Interview: Joe Hill is a modest heir to King’s fame

Joe Hill has built a fanbase without cashing in on his father’s name. Stephen McGinty meets him
Joe Hill tries to step into the Burke & Hare mural by Mel Holmes at Edinburghs Hotel du Vin. Picture: Jane BarlowJoe Hill tries to step into the Burke & Hare mural by Mel Holmes at Edinburghs Hotel du Vin. Picture: Jane Barlow
Joe Hill tries to step into the Burke & Hare mural by Mel Holmes at Edinburghs Hotel du Vin. Picture: Jane Barlow

The leafy back roads of the rural American state of Maine are beloved by bikers, who like to test their pistons and engines, not to mention their nerve on the twisting miles of two-lane black top.

A spectator at some point in 2010 might have noticed a Harley Davidson roaring ahead with a Triumph picking up the rear as a father and son enjoyed a quick half-hour bike ride. “I thought, this is a really great father and son moment,” recalls Joe Hill, as he perches forward on a sofa in the whisky snug of Hotel du Vin in Edinburgh. He explains that as they walked back to the house his dad turned around and said: “That is a pretty good bike even if it does sound like a sewing machine.” Joe laughs: “He’s such a Harley snob.”

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“He” is Stephen King, one of the world’s most successful authors. The picture of a young man following in his father’s slipstream is an apt image, and one he touches on in the afterword of his new novel, NOS-4R2 in which he writes: “I guess I’ve been cruising his back roads my whole life. I don’t regret it.”

Yet the fact is that Joe Hill, a shaggy-haired, bearded 41-year-old has managed what many would believe almost impossible given the shadow in which he was raised, he’s built a successful career as a comic book author and horror novelist. His latest book, about a child killer in a Rolls-Royce Wraith who drives around the country collecting souls for ChristmasTown, a fantasyland where the ghosts of dead children play vicious games like “scissors for the drifter”, is excellent and could easily slip onto the same high shelf as his father’s work.

The achievement is the result of a decision, early on, to write under his middle name, and spend more than a decade labouring on a three large novels that were never published. Having been raised in a literary household, one where extra precious minutes past his 9pm bedtime could be earned if he read instead of watched TV. He recalls: “I went through all the Sherlock Holmes stories”. Given that the dinner table discussion was often around books, publishers and narrative, it is not really so surprising that both he and younger brother Owen are now published novelists.

“In college I dropped my last name to keep it a secret about my dad and tried to write stuff that was not dark fantasy. I was trying to write the stuff that ran in The New Yorker. But it didn’t sell – it was technically proficient but it didn’t excite them because it didn’t excite me. It was humourless and terse and not much fun.

“Two years in I wrote a story called ‘Pop Art’, about the friendship between a juvenile delinquent and an inflatable boy called Arthur Roth. I had a lot of fun, it was fantasy, and I thought it was OK to try and see if I could sell it. I thought to myself: “No-one knows who your dad is. You are Joe Hill, not Joseph King, if you want to write fantasy and horror, you can, you have permission now.”

The path to his current success – his second novel Horns is being filmed with Daniel Radcliffe, and his comic book series, Locke & Key, is a commercial and critical success –came after a decade of disappointment. He explains: “I was very insecure. The pen name was armour. I was able to preserve the pen name for ten years and I had a lot of setbacks. I had three books I was never able to sell, they weren’t good enough, but they were a great learning experience, that continued to kind of shape my ideas of what readers wanted. I don’t care who your parents are, and what you have going for you, you have to be able to deliver an experience that really excites readers and if you can’t do that it’s tough to build a long lasting career.”

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During his early years as a published author he would contact websites that twigged his identity and ask them to remove the details, which they were always happy to do, as he explained that he anxious to make it on his own. Yet in his new book, with the secret out, he’s happy to weave in a few nods to his father’s work, including a reference to Pennywise the Clown, the villain of what many consider his father’s masterpiece, It.

The novel NOS-4R2 (get the vampiric allusion?) follows Victoria McQueen, a young girl who has a special gift that can transport her where she needs to be, even if hundreds of miles away, via a covered bridge and her bike. As a child she foils the plans of Charlie Manx, who takes children for a ride in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith from which they never return, but as an adult she has to tackle him once again when he “escapes” from prison and kidnaps her son. “In some ways, structurally NOS-4R2 is a rewrite of It. It has got a childhood encounter with evil and then the sequel, the attempt to wield magic to ward off evil as an adult. When you are a child, the magic is easy, but facing evil is hard, when you are an adult, facing evil is easier but the magic is hard.

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“I start with a situation and start with the nugget of the idea and then I need the character. I want one who is like a Rubik’s Cube with the panels twisted out of colour and then the rest of the book is me trying to get all the panels back in the right shape. Charlie was the hardest part of the story. I went through so many different changes, I had to rewrite Charlie so many times. I had a much clearer idea of Vic and how she was going to battle him, what I eventually got was his voice, it was the sound of his speech and that he did not speak in contractions.

“That was the key. I wanted him to be able to tell himself that he is the hero of his life, my bad guy Charlie is a monster but I wanted to present a bad guy who believes that everything he does is justified. When he does wicked acts, he doesn’t say he is evil but that he had to do it.”

On his month-long tour of America and now Britain, Hill has been tweeting up a storm including a picture of himself with Ramsay Campbell, one of the great unsung heroes of British horror: “He’s a sweetheart.”

He’s now back home in the States, about to work on a TV pilot “a reboot of an old show” and a five-part comic book sequel to It, but to judge by his latest work next time Joe Hill goes for a motorbike ride with his dad, he and his Triumph have earned the right to pull up alongside and match the King turn for twisting turn.

• NOS-4R2 by Joe Hill is published by Orion Books priced £18.99