Joe Hill has made a name for himself, both literally—he’s Stephen King’s son, but he writes under a pen name derived from his full name, Joseph Hillstrom King—and literarily. His debut short-story collection, 2005’s 20th Century Ghosts, won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection, and his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, reached No. 8 on the New York Times bestseller list. His new novel, Horns, tells the story of a young man, Ignatius Perrish, cursed with the power to bring out the worst in everyone. While Ig tries to understand what’s happened to him, his new abilities begin to transform him, as well as provide him with the tools to finally figure out who murdered his girlfriend a year ago. Horns is an exciting step forward in Hill’s work, deepening the complexities of Heart-Shaped Box while keeping true to its genre soul. Hill recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about his comic-book series Locke & Key, the need for love in storytelling, and how sometimes the devil might be a good friend to have.
The A.V. Club: Hell and demons are common archetypes in genre literature. What about them interested you for Horns?
Joe Hill: I read this essay by Michael Chabon just a little while ago, and he talked about writers’ obsessions, and the way certain obsessive themes keep resurfacing in a given writer’s work. So John Irving has his bears, and Nabokov had chess and butterflies, and Chabon talks about some of his own fixations, writers and Jewish communities and comic books. So I think one common theme of a lot of my stories is the point of confession. A lot of my stories work up to a moment where the main character reveals himself, finally confesses the truth about himself to the reader and also to himself, and sometimes to other characters. I think that’s in a lot of my short stories, and some elements of Heart-Shaped Box and Horns are obviously built around that whole concept of confession. Ig wakes up one morning after a drunken binge and he looks in the mirror and sees he has horns, and everyone begins confessing their worst and ugliest urges to him. I just thought that was an interesting notion to play with. What would it be like if you knew the worst about everyone around you? Could you still care about anyone? Could you still love people?
AVC: There are a lot of ugly urges in the book. Did you exaggerate these to make Ig’s situation more horrific?
JH: Well, the very first part of the book, I wanted to play like a paranoid fantasy, y’know, this idea, “Nobody really loves me. Everybody’s secretly out to get me. Everybody secretly hates me.” I wanted to see how bad I could make that. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s being cynical about human nature to say that everyone has terrible thoughts, everyone thinks really transgressive, awful things, maybe you flinch for a moment when you think them, but they’re still floating around in your head. Everyone has regrets. So I’m not sure it is too terribly exaggerated. The other thing is, you have to remember, Ig actually has two influences on people. When he’s around people, they confess their worst urges, but at the same time, he also compels them to follow up on the temptation. It’s very easy for him to nudge people into doing that thing that they probably shouldn’t do. So you’re seeing people at their worst, but you’re also seeing them compelled to do worser—isn’t that a great word?
AVC: Horror fiction tends to operate on a strict, E.C. Comics-style morality. In your stories, bad people still get punished, but there’s more sympathy toward people who make mistakes.
JH: There’s two things to say about that. First of all, I was talking to someone the other day who was talking about a line in the new Peter Straub novel [A Dark Matter], which I haven’t read. A character in the book’s saying, “What am I feeling here, horror or terror? I think it’s horror.” There is a difference. Terror is the desire to save your own ass, but horror is rooted in sympathy. It’s really rooted in this notion of imagining what it might be like for someone else to suffer the worst. On that level, I suspect that horror fiction is very humanizing. And that’s one of the things I tried to do on both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, is to humanize. Heart-Shaped Box features Judas Coyne as the main character, this sort of angry, apparently disagreeable heavy-metal musician in his mid-50s who treats everyone around him like crap. But over the course of the novel, I think he’s revealed to be a much better man than we thought he was at first. He’s a better man than maybe even he thinks he is. You get a sense of a man who’s been in a bad mood for 30 years. Some of his bad mood has the been the result of having to make some very hard but basically decent choices. So that’s Heart-Shaped Box.
With Horns, I like when I can take a character who you think you’re gonna hate, and trick you into loving them, or at least liking them. Post-Judas Coyne, I thought, “Who’s bad, who’s hard to like?” And it seems obvious to me—the devil. The devil is personally to blame for every bad thing in the world, whether it’s disease or war or talk radio. I thought it would be fun to take the devil and make him a good guy. So we have Ig, who is not the devil, but a devil. There was a line that I cut in the book that I thought was a little heavy-handed, where one character says to Ig, “What are you, a man pretending to be a devil, or a devil pretending to be a man?” And Ig says, “I don’t know yet, but I think the choice is still up to me.” We have this character who has these terrible Satanic powers, and this terrible knowledge of everyone’s secrets, and the real question is whether he can hang on to his own humanity. But also, is it possible to still forgive people, to still love people?
AVC: Heart-Shaped Box was very straightforward, while Horns has a more challenging narrative flow. Were you trying to raise the stakes on your second novel?
JH: Well, it happened pretty naturally. I felt at some point—I felt if it was 300 pages of people’s horrible confessions, people would start chucking the book across the room halfway through. And also, I love to write dialogue, and Ig’s power deforms his conversations with everyone around him. I wanted to write about the characters with the pervasive influence of the horns changing their relationship, so it was necessary to go back into the past. But the other thing is, you have to remember I’m a completely frustrated mainstream writer. I wound up writing horror and fantasy very naturally, because I love those things and ’cause I think I’m good at it, but I also like and read a lot of mainstream fiction, Tobias Wolfe and John Irving. So one of the things I did was, I snuck these two novellas into Horns. The first is “Cherry,” and then there’s another called “The Fixer.” “Cherry” is kind of a Stand By Me type thing. It’s a narrative about childhood and innocence, and maybe the transition from innocence to experience. The other one, “The Fixer,” is a Jim Thompson novel. Jim Thompson wrote The Killer Inside Me. He’d always write about these protagonists, just when you think you’ve seen their worst, they do something even more terrible. I always kind of wanted to write a noir like that. So “The Fixer,” which is about Lee Tourneau, my sociopath, that’s kind of my Jim Thompson riff.
AVC: Speaking of mainstream fiction, have you ever considered doing a full novel without any fantastical elements?
JH: One thing for me is, when I write a story, it always begins on a concept. When I have a great concept, and I’m excited about it, I can write for about three days. Then after that, I need a central character who’s interesting to me, who’s worth investigating. If the story doesn’t have that, it doesn’t matter how good the concept is, I just abandon it. I would happily do a mainstream novel, but I’d have to still… I think even a mainstream novel needs to have a hook. It needs to have an interesting concept. It needs to explore an interesting question. For the most part, when I do get an interesting concept or question, it seems to come in the form of a fantasy story, or a horror story. Maybe just because I know so much about those genres that that’s just the way my brain was programmed to code story.
AVC: The lines between mainstream and genre are fuzzy these days. You mentioned John Irving: There’s a fantasy quality to some of his books—
JH: Sure, A Prayer For Owen Meany.
AVC: And Chabon has been doing that for a while, too.
JH: This is a great time to be writing the kind of stuff I think I’m writing, and that you see authors like Kelly Link [Stranger Things Happen, Magic For Beginners] writing, because it’s a particular moment when—writers talk about the Literary Establishment like it’s an organization like the FBI, but there’s no Literary Establishment. But I think right now, critics and audiences are prepared for the idea that a literary writer can dive into genre forms, that a guy like Michael Chabon or John Irving or Denis Johnson—who wrote Tree Of Smoke and a book called Nobody Move, which is like a Ross MacDonald crime novel. There’s this idea that literary writers can explore genre elements, and that genre writers can write literary fiction, so you see writers like Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem. Jon Lethem is the great example: Here’s a guy who’s done science fiction and has sort of done superhero stories, but is nevertheless really looked at as a literary writer, not a genre writer. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth right now, and that maybe wasn’t true 15 years ago.
AVC: Romantic love is a key element in both your novels. Do you feel strongly about relationships?
JH: That’s a tough one. Let me think on that. I like to write about, y’know… what can I say that’s not completely sappy? One of the things I like about Elmore Leonard—whenever someone asks me a really tough question, I always go to another writer instead of me. That’s my trapdoor. One of the things I love when I read Elmore Leonard is that he’ll write a scene about a man and a woman who are attracted to each other who are beginning to flirt, and are beginning to seduce one another. He’s done this with his characters in book after book after book, with very different characters, but these scenes that fill his books, it’s always good. It’s always fun to watch him put that moment together, when a potential couple begins to become aware of each other. I just think that’s human. I think that’s something basically human about wanting to know those stories. That’s something I like to write about too. I also think it goes back to what I was saying about horror being rooted in sympathy. We care about characters when we see that they care about other people. A character’s capacity for love often defines how much we care about them. That’s something I try to explore in the stories.
I’m not sure I’ve given you a really good answer here. The other thing is, maybe the hardest part of Horns was why it all happened. How does Ig acquire these powers? For me, there’s two answers. There’s a plot answer, but the more interesting answer is the thematic answer, and that’s the only one I ever really cared about. That’s this idea that a person, a man who doesn’t have love in his life, might be a devil. I wonder if that sounded pretentious. Pretty soon I’m going to start talking like the Na’vi in Avatar, “I see you.”
The other thing—this is related to but doesn’t really answer your question—when I was working on Horns, round about the second or third draft, I was very surprised to discover that the book was in part about what a hard time men have understanding the things women say to them. There’s Lee Tourneau, who’s a sociopath, he doesn’t feel emotion the way other people feel, and in his relationship with Merrin, the heroine of the story, he never really decodes anything she says to him properly. But that’s what you’d expect, he’s a sociopath. But at the same time, our hero, Ig, his batting average isn’t a whole lot better, when it comes to understanding the things Merrin is trying to tell him. Time and time again, he puts his own spin on the situation and misinterprets what she’s saying to him. It’s the difficulty of communicating.
AVC: Especially when love and sex are involved, because you tend to interpret what you want to hear.
JH: Yeah. Both as a writer and as a reader, I love when you have a conversation, you have dialogue, and what you have is… Okay, one of the great flaws of genre fiction is, characters understand each other. They talk about a situation, they trade information in a way that makes perfect sense to both of them. I almost never have conversations like that in real life. I think that one of the things you see in literary fiction is a much more honest and daring approach about character, where characters have a tendency to talk past each other. They’re each talking… This is something I learned from watching John Sayles movies. A couple who are in love will sit down at a table and tell each other about the day, and neither one is really hearing a word the other person says. They’re talking, the conversations are existing on two different planes. I kind of love that. Because real connection is rare.
AVC: Heart-Shaped Box was about escaping from a threat, while at times, Horns seems more like a post-mortem of an event. Was that—
JH: No, I don’t know if I agree with that. I think that Box is about running from the threat. I think Horns is about becoming the threat.
AVC: Right. But the past in Horns seems much more important. How much of the backstory did you figure out while writing?
JH: I didn’t really have a solid idea. But going back to this idea that some of what Horns is about is the difficulty of making a connection, of communicating… Over the course of Horns, several scenes are revisited on more than one occasion. In fact, the night when Merrin Williams is killed is revisited from three different points of view over the course of the novel, and each time, you really get a different set of information, a different set of facts about that particular evening. One of the things we get from this ceaseless return to past events is the difficulty of seeing the whole thing, how hard it is to get a whole picture in your head of what happened in any of the really important moments in your life. The other thing is, I used to say this about ghost stories, but really maybe it’s true about all horror stories. The other common element about all horror fiction is the way the past keeps leaking through into the present. There’s no escape from what came before, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a ghost story where a person who died in a house 50 years before is still knocking around causing trouble, or whether you have something like The Thing, where that critter was buried in ice, and it sat there for 10,000 years and didn’t go anywhere.
AVC: That works back to the E.C. Comics idea, in that sins—
JH: Must be paid for. I also think that people’s lives tend to be—and I actually believe this in real life as well, and not just fiction—I think that people’s lives tend to be a bit recursive. There’ll be something that happened when you were 19, and later you’re 29 and you’re still kicking yourself over it, “Aw, why did I do that?” And then maybe you get a chance to address that, whatever it was that happened, in some other way, in some other aspect of your life. I don’t know where I’m going with that.
AVC: You kind of have a Great Gatsby theme there.
JH: Yeah, the Greek tragedy thing. Greek tragedy, just add water.
AVC: You’re also writing an ongoing comic series, Locke & Key. What about the format appeals to you?
JH: I love the comics stuff. Y’know, I try to read some Hemingway every year. I love Hemingway. But let’s be honest—Hemingway completely fucked up literature. He did it by doing two things. Before Hemingway, you had illustrated fiction. Illustrated fiction was great, whether it was Sherlock Holmes or Mark Twain or Charles Dickens. Books had 150 line and ink illustrations with them. Then, I think, post-Hemingway, the idea was, if you had an imagination, you shouldn’t need drawings, that illustrations are for little kids. Which is too bad, because isn’t illustration also art? I don’t understand why illustration was devalued that way. But also, before Hemingway, writers wrote stories episodically. There was a driving market in big novels told over the course of years. And I think that working in an episodic format can shape a story in a really interesting, dynamic way. What we have left for illustrated episodic fiction is comic books.
I’ve just had a blast fooling around with Locke & Key. Hopefully the whole story is going to be 36 issues long, or six trades. And it’s great to watch those characters stretch their legs, and walk the episodes together. I have some pretty strong notions about where it’s going, but I don’t know for sure. If you like visual episodic fiction, you can always turn on your TV set. There’s Lost, and we’ve just gone through a really great period for television. I think there are a lot of wonderful things about Lost. The first couple seasons were amazing. I think that they developed too many storylines and too much backstory to ever satisfactorily tie things up. No matter what they do, something is going to get short-changed. There’s something to be said for staying a bit small, making sure you stay in control of your subplots and your characters. That way, even if you don’t know how things are going to tie up, at least leave yourself with the potential to tie things up in a satisfying way, a way that the reader will be happy about and you can live with. Course, it’s funny to hear me advance my theories on exactly how to do episodic fiction, I don’t have Locke & Key done yet.
AVC: Any thoughts about working in film?
JH: It’s funny, I’ve been asked a couple of times if Heart-Shaped Box or Horns will ever be adapted for comic books, and my answer on that is always “I don’t see that happening anytime soon, because if they were gonna be adapted to comic books, I’d wanna do it.” I don’t really want to farm it out to another writer. I don’t know why I feel that way about comics and not about movies, but both Horns and Heart-Shaped Box are floating around there as possible adaptations, and I’d be very curious to see if someone does something with them, but I haven’t wanted to write those screenplays myself. In terms of working in film, I actually did that when I was younger for a little bit, and I think I prefer short stories and comic books and novels. The difference is, you can slave in the film business for years, and write a dozen screenplays, and never see anything come up. You can make money, but never see anything get developed, or it gets developed, but it’s not really what you had in mind. So there’s the possibility that you’re playing to much smaller audiences with books and comics and stories, but you do have the possibility of closure, which I think for a creative person is important. You can see the book finally in print, and then you can move on to the next one.
AVC: And it’s all yours.
JH: And it’s all yours. Or in the case of the comic book, the comic is really Gabriel Rodriquez and myself—we’re very much full collaborators on the thing. It is out there as a story that other people can enjoy, as opposed to trapped in an endless loop of development. You only have so many years. I want to get as many stories down as I can, get some work done that I’m proud of and excited about, so I guess I would rather do as much fiction as I can, as opposed to being stuck in the film business to make deals.