at any one time. He always knew what the reader was looking at. And I think that that's the key rule is you want to be aware of what the reader is seeing when and then 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're turning to a reveal. There can potentially be a jarring surprise there. Something a Jack in the box waiting to leap out at the reader. But you can go even further than that because when the reader turns the page, they have a tendency to look at the first panel but not the second.

Speaker 4: 19:49 So if the first panel doesn't have a reveal than the panel, the second panel that does can be even more shocking because the reader started to relax. They started to think, Oh, okay, nothing terrible happened yet. Oh God, there it is. I think sometimes novelists drift into writing comic books because they think it will be easy and fun and they wind up writing something that deeply unsatisfying because, uh, they just writing a novel with pictures and it's, you get something that's very stiff on the page and they don't understand the way that each panel shows only a frozen moment in time. So you can only show one action taking place. You can't show multiple actions all taking place. You can't show time passing writers. Sometimes wrestle with that. Maybe I didn't have to struggle with that so much because my working sort of base of knowledge, the ground under my creative feet has always been comic books.

Speaker 4: 20:40 Uh, even, you know, even when I was first writing short stories, I was always reading comic books and thinking about comic books and the way they were structured, being inspired by comic book writers, not just Neil and Alan Moore, but more recent writers like Brian K. Vaughan who did the breakthrough series. Why last man Matt fraction who has done such wonderful work with stuff like Casanova and now Hawkeye at Brewbaker who's written a series called criminal and now a new one called fatality, both of which are great, pulpy filled with action and monsters with tentacles and gangsters with Tommy guns and you know, and everything had Brewbaker touches, you know, turns to sleazy gold. And I kind love that. So there's a lot of great stuff happening in comics right now and I've always tried to stay linked into that. You work in horror, which is a genre that is sometimes maligned, sometimes not taken seriously.

Speaker 4: 21:29 But what do you think makes for good horror? What do you think makes a novel or a comic or a movie, something that's, you know, really special? If the genre is maligned, the people who have worked in the genre only have themselves to blame for doing shoddy tasteless work. I think about the torture porn films of the early odds and uh, the late nineties and even, you know, I love a lot of the slasher films from the 80s but even a lot of those were very trashy. Their treatment of, of women was thoughtless and insensitive and, and incompetent with bad art. Horror has always been a top ranked genre. Charles Dickens loved to write ghost stories. soDid Henry James of many of the most respected writers in the English language going back to the 19th century have dabbled with the ghost story or with the Gothic story or with dark mystery or elements of weird fantasy when horrible works, horror works because it's grounded in empathy horrors, that sensation that comes over you.

Speaker 4: 22:33 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're invested in. And you see that character for us to struggle with, the worst faced with terrifying darkness and you feel empathy for them. And that's a very humane emotion. And you know, when horror fails, it's because it never asks you to feel that emotion. Instead, it asks you to sympathize with Freddy Krueger or the guys running the hostel. I'm the diabolical killer and saw who puts people in these sort of ridiculous razor wire mouse traps just to watch them get sliced up. And uh, I don't like to root for the bad guys. I like to root for the good guys. You have a famous father. Yeah, Stephen King. I wanted to ask you recently, we just saw David Cronenberg son just made a film.

Speaker 4: 23:29 Brandon Cronenberg. Maine. Antiviral. Yeah. You see a family connection, but you don't 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 genre or the same genre as your father. There's like a gene going on there, but very distinct and different styles. And I was just wondering what kind of an influence did your dad have and did you feel that in some way you were destined to work in this genre? No, I mean, for a long time I was scared of my dad's influence and wanted desperately to carve out my own literary identity. And one of the things I did when I was in college was 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.

Speaker 4: 24:17 And I did that because I was very insecure and I wanted to be sure when a story got published that it got published for the right reasons because an editor loved it and thought that readers would love it, not because they saw a chance to make a quick buck in the last name. So I started writing short stories and I started writing novels and I actually, I saw a lot of rejection that way, which was frustrating at the time. But in retrospect, I can look back and say that was a case of the pen name doing its work. The pen name gave me a chance to make my mistakes in private, which is where they belong and it gave me a chance to work on my craft. But also I loved comic books. I love the horror movies of the 70s and the 80s I loved all these things, but as Joseph King, I would have been insecure about exploring them.

Speaker 4: 25:06 I don't think I ever would have dared to write hor as Joseph King, but after a few years of working as Joe Hill, I began to think, you know, I can write whatever I want and no one will know and it won't matter. Joe Hill might as well be Joe Schmall. And I discovered, I enjoyed writing stories of weird fantasy and horror that I had fun with it and success followed. My first breakthrough story was a short story called pop art about the friendship between a juvenile delinquent and an inflatable boy named Arthur Roth. A artists made of plastic and way six ounces. And if he sat in a sharpened pencil, it would kill him. And I had so much fun writing that story and then I sent it out and the third place I sent it to bought it and something clicked. I began to think, huh, the stories I had written before that one were literary and mainstream and kinda dull.

Speaker 4: 25:53 And editors would read them and say, you know, we admire your craft, but there's nothing internally in this story that excites us. I understand why they felt that way because those stories didn't excite me either. 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 and after that a number of short stories followed. I had my breakthrough with Marvel comics. I sold my first collection and then I sold my first novel heart-shaped box before heart-shaped box came to press. The pen name kind of came apart like tissue paper in the rain. But by then it didn't matter. I had had a long run of anonymity and I had learned some of the things I needed to learn and I had accomplished some of the things I had hoped to accomplish and it gave me a feeling of confidence.

Speaker 4: 26:38 And so I was able to, uh, to progress from there. And, uh, you know, in a, in a good way. Do you think to be a good horror writer you need to in some way, shape or form embrace the darkness? Hmm. Do I think that you have to embrace the darkness? I'm a pretty sunny guy actually. I sort of get it all out in the page and then, yeah, no, I mean that way in person, but I mean in some way that you have to kind of really confront it and not write superficially about it. I think that, I don't know if this is precisely answering your question, but I'll tell you what, we read nonfiction to resolve questions that have concrete answers. We read fiction to address questions that don't have concrete answers. For example, what happens to us when we die? What we don't know.

Speaker 4: 27:25 So we've written a lot of stories about what happens after death. 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 will be devoured by cancer. There are monsters out there that are waiting for their turn at Chu, whether it's the plane crash or heart disease. And I think that we go to fiction because fiction is a safe playground to explore. Questions that are scary, facing monsters facing the inevitability of our own death is scary, but in the safe playground to fiction when instead of cancer, it's Hannibal Lecter. We can have some fun with it and maybe at the same time we can learn something about how we want to be when we have to face our own dark moments.

Speaker 4: 28:12 In that sense, I think fiction can be rehearsal for the harder passages in life and so on that way I think, you know, fiction is one of our more positive inventions. And one last thing. Is there anything that scares you still? I, I joke that you know, my greatest nightmare, the thing which keeps me up at one in the morning is the thought of someone reading 20 pages of the new book and then putting it down. He even a great sign and go, boy, that looks like a lot of work. And then they turn to YouTube to see if there's any new funny cat videos on. But you know, yeah, I mean I'm a father, I have three boys and I think that, you know, what scares me is bad things happening to them. I've had a lot of the things I want, but they're just getting started.

Speaker 4: 28:51 And so you worry about all the things that can scar them, all the things that can hurt them. In some ways. The new book a Nosferatu is about the terrorist of parenting. You know, Vic McQueen is a young mother and as scary as the boogeyman in the closet is, that's nothing compared to how frightening it is to be a young parent. And to see all the ways, you know, all the knives the world has in wait for your child and to try to figure out how best you can protect them from, you know, the most serious injuries, whether it's physical injury or emotional injury or, or whatever. So that's, that's the thing that I live with. Like every parent. Alright, I want to thank author Joe Hill. Thank you very much for being here and thanks so much for having me on [inaudible]. That was authored Joe Hill. His book Nosferatu was just adapted by AMC into a series and has already been renewed

Speaker 1: 29:42 for a second season, which will debut in 2020 thanks for listening to another episode of listener supported KPBS cinema junkie podcast to learn next film fix. I'm Beth Armando, your residents, and I'm a junkie. [inaudible].

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place