While a few devil’s advocates may disagree with me, there aren’t too many young hit-making authors like Joe Hill. From his short-story collection 20th Century Ghosts to his debut novel Heart-Shaped Box to his horror comic Locke & Key, the man’s a talented dude — much like his famous dad, Stephen King. Hill’s latest, Horns (out tomorrow), is a tale of revenge, redemption and romance that’s heartfelt, more than a tad creepy, and just crazy good. His main character is a guy named Ig who — after one particularly drunken night — wakes up and finds horns growing from his temples. From there, Ig slowly turns into a man with more than a few devilish qualities and works to find out who killed his girlfriend, all while his family and townsfolk share their deepest, darkest secrets in his presence. The book, like Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key before it, has already been optioned for a movie version. “I have a friend who says when it comes to the movies, the best possible thing that can happen to a writer is get paid a whole bunch of money for a movie option and then never have the film get made. That way, you’ll have a whole pile of dough, and your story won’t be destroyed by a ham-fisted adaptation,” says Hill, who worked as a production assistant on a couple of his father’s film projects when he was in college. I spoke to Hill for a piece on this past weekend’s Who’s News page, but read below for more on Horns, Hill’s love of Twitter, and why he never wants to hear Shawn Mullins again. (Hill’s also on a book tour starting this week, so check here to see if he’s coming to your town.)
Photos courtesy of Shane Leonard and HarperCollins
What is it about the theme of people sharing their secrets that interests you so much?
At some point, I became aware that my big turn-on as a writer is when a character reaches that point of confession: when they finally stop lying or misdirecting or trying to put on a false mask, and come clean about what they want and who they are. In some ways, all of my stories tend to work toward that moment where the character no longer has any place to hide. Maybe one of the chief roles of stories is their investigations – they’re all mysteries and investigations into a character. Part of what I think is exciting and fun about Horns, and also upsetting and a little scary, is that the main character knows everyone’s dirty secrets. Their worst thoughts and everything you don’t want to share with the world, he knows.
In Heart-Shaped Box, you knew what the conceit was early on — that our hero was going to be haunted — but it took a little while to learn about what exactly was happening. But with Horns – BOOM! – you’re thrown into it right on the first page when Ig discovers his horns. Did this story need that?
In a horror story, what you’re trying to do is create the actual feel of a waking nightmare, and I thought, “This is the stuff of a waking nightmare: to have nowhere to run, everyone you thought you loved you will tell you things that will horrify you and drive you away. Everyone is against you.” And I also thought this is like a paranoid’s fantasy – this is what people who are clinically paranoid actually believe, that everyone has a secret face. To an extent, it’s true that everyone has their dark and ugly side. That’s not all they are, but maybe that’s all the devil can see.
Ah yes, speak of the devil. It used to be in pop culture, the devil’s evil, end of story. But in recent times, there are more explorations of a certain gray area when it comes to his depiction, or something like Horns that puts a human face on him.
I hate stories that work toward tidy little morals, and hopefully Horns doesn’t have one because I think that is a characteristic of really bad fiction. But I do think that one of the notions the book puts forward is that we don’t really need the devil. We’re bad enough without him. And I also think this is one of those things you get in your basic undergraduate writing program. Your characters have to have the will and the freedom to choose. Ig’s turning into a devil, but whether or not he’s really evil is still up to him.
What influenced your portrayal of the devil?
There was an essay I read by Michael Chabon, and he talks about how the devil is this patchwork character that’s been put together over a couple thousand years. He’s one of the biggest characters in the history of Western literature, but at the same time he’s just been cobbled together in this really haphazard way. Part of that is because Christianity has always defined the devil as what their enemies worship. In other religions, the devil or devil-like character is sometimes the good guy, or at least the sort of tricky fellow who gets the fertility goddess into bed. And also, you’ve got the devil as he appears in rock music and the blues and in jazz. The devil represents every dirty impulse that you should probably hurry up and give in to. So I wanted to write about that devil, the devil in rock ‘n’ roll.
Music plays a major part in Heart-Shaped Box, and there are mentions of it in Horns. How closely is it tied into you and your writing?
I wish I had a really clever answer for that. I think writers tend to cycle through their pet obsessions – they can’t really help it. I don’t know if that’s a bug or a feature. For example, this idea of confession, this recurs in a lot of my stories. It’s all over Horns, and Heart-Shaped Box works up to a series of confessions. Music is another one. The power of music to lift up away from the worst parts of your life is something I’ve thought about a lot. There’s a point in the book where one characters thinks that music is the third rail of life – you grab it and you’re electrified and you feel things you don’t feel in the ordinary cycle of laundry and doing the dishes and work and all the rest of it. Also, the different meaning of horns is sort of poked at. Ig’s father and his brother are both successful celebrity trumpet players. I have to note: The book has a lot of stuff about heavy metal, rock and popular music, but the trumpet is probably the least heavy metal instrument of all time. Well, maybe the flute. You could say, “Well, Jethro Tull…,” but I think Jethro Tull sort of proves my argument.
When you write, do you always have music playing?
The stories I work on, they get to be like planets, with their own little gravity well. And certain songs get trapped in the gravity well and get cycled around and around and around until the book is done. Then I’m free and I can finally move on. Something like Heart-Shaped Box or Horns has a whole mix that wind up listening to repetitively and obsessively. For Horns, it goes without saying, [the Rolling Stones'] Sympathy for the Devil. I don’t know if I want to admit this, but I listened to a lot of Kiss: Heaven’s on Fire, Rock and Roll All Nite, New York City Groove. The worst was I wrote a short story called Thumbprint, which was about Abu Ghraib. I listened to a song by Shawn Mullins called Beautiful Wreck 400 times while I was working on the story. I never want to hear that song again. I like Shawn Mullins and everything, I wish him the best, but God, my idea of hell would be getting trapped in an elevator and having to hear that song again.
You said your dad took you to your first concert, seeing Kiss at Madison Square Garden in the late 1970s. I can imagine Stephen King being into Kiss.
I don’t think he cared for them at all, but it was rock ‘n’ roll and his kid liked it, so he was willing to take me. My parents were pretty nuts. They’d let me watch stuff no 7- or 8-year-old had any business watching and take me to concerts and stuff like that. It was a different time, though. There’s a lot to be said about ’70s parenting.
Also out this week is the zombie anthology The New Dead, featuring your story Twittering from the Circus of the Dead. You use Twitter a lot in terms of getting your stuff out there and interacting with fans and readers.
It’s hard to define why I got sucked into Twitter. I’ve never quite developed the same warm fuzzy feelings for my own blog or for message boards. I guess all I can say is it’s conversational, and I enjoy that. I feel like I can relax a little bit. When I post something on the blog, I look at that as a published piece of writing. I’m fairly deliberate, I rewrite things – it’s a bit of a time suck. But when I’m on Twitter, I feel a little bit more like I’m at some enormous party after a convention. You’re sort of drifting around and you don’t know what conversations you’ll fall into, but there’s the possibility of having an interesting conversation you didn’t expect, which is nice. One of the most overlooked literary forms is the one-liner, so I like that Twitter encourages that.
I think the entire Twitterverse is waiting for your dad to join.
[Laughs] Maybe. But I think they might have to wait a long time.