This week on The Bookshelf, author Joe Hill of Exeter, N.H. joins Peter Biello in studio.
Hill's new book, Strange Weather, is a collection of four short novels. In one, the sky rains needles that rip to pieces anyone unlucky enough to be outside. In another, a skydiver gets stuck on a cloud. And in a story without any supernatural connection, people with easy access to guns use them to devastating effect. Joe Hill is the author of many works, including the novels Horns, NOS4A2, and The Fireman.
Listen to the interview below and read Joe Hill's top five reading recommendations.
The Bookshelf is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is email@example.com.
Joe Hill Top 5 works of the “unsettling, macabre, and the grotesque—five works of the terrifying that can be read almost in a single sitting, or at least in a weekend, like the stories in Strange Weather. They’re fairly lean and mean.”
1. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, “which reads like it should have been around for 150 years. It doesn’t seem possible that it could have only been written a decade or so ago.”
2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, “which is one of the most overpowering works of horror fiction I’ve ever read. I know a lot of people like to claim it’s science fiction or speculation, and you can say that if you want, but it reads like horror fiction to me. It’s one of these books that everyone should read along with 1984 by George Orwell if you want to understand how quickly a society can go wrong and how bad it can get.”
3. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. “Still probably the keystone work of American horror fiction. The best ghost story ever written and the haunted house story that all other haunted house stories wish they could be.”
4. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, “which is a story about the last human being in a world overwhelmed by an army of vampires and was probably the template for every zombie apocalypse story to follow, from Night of the Living Dead to Walking Dead.”
5. Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. “It’s my favorite of his novels. He’s always great but there is something so spare and devastating about Ocean at the End of the Lane. Sometimes I feel like that book is as heart-breaking as an autopsy on someone who died of starvation. It’s just this stunning work of dread, horror, and regret, and that’s one that can be read probably in a couple of hours.”
I wanted to start by talking about the story Loaded. In this story, there’s a domestic violence incident that takes place in a mall, and it starts a chain reaction that leads all the way up to the horrific ending, which I will not spoil. What inspired that story?
The short answer on that is Newtown, Connecticut. The slightly more expanded answer is—you know, I’ve thought about guns a lot. I’ve thought about what’s happening to this nation as a result of millions of guns floating around and the easy access to them. There’s a lot of argument about what to do and if anything should be done or could be done. You see these arguments being played out across social media and traditional media and everything that I could personally say about guns has been said and said and said and people have their positions fixed. They have their heels dug in. They’ve settled on their position and it’s very hard to move them.
I’ve done some arguing about guns online, but I reached a point where I thought, “This is silly.” I never signed up to lecture anyone. Arguing with people on the internet is not what I do. What I can do is write a story. I can examine the facets of guns in America and the American fixation on guns and the problem of mass shootings. I can examine those facets in a work of fiction and give people a different way of looking at it and thinking about the problem. And if I did my job well, you have a story that’s exciting, where it’s fun to turn the pages and you feel suspense and you’re excited to find out what happens next. Hopefully it sort of erases political barriers—that you come to it as a reader. You’re not there to argue, you’re there to be entertained, and so your mind is open in a different way.
Do you own a gun?
I don’t own a gun. I used to shoot when I was a kid. Me and my buddy used to shoot on the NRA range outside of Bangor, Maine.
I do think as far as gun ownership goes in this country—again, there’s been a lot of argument about it—but it seems to me there’s one thing you should be able to agree on, whether you’re vociferously against gun ownership or you’re the most radical NRA member in the country. It seems to me one thing we should all be able to agree on is this: that presenting guns and gun ownership as a right is probably the wrong way to think about it. We should think about gun ownership as a responsibility. I feel like that’s something everyone can agree on, that owning a gun is a big responsibility. You now hold a death machine. You own a death machine and you keep it in your house.
So then the question is: if we agree it’s not a right so much as it’s a responsibility, where do you go from there?
With respect to Loaded, the thing that struck me was that there’s no supernatural element. It’s just guns plus human nature. Boy, that’s really scary.
Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s where we are. I’ve been asked a couple times if it’s a political story. I don’t really feel like it’s a political story. It’s a story of observation. You look at Las Vegas, you look at Aurora, you look at Orlando, you look at Newtown. This is the America we live in now. The most amazing thing is that we’ve decided we’re all right with that. We’ve decided to accept that entirely and it’s worth taking a close look at what we’ve signed up for.
Assuming that this isn’t supposed to be a political story, will you allow for the possibility that there’s this old argument about the thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And in this story, the good guy with the gun makes a confusing situation even worse.
There are problems with the good guy with a gun theory. You’ve got the good guy with a gun in Las Vegas. The good guy with the gun did stop the bad guy with the gun. They stopped him after 60 people died. The bad guy with the gun is always going to be able to do plenty of damage if they’re so inclined before the good guy ever gets to them.
The good guy with the gun argument has always been the formulation of the gun industry. They love it. I mean, they love where America is. They think the people who sell guns—they’ve got the perfect formula. They sell the disease and they supposedly sell the cure. You know? They sell the weapons that perpetrate mass shootings and homicides and robberies and domestic abuse and then they can also say, “But if you have a gun, everything will be great! You’ll be able to protect yourself.” It’s a crazy formula.
I would add that anyone who can do math can see that the gun industry’s formulation, their equation, doesn’t add up. If you have 100,000 people and between those 100,000 people you only have one gun, you’re going to have inevitably a lot less gun violence than if you have 100,000 people and 100,000 guns. The more guns you pour into the system, inevitably the more people will be hurt or die.
And Loaded isn’t a story that just looks at mass shootings. It talks about mass shootings, but I also wanted to talk about all the other parts of gun violence that we don’t really explore. I’ll mention two.
There’s the guy who owns a gun who works 40-50 hours a week who is fun to talk to, who seems decent. But he goes home and he has a couple beers and he’s a little bit abusive and the wife says, “I’m out of here. I’m taking the kids.” And he goes to the closet and gets out his .38 and says, “If you ever leave me, I’ll kill you, and I’ll kill them, too.” And that scene plays out every night in some household in America and we’re all cool with it.
There’s this epidemic of suicide, largely among white males, middle-aged white males, and its suicide by the gun, and the numbers are astonishing. You say to yourself, well, if all the guns went away tomorrow, those people would still find a way to kill themselves. Actually, that’s not true. That’s not what the statistics suggest at all. In the United Kingdom, for years people would kill themselves by turning on the gas and putting their head in the oven. That’s where the phrase “head in the oven” comes from. In the 1970s, the United Kingdom largely switched over to electric ovens, and the suicide rate plunged. As soon as people didn’t have easy, convenient access to a means of suicide, they didn’t follow that impulse anymore.
So these are all things that are worth considering in terms of whether anything is going to change. I doubt it. Not really. But I can still explore despair in my fiction.
Despair is a completely valid artistic subject.
Certainly. I wanted to talk about some of the other stories in Strange Weather, because they’re so cool.
Oh, thank you.
I read it in a weekend and read it briefly before coming in to speak with you. And I wanted to ask about Aloft, which is a mind-blowing piece of work. Because I read about the concept first and the concept is: skydiver gets stuck on a cloud.
And I was like, “How in the heck is he going to make this believable?”
It’s a castaway story, like Robinson Crusoe, it just happens 10,000 feet above the earth.
What inspired that story and how did you make the concept believable?
In terms of the inspiration, it’s really simple. I was on a plane and I looked out the window. And I had the idea and then I wrote it.
The story, Aloft, is about a guy named Aubrey Griffin who goes on his first skydive. It goes horribly wrong and he winds up stranded on a semi-solid cloud that seems to respond to his thoughts. So when he needs a coatrack, the smoke of the cloud bubbles up and makes a sort of phantom coatrack that he can actually hang his stuff on. It makes a bed for him and a cloud girlfriend and a palace for him to live in. It will give him whatever he wants but it won’t let him go.
Part of that story was just that I loved the idea of a castaway story with such a strange setting. That story is also partially about how all of us sort of live in a world that’s 50 percent true and 50 percent what we want to believe—that a lot of what we know about other people is a mixture of fact and hope, or fact and imagination, and I sort of wanted to write a story about a guy who believes some things about a girl he’s passionately in love with who is gradually forced to face the fact that what he fell in love with was imaginary. It was his own set of fantasies, which maybe have no real bearing in reality.
Aloft is just one example of the stories you’ve written over the years where you take a concept and make it believable. Another example is from Twentieth Century Ghosts, the story “Pop Art,” where there’s a person who is inflatable.
Yes, it’s the story of a friendship between a juvenile delinquent and a boy named Arthur Roth. Arthur weighs about 12 ounces and if he sat down on a sharpened pencil, it would kill him. That was the first short story I ever wrote that made me really, really happy. That was sort of a creative turning point for me. Sometimes I think my whole career pivoted on that one short story, which I believe I wrote in 1999.
What made it such a crucial pivot point?
One of the things we haven’t talked about—and I don’t go out of my way to advertise it—is that I come from a writing family. My dad’s Steve King, my mom’s Tabitha King. My brother writes—Owen King, terrific writer. His wife, Kelly Braffet, terrific writer.
When I was in college, I decided to drop my last name and start writing as Joe Hill. I did it because I was terrifically insecure. I needed to know for me when I sold a story, I was selling it for the right reasons, not just because I had a famous dad. The other thing I decided in college that I was’t going to write fantasy. I wasn’t going to write stories of the supernatural, because that would be falling into the trap of being my dad’s son. So I did that for many years and wrote a lot of not very good New Yorker-type stories. And it was a weird choice to make because I had grown up reading Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore who told stories of the fantastic. Ray Bradbury and Arthur Conan Doyle. So it was a real turning away from the stuff—and I was a huge Stephen King fan.
After I had been writing these faux New Yorker stories for years, I read an essay by Bernard Malamud called “Why Fantasy?” And I revered Malamud. And in it he said, since all fiction was make believe, the tools of fantasy were as valid as anything else that you could do. The tools of fantasy were as valid as the tools of naturalism or realism. He talked about Lewis Carroll’s wonderland and Philip Roth’s New Jersey have something important in common, which is that neither of them exist. They are complete imaginary constructions. We think New Jersey is real when we read about it in Philip Roth’s stories, but it’s really just Philip Roth’s imaginary New Jersey. It’s not the real place.
This essay by Malamud was tremendously freeing. I suddenly realized that when I write as Joe Hill, no one has any idea who my dad is, and I can write whatever I want, and if I wanted to write about ghosts, I could write about ghosts. If I wanted to write a story about the weird and the fantastic, I could do that. Set free by this essay, I wrote “Pop Art.” I wrote it very quickly. It was tremendously satisfying. And I was on my way to become the writer I became.
Do you still feel insecure?
Yeah, I do. I still wrestle with a lot of anxiety about every new book is a fresh test. Will they like it this time? Will people enjoy it? Did I do a good job? Will they get bored, toss the book and go look at YouTube or Twitter? But I’m a lot more comfortable in my skin than I used to be.
Before it came out about my pen name, before people found out about my dad, I had a chance to get some validation. I sold some stories, I got in a “Best of” collection. I sold my first book of short stories to a small press in England. It was turned down by every publisher in New York. It was turned down by the presses in London. But Twentieth Century Ghosts was sold to Peter Crowther at PS Publishing, printed 1,500 copies. He bought the book not because I had a famous dad. He didn’t know anything about my family. He bought the book because he loved the stories.
So by the time it came out, I had built up a little more of a sense of self-worth. I was a little more comfortable in my own skin. And then, over the years, I’ve been very fortunate. People seem to have enjoyed the stories. And that does come with a growing sense of confidence. You know, maybe I’m not too bad at this. And I’m not my dad. He can do in six months what it takes me three years to do. It took me three years to write NOS4A2. Took me three years to write Fireman. I’m proud of them. I think they’re good books. But my dad could have written those same books in half the time. He’s an absolute engine of story. I’m just blown away with it.
But I am proud of the books I have written and I feel good about them and I think mostly people who read them like them.
And that comes with experience, right? If you do it for decades and decades, you get faster.
It does, it does. I’ve been publishing now for…I started publishing short stories in the late 90s. My first book came out, that small press edition of Twentieth Century Ghosts, in 2005. I wrote a six-volume graphic novel series that won some prizes and is being made into a TV show. There was a film made out of Horns. You knock around awhile, and if you’re lucky, you do have a chance to develop a little mental security that maybe you have found something you can do.
I wanted to ask you about the length of these stories. You chose short novels for Strange Weather and you’ve written stuff that’s much longer. What appeals to you about this length, the short novel?
I think stories of the weird and the supernatural—stories of suspense, stories of horror—really live their best lives a lot of times at a length of about 75 to 175 pages. The story of suspense that can be read in a single sitting is often the most satisfying and entertaining. It’s the most satisfying form that the thriller can take. I’m thinking of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, Woman in Black by Susan Hill, no relation. Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. It’s 180 pages and it’s his best novel and there’s not a single wasted word in the whole book.
I got talking about this, about these lean, taut, single-sitting stories of menace. Someone asked me, “You’re fighting that Dickensian impulse.” And I said, “Actually I don’t think so. Not at all.” We know Dickens wrote these sprawling novels with characters and juicy subplots and texture. But when you think about Dickens’ best known work—his single, best known work—the work that almost everyone on planet earth knows, that’s a 100 page ghost story called A Christmas Carol that can be read in a single sitting. So Dickens is kind of an argument for—he’s exhibit A for why these stories can be so great.
I want to ask about the story Rain because you wrote here that you had to change the ending somewhat—well, you didn’t have to change the ending, but you wanted to change the ending, as a result of the presidential election last year. Tell us about your thinking there?
We’re all very aware of climate change, and it’s weird because it’s sort of tough to think about. We know the world’s getting a little warmer. Sea levels are rising a little bit. There have been some mean hurricanes. But it’s such a big problem and it’s so nebulous and happening so slowly, it’s hard to wrap your head around it. I was thinking about climate change and I thought: what would people have to respond to? How would the climate have to change so that people had to react, where it would mean something to us? And I thought: If the climate changed so that clouds started raining nails instead of water, then we’d stop arguing about it and we’d start thinking about it as a problem.
So I wrote this story about thunderclouds that rain nails and people were getting shredded apart in the street. It was destroying infrastructure. If you’re out in the interstate and it starts raining, it’s like your car is getting strafed with machine gun fire. My lead character is a woman called Honeysuckle Speck, who aspires to belong to law enforcement, and in the course of this growing global catastrophe, she begins to work to solve a series of apparently trivial puzzles that turn out not to be so trivial once she’s solved them.
I wrote this Armageddon story and when I wrote it, I wrote it in I want to say early 2016 and the president of America at that time, in that version of the story, was this tired, besieged but basically competent woman. And then the election happened and I thought: I’m going to have to change that now. So I revised it and I want people to laugh and I thought, “Well, what would be the funniest thing I could do to this revision?” And then I thought it would be funny if the president kept tweeting his crazy tweets. So I had him tweet during the apocalypse. Because I assumed he wouldn’t keep tweeting that way. It wouldn’t be like an episode of WWF wrestling with a lot of online taunting. So when I stuck it in there, I have him tweeting our way toward nuclear war. It never crossed my mind that, by the time the book got published, that would be a vaguely plausible scenario.
That was totally plausible.
You know, people are going to think that this book has a political agenda. The actual agenda of the stories is to be scary. To be fun. To keep people turning the pages. So the first story, Snapshot, is about a boy in a desperate struggle with a man who has a camera that can steal memories. That’s one story. Loaded is about the scariest figure in America right now, which is the gun nut. We’re all terrified to our nerve-endings by the gun nut. So I wanted to write about that. Aloft is about the fear of heights and the fear of isolation and being stranded and dying of exposure and starvation. And Rain is about the fear that the very weather we live with could turn lethally against us. In each case, the goal was to entertain. I do think, if you do your job well, and you’re tuned into the society around you, a story will assume other resonances, and it’s true. Thunderclouds aren’t going to start to rain nails, but if you’re living in Puerto Rico or on the gulf coast of Texas, you know the weather can be pretty mean, anyway. Pretty cool and uncaring. And that’s scary.
So many of our fears are tied into life living in a society, with other people, some of whom are healthy, some are not.
Some are not. And that’s why we turn to fiction. That’s what fiction is for. There are questions we don’t want to think about because they’re too upsetting. We don’t want to think: what if the diagnosis comes back and it’s cancer? I’m going to find out the clock is ticking down and ticking down fast. It’s fears of your own mortality are terrifying and we don’t generally like to wrestle with them in a conscious way on a daily basis.
But we can turn to a work of fiction and in a work of fiction we can read about a vampire that is slowly draining someone’s life a day at a time, making them weaker and weaker and this person’s time is running out before they join the ranks of the dead. The metaphor is pretty obvious. The vampire is a stand-in for cancer. The vampire is the stand-in for the illness that could threaten your life. And in the safe playground of fiction, we can take an idea like that and we can have fun with it and we can experience a little emotional rehearsal, a little psychological rehearsal for what the real thing might be like. Not the vampire, but the illness, which is what the vampire stands for.
I think that’s important. I think that good fiction is about something larger than just a clever idea.
I want to tell you something that I experienced about a year ago. I was at Bull Moose in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Mike Doughty was doing a live concert.
I was there. You were there?
I was there! And I recognized you. And I got super excited because I loved your work. And my girlfriend encouraged me to say hi, but I didn’t want to bother you. But you were looking through the vinyl.
I think you bought something but I wasn’t quite sure. Fast-forward to now, where I’ve read a bunch of your books, and there’s so much music in the books. In Heart-Shaped Box, the guy’s a rock star. In Aloft, the main character was in a band—
Yeah, and he was in a band with the girl for whom he did a tribute skydive. So I wanted to ask you about music. Let’s start with vinyl. Are you a big vinyl fan? A collector of vinyl?
I am. I’ve gone completely back to vinyl. Part of that is when I’m working on the computer—writing something, revising something—I try to be disconnected from the internet. So much of our music is stored online. I love listening to vinyl because it never bleeps with a text message. The record never gets interrupted with a phone call. It just plays. Also, a well-constructed album is a lot like reading a novella. It has a story, it has themes that play out across a dozen tracks. Randomly skipping through a selection of favorites on a playlist can be a lot of fun sometimes, but I like to get one voice. I like to throw on an old Ray Charles album or something and just follow that train of thought from side A to side B.
The other thing is that I’m a huge British invasion guy. I love the Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Kinks. I grew up with that music. I don’t know when I became completely obsessed with it, but I managed to get all my kids obsessed with it. I have three teenage boys. The oldest boy is a tremendous drummer. The middle boy shreds. He’s a great guitarist. The youngest boy sings. And—
Do you play an instrument?
I play a little piano very badly. I can play “Werewolves of London.” That’s almost like professionally required, though. When you write horror fiction, you have to know how to play “Werewolves of London” or you gotta go home. Or you should know the lyrics by heart.
I’ve managed to work my Beatles/Stones obsession into every single book. You know, it’s there in The Fireman. It’s there in Heart-Shaped Box. It’s there in NOS4A2. It’s there in Horns. One of the last part of Horns is called “The Gospel According to Mick and Keith.”
Horns itself has a double-meaning. It’s the horns of the devil on his head and the horns played as musical instruments in his family.
It is. It is. The other thing—it’s actually a word with many meanings. Ig, the lead character of Horns—goes through a period of torment because he believes his girlfriend has been unfaithful to him. And, of course, the Elizabethan meaning of wearing horns is to be cuckolded by a lady. So that’s all there. A lot of wordplay in Horns. More in Horns than in pretty much anything else I’ve ever written.
You’re just launching Strange Weather, but do you have your next project in mind?
The artist Gabriel Rodriguez and myself spent seven years working on a comic book called Locke & Key, which is about a haunted New England mansion full of enchanted keys, and each key opens a different door with a different supernatural power. This comic has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s a complete story. It’s not like The Flash, which has been around for 50 years, and every issue he keeps flashing. Nothing else happens, he’s just flashing again! So that’s being turned into a TV show by Hulu. And they’re filming it now up in Nova Scotia. And Carlton Cuse is producing and it’s being directed by Andy Muschietti, who directed a great horror film called Mama, and another picture that did okay this summer, about a clown, I forget the title.
It escapes me. [Laughs]
Yeah, but that was a pretty good one, too.
It’s It, by the way. We should let our listeners know.
It is It. It’s got Danny Glover in it, and Frances O’Connor. I wrote the first script and second script. I’m working on the third script with C. Robert Cargill, who wrote the screenplays for Dr. Strange and Sinister and has a terrific novel out called Sea of Rust. Awesome science fiction. And I’m very hands-on with the show. We haven’t got a series order yet, but the pilot looks incredibly cinematic and beautiful. So I’m very hopeful we’ll be on next summer. Touch wood.