Q&A: Joe Hill Talks Breaking Out of Stephen King’s Shadow
As the son of Stephen King and an acclaimed author in his own right, Joe Hill knows a thing or two about writing successful horror fiction.
The New England native, who’s award-winning graphic novel Locke & Key is now being released as an audiobook, has carved out his own flourishing literary career, partly because he didn’t listen to the advice given to him by a close friend.
“I remember once being told a long time ago by a caring friend not to become a writer because I would never get out of the shadow of my dad,” Hill says. “The advice was very well meant, but I’m glad I didn’t take it because I would’ve missed out on a lot of fun.”
Check out what else Hill had to say about his famous father, the scariest places he’s been to in New England, and more.
Including Locke & Key, a lot of your stories as well as your father’s stories, are set in Maine, Massachusetts, and the surrounding areas. What makes New England such a great setting for horror stories?
Probably lousy cell phone coverage. You’ve got the cell phone in your pocket but you can’t reach anyone. Actually that’s not true. C’mon, the New England corridor has great cell phone coverage. I don’t know if there is anything in particular about New England that makes it more open to tales of suspense or dark tales. But when I write a story, there’s a lot of stuff that I can make up. I think I’m pretty good at make believe. I can make up outrageous concepts… and I can imagine a lot of different types of characters. I think, anyway, that I can imagine what it would be like to be very different from myself. And I enjoy that, it’s a fun exercise. But I do need something that I know deeply. I do need to operate from something I know concretely—and I know New England.
I know what the roads are like. I know what the work is like. I know the way people sound. I always feel, if I’m going to write a story about a ghost or I’m going to write a story about a man turning into the devil, I’m asking the reader to go along with some pretty wild concepts. But if I can feed them firm, concrete facts about the place, facts that feel unquestionably right about the locale, then they’ll go along with me for the crazy stuff. I can use that to win their trust.
Personally, though, where’s the scariest place you’ve been to in New England?
The Standpipe in Bangor, Maine, this giant water tower, I’ve always found tremendously creepy. And I’ve been in there, it’s open once or twice a year and people can walk through the stairwell that winds around and around inside it. That location was memorably used in one of my dad’s books, It. I think the Standpipe is a real creep-tastic place. It has a real unsettling vibe to it. I don’t know if I would call it scary exactly, it’s actually very beautiful and peaceful, but South Street Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, it is literally a small city of dead people. It just goes on for acre after acre. You could easily walk in among the tombstones and get lost and need an hour to find your way back out. It’s a great place to have a picnic too, or just have a nice afternoon stroll. I know there’s a library in Boston where they have a book bound in human skin. I’ve never had a chance to schedule my viewing of it. Outside of town, there used to be a great insane asylum where they filmed a movie called Session 9. I would have loved to have spent an afternoon checking out that place.
There are elements of humor in Locke & Key and you seem to enjoy adding comedic bits into your work. Why do horror and humor go so well together?
Humor and horror, like flight or fight, are almost on the same switch. It’s almost a binary thing, it’s either a laugh or a scream. When I was growing up, a lot of my heroes were the splatter special effects guys. Guys like Tom Savini and Stan Winston and Rob Bottin, I loved those guys. I loved their work and I got to know some of them, especially when I got a little older. In the gross out effects business, they talk about setting up a gag. They talk about when the alien busts through a guy’s chest, that’s a gag. I’ve always thought that language wasn’t accidental. Yes, when you see something really gross, you gag, but also, a gag is a joke. A gag is a punchline. I think that the alien bursting through a chest is a very literal, red punchline. I just think that humor and horror are tightly bound that way. If you watch The Three Stooges and you watch Moe hit Larry with a hammer, you laugh. But, if you’re listening to the Locke & Key audioplay and Sam Lesser begins hitting someone with a hammer, you scream because it’s horrible.
After being exposed to so many tales of horror over the years, does anything still scare you?
Yeah, but the stuff that scares me is not particularly original or exciting. You worry about the kids. You’re worried that one of them will step out into a bus or even just being humiliated online. That seems to be the new thing to be afraid of, one of your kids will become ruthlessly mocked online by anonymous bozos. There’s only so much that you can do to protect them. I guess you just try to hope that they’ll have self-reliance and a good self-image and have their head up.
What’s the best or worst advice you’ve gotten as a writer?
I’ve had a lot of good advice over the years, but I’m sort of like Alice in Alice in Wonderland. She says, “I often give myself very good advice, but I very rarely take it.” I’ve had a lot of good advice, but almost everything I’ve learned about writing that mattered I learned from reading really good books. I read all of Bernard Malmund’s books and then I read them all again. Trying to figure out how he built his sentences, how he creates suspense, how he constructs his characters and situations, that’s kind of how I learned.
I’ve had some bad advice that I really remember. I remember once being told a long time ago by a caring friend not to become a writer because I would never get out of the shadow of my dad. The advice was very well meant, but I’m glad I didn’t take it because I would’ve missed out on a lot of fun. I would’ve missed out on the thing that makes me the happiest.
Clearly you’ve carved out your own fan base with your work and you recently said on Twitter that you want to pump out a book of year through 2020. What’s keeping you energized with your writing?
Online connectivity comes in for a bad wrap, and I’m not above ripping it myself, but boy, it’s so exciting when someone tweets you or whatever and says, “I read this and it was so great. It made me so happy.” You get pumped up. I’m doing something that turns people on and charges people up. That’s really cool. It’s nice to feel like you were a part of someone’s day. The other thing is, it’s a race against time. This is why I talk about doing a book a year for the next five years. Who knows how long you’ll get to do the work that you want to do before the edge goes dull or you start to wind down. It’s hard work, but it’s not hard like my friend Ryan Vaughn says, “Writing can be hard work, but in no way is it hard like coal mining is hard.” As jobs go, it’s a really great job. But it is intellectually hard and sometimes the parts can wear out. On the other hand, some writers, they wear out and their later work isn’t that great. But I think my dad’s writing his best novels now.
Locke & Key is available to download for free now through November 4.