Taking the Bull by the ‘Horns’: A Conversation with Genre-Bending Author Joe Hill

Is a 'Darkside' reboot still in the works?

Joe Hill at a premiere of Horns. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Joe Hill at a premiere of Horns. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

Joe Hill might not like me telling you this, but he’s a phenomenal horror writer. I’ve tried to read his books–Horns (the movie version of which stars Daniel Radcliffe and opened on Halloween), Heart-Shaped BoxNOS4A2 (say it out loud, you’ll get it) and his anthology 20th Century Ghosts–every Halloween. But though the son of Stephen and Tabitha King has a pedigree in the dark stuff, he told me at the Trump SoHo that he eschews traditional genre labels. “I love the fantastic,” he said, before going on to quote Bernard Malamud on Philip Roth. (Seriously.) Add that to Hill’s ability to drop serious fandom terminology into every day conversations–Mary Sue, “inscapes” and a conversational opener about his love for RavenClaw–and you have the formula for a perfect interview.

I rarely, rarely write interviews as straight transcripts. It’s a style and it works for some people, but I’m more of a profile gal myself. It’s hard for me to read a conversation on the page and imagine it out loud unless there are some descriptive terms plopped down somewhere. But Mr. Hill is that rare subject–the kind that still comes off more fanboy than famous–that I thought I’d let his rhetoric speak for itself.

In terms of descriptions? We were in a room. He was a wearing a fancy scarf, like our own Jack Smith IV. I asked him if it was a Harry Potter-themed scarf. And….go!

Joe Hill: It’s definitely not a Gryffindor thing. Maybe Ravenclaw? I think I would be a Ravenclaw.

Observer: Really? I’m in Slytherin. I just feel like Team Slytherin all the way.

JH: You know something? My girlfriend says she’d be a Slytherin, too.

Observer: Really?

JH: Yeah.

Observer: Maybe it’s for chicks who like bad boys.

JH: Yeah no, maybe that is what it is, you know? Right? I think maybe I’d be a Ravenclaw because I like to do crossword puzzles and sort of, keep sort of introverted and sort of keep to myself and stuff.

Observer: You never hear people say they wanna be Hufflepuff. That’s like the one that no one ever wants to be part of.

JH: Yeah… yeah, well I mean that’s like—that’s the stoner one, right?

Observer: I think, um, Byron-esque, if you like Byron-esque men you probably are like Slytherin.

JH: Well, well, nah, nah, hang on a second now. Ravenclaw, though? Don’t you think like—I think that like Percy Shelley would be a Ravenclaw. I think most writers would be in Ravenclaw.

Observer: They’re literary…

JH: …‘Cause I feel like Ravenclaw is like—that’s, that’s probably the more academic of the four…you know, of the four dorms.

Observer: It’d be like the St. John’s track for Hogwarts.

JH: Yeah. You know, I assume when Hermione put on the talking hat there, the sorting hat, that um, it initially recommended that she go to Ravenclaw. But she chose Gryffindor. That would be a good story. I’d like to take your take.

Observer: Okay so my fanfiction, my next Chamber of Secrets fanfiction, I’ll just write about that.

JH: Okay, sounds good.

Observer: So, I love your novel, Horns. Actually it’s so weird, I have a tradition every Halloween of picking up one of your books…

JH: Aww, that’s so nice!

Observer: So actually at this time last year I was reading Horns. And I remember just being like, “Oh, like this is so creepy.” And then I also read Heart-Shaped Box the same—that same last year, because I was just like, “I need to reread that book.” The only one I haven’t gotten to is the graphic novel, which I’m very despondent about, ‘cause all my friends are huge fans of it.

JH: Locke & Key?

A panel from Locke & Key.
A panel from Locke & Key.

Observer: Yeah! See, I love comics, but for some reason it’s fallen off in the last couple years and it’s, now I read everything with Kindle, and…

JH: Well, you know, you know, see, a lot of people read the digital comics, and yeah, and I mean, Comixology is great. But I am going to encourage you to, to find a local comic store and support. My girlfriend largely buys digital comics, um, or did, did for a while, and then she stopped. But she said, “You know I don’t really have an apartment to keep five long boxes—You know? Full of comics. And that, I sort of understand. But I still think if you want to enjoy a two-page spread, you have to have the physical item.

Observer: Right, and it’s kind of like—not to be a total millennial—but it’s like, it’s like vinyl, you know? It’s something you wanna own, even for the nostalgia factor of being able to be like, “I have Watchmen first edition.”

JH: Yeah, I’m not sure, I’m not sure there are a lot of casual analogies between books and music and about how, you know, everything, you know, music—CDs were replaced by the iPod and books are gonna be replaced by e-readers… actually maybe even it’s a false and not-quite-accurate analogy.

Observer: Why’s that?

JH: Um, well, first of all, the proof is in the pudding. Um, the iPod came along and destroyed CDs. You know? It destroyed the whole market for selling—everything is digital now. But, e-book, e-readers and e-books have been around for twenty years.

Observer: But Amazon, I mean, is like completely undercutting… I mean, just from a distribution model, like Amazon’s completely undercutting… and when people are trying to promote their first books, they, you know, usually have to link to the Amazon link instead of a book store. And then they’re like, “Wait, I don’t support Amazon.”

JH: Well, I think that—I think that, you know, and I don’t have anything against Amazon. They’ve done—they’ve sold a lot of my books and been… they’ve been great to me. But I think that it’s clear that the whole market for e-books tapered off around 25, 30 percent. It stopped growing. You know? And I think one of the reasons why is because people spend so much time looking at screens, you know? So much time connected, that they want their experience of reading to be different, to be disconnected time, unconnected time, focused time when you’re looking at the page and not a screen. And I think that—there is, you know, there’s some beautiful e-ink  readers that I’ve read, short magazine pieces on tablets and stuff, but there’s a feeling of distraction when you’re holding a device, you know? If things slow down, you get tempted to check your email, or look at Twitter, or look something up on Wikipedia…

Observer: And what if it runs out of batteries when you’re on a plane, god forbid.

JH: Yeah, I mean, and so, and—right, so exactly, and the batteries run down. So I think that—I think that the devices are the tools of distraction and that books, the physical item, is how you get undistracted. It’s how you rediscover your own ability to concentrate. And to shut out to world. And you know, gather information in a way that’s analog, not digital.

Observer: But isn’t analog, by definition—I’m not, I’m just making a devil’s advocate point here—

JH: Right.

Observer: By definition, it is—it is more cumbersome. I love e-books, this, because I can have ten books on here, and I’m one of those people that gets very anxious if I finish one book and I don’t have another one on me.

JH: The problem is… the problem is, is that we can make our devices digital, but we are analog.

Observer: Yeah, until the singularity, we’re analog.

JH: I mean, unfortunately, unfortunately, you know, um, our brains consume material in an analog way. And, um, and anyone who thinks that human beings are great at multi-tasking should look up the statistics about driving and texting. Okay? I mean the truth is, is human beings really, really tend to only do one thing well at a time. And especially information, you know, the devices and the constant connectivity teach people to, they teach people to be distracted. Everyone knows this. Everyone knows if we spend too much time online, you feel over-caffeinated. “Wired” used to be a phrase for being coked-up. Now when you’re wired, I would argue that you often feel exactly the same way. Coked-up.

Observer: And you’re on Ritalin, usually.

JH: Yeah, you’re buzzing, and there have even been studies that when people read stuff on a screen—any screen, even an e-ink screen—that they tend to read in an F-shaped pattern. So they’ll read the first couple lines all the way across, then they’ll read the next few lines but only halfway across, then they begin to glide down the left-hand margin of the screen, looking for important terms of data. When people are presented with books on paper, I don’t know why, they don’t read in the F-shape, they read left to right.

Observer: Well yeah, and there’s actually like weird apps, I’ve tried them out, like once or twice, but they never really caught on for me, where they do something where you put in the tags and they just like pull out the subsequent important words. And the rest kind of fly by, so you have an article, you can decide the speed, but you only get like the main words of a sentence. It’s almost, like, to compress reading into the fastest, most logical kind of cyborg way.

JH: Yeah. Well this is, this is kind of like, if I could—if I could rework my biology so I can download books directly into my brain, I wouldn’t. Because that’s missing the point. It’s—you know, sitting out there, sitting on the deck with my cup of tea and the book, to be quiet and absorb the story slowly is the whole point. It’s a meditative experience. It’s, you know, that’s what I do instead of, you know, meditating in my rock garden.

Observer: Can’t like—yeah, with yoga, you can’t just download like a sort of transcendental experience.

JH: Exactly. You cannot—you cannot yet download contentment or tranquility. You can download—

Observer: I think you’ve got your next book idea.

JH: [laughs] Yeah, maybe. Yeah.

Observer: Well what do you think of like, actually the genre of modern art as we have it in this last couple years, how do you think it’s doing?

JH: Well, I don’t pay much attention to it. I think that, um, you know, I mean, I love genre elements. I love superheroes. I love ghosts. I love demons.

Observer: I love your short story about the guy who has the power of flight over his brother.

JH: “The Cape.”

Observer: Oh my gosh.

JH: Yeah.

Observer: I love that story. Sorry.

JH: No, it’s okay. I love the fantastic. You know? Writing fiction is make-believe. Um, you know, my hero Bernard Malamud had a thing where he said, you know, “Philip Roth’s New Jersey is a complete fictional construct as purely an element of the fantastic as Alice’s Wonderland.” You know? Neither place is real. You think Philip Roth’s New Jersey is real, but it only exists in Philip Roth’s head and in the head of his readers. You know? It’s a make-believe place and Malamud said with that, once you accept that all fiction is fantasy, you can see that writing about a ghost can be very powerful. Writing about the troll under the bridge can be very powerful. And there’s no reason you shouldn’t feel free to use those—all the elements, all the tools of make-believe. So I love the make-believe. I love the fantastic. Um, but I don’t really think—yeah I don’t really seek stuff because people said… you know, I don’t really think in terms of, you know, horror fiction or science fiction or, you know, or, you know… I like… I write…

Observer: How do you know what movies to see?

JH: Well, I like writers like Lauren Beukes, you know, I don’t think of Lauren Beukes as a thriller writer or a horror writer or a dark fantasy writer even though her stories incorporate all those elements. I love her sentences, her ability to construct scenes, her dialogue and characters and that’s why I read her. I read Elmore Leonard for the same reason. Elmore Leonard is unbelievable. And I love him whether he’s writing Westerns or Crime novels. It’s sort of above genre. And I also think we’re living in a really exciting time for genre. You know, you have writers like John Letham, and Michael Chabon—Gillian Flynn–you have these writers who are essentially literary writers who cheerfully throw genre elements into the stew. You know? And then you have other writers like Neil Gaiman who are writing genre but very, in a very literary way. You know, there’s—there is as much literary value in any Neil Gaiman story as there is in anything John Cheever ever wrote.

Observer: Are we putting like genre on the opposite end of literary?

JH: No, not at all, and what a relief. And that’s kind of what I’m saying is I’m saying we’re living in a time where, where genre is not apart from the rest of literature. We’re living in a time where ostensibly literary writers want to write ghost stories and horror stories and fantasy stories, and where fantasy writers are strongly encouraged and science fiction writers are strongly encouraged, you know, to play with character, to explore character, to explore deep themes and ask big questions, to care about how their sentences sound, you know, to look for some music in the language, to learn to write dialogue that feels vivid and realistic as opposed to clunky sci-fi dialogue.

Observer: Yeah, no, right, dialogue is very important, that’s like my most important criteria, to have good dialogue.

JH: Good dialogue, right, you wanna have some dialogue that’s got, you know, that has the rhythms and possibilities of real-life dialogue. You can see that in that there’s so much great writing going on in TV right now.

Observer: It’s crazy! Right?

JH: So much—so much wonderful writing going on and, you know, The Paris Review did an interview with Matthew Weiner, the show-writer showrunner on Mad Men, and it was as good as any of the, you know, any of the other Paris, you know, review interviews with great literary voices.

Observer: Yeah, exactly.

JH: You know? And he said such funny things—he said, “The guys who come to write for TV are writers who hate being alone even more than they hate writing.” I just thought, “That’s awesome! That’s so true.” You know? But we are living in this time of incredibly overtly literary television experiences, you know—Mad Men, and you know, Walking Dead, Sons of Anarchy, and you know, Orange is the New Black, and you know—big stories with lots of exploration of character. And a lot of different moods—humor in one episode, tragedy in another, you know, and giant stories that have wheels moving inside of wheels. And that is a kind of storytelling that we are—being lazy, often called Dickensian—but really what we just mean, what we just mean is more like the kind of big scope of 19th century novels, you know? Not just Dickens, but Purdy, and the Russian novelists, and Twain—

Observer: A whole-world creator.

JH: Yeah, a thing where, a thing where the world is big and every character matters—there are no bit-parts; every character is the hero of their own story.

Observer: Yes. Exactly. Well would you ever think of taking any of your books to TV?

JH: Well I’ve done some TV writing…

Observer: You have?

JH: Yeah, I wrote a pilot for a reboot of Tales from the Darkside. But—the 80s show—My version is called Darkside and it’s very different. It has an overarching story, it has repeating characters, it has connections…

Observer: Like from season to season, like the way American Horror Story is… anthology, or…?

JH:  Yeah, but also from episode to episode.

Observer: Oh from episode to episode, so they’re self-contained, and you have…

JH: They are self-contained episodes, but they’re the kind of—not to give too much away—but it’s the kind of thing where the lead character—one story, one Twilight-Zone story—in the next episode will be the waiter, you know? Serving stuff, and you’re like, “Oh my god, that’s that character from the last one!” You know, the regular story…

Observer: And everyone could finally be like, “I know that guy!” I love to be the kind of person that’s always saying during movies, “I know that actor.”

JH: And the gears of the story all connect eventually so when you stand back there’s a bigger framework and it reveals something…

Observer: That sounds brilliant. So is that happening?

JH: Well, I don’t know if it’s happening or not. I wrote one episode, I wrote the material for some others, and um, you know, the checks keep coming in, but who knows if they’ll ever make it. So—but, and you know, I think my last book, Nos4a2, has a big world and a lot of characters and a lot of stuff about inscapes and, you know—

Observer: Inscapes. I’ve never actually heard somebody like use that in an interview. That’s so cool.

JH: Well, um, so there’s a lot—so that could be like a fun TV thing, and I don’t know if it ever will be, but I think it could be fun. And, you know, I would love to do some TV work, but, but I’m also afraid to commit too much to TV, because I spent years when I couldn’t get published, when I couldn’t sell stuff, and I—it sort of—I really love writing a story and then connecting it with an audience, and to me that’s more important than a paycheck. And the money in film and TV is great, but the satisfaction is not. There’s a lot of work that never gets released—TV shows… you know, they made a TV show out of my comic, Locke & Key. Fox filmed a $10 million pilot directed by Mark Romanek who did Never Let Me Go—beautiful, beautiful pilot, very satisfying, very fun. The TV show is now in its third hit season in my imagination. In real life, in real life, you know, Fox decided to go with Alcatraz instead.

Observer: Do you ever think of doing what David Lynch did with Mulholland Drive, though? ABC wouldn’t pick it up so he just stuck an ending on it and then released it as a film.

JH: Yeah, released it as a film. Well, in this case, it was produced by Alex Kurtzman who has taken it over now to Universal, and Universal’s talking about doing a film trilogy. It started from scratch, not using any of the Fox stuff, but doing a film trilogy based on the comic book series. And that—that might happen. So, but so, my fear is getting into, getting deep, eye-ball deep into a TV show that never happened, you know, or spending six months writing a screenplay and then it comes into turnaround instead of getting made. And my question is, “Why do that when I can do the same story as a comic book or novel or a short story and I know it’s gonna get out there, and then it could still be a film. You know? Someone else could take it. Alexander Aja could direct it and cast Daniel Radcliffe in it.

Observer: Yeah, so I guess that brings us in a really natural way to this movie. This is—I wanna make sure I have this right—this is your first book to get made into a film?

JH: Yeah, this is—there was the Locke & Key pilot, which was never aired. Um, so this is the first time I’ve had something with, which, where—a couple short films were made out of short stories. But this is the first—yeah, this is the first feature film ever made out of one of my books.

Observer: And I just kind of put it together—Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter, obviously. You probably did a lot of Harry Potter reading after he was cast as Ig.

JH: Well I love the Harry Potter novels, and I love the Harry Potter films, and I think those are a tremendous influence on me and I think those are terrific stories. I’ve always thought too that it was kind of like, you know—Lucas did the Star Wars prequels, you know, and they’re so unwatchable, so terrible, just horrible films about the genesis of this evil that becomes Darth Vader. And I always kinda felt like J.K. Rowling did, you know, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and it was kind of like, “Let me—let me show you how this is done. You wanna see how evil comes into the world? I got you covered. George, check this out.” You know? And I just think that’s such a magnificent—you know, I love all the books—but that one especially is such a magnificent read.

Observer: They’re so incredible… so when you heard that Daniel… did Daniel get attached to the script?

Daniel Radcliffe in Horns.
Daniel Radcliffe in Horns.

JH: I was, yeah, and I was terrifically excited because, when he accepted the screenplay, it was just after I had seen Woman in Black. And I just thought, I just thought, “Oh my god, this is the best—I love Hammer movies, this is the best Hammer film of all time, Daniel Radcliffe was so great in it,” and I just felt like we hit the pop-culture jackpot. That said, you know, I felt we had a chance to make a really good film. He did everything I hoped he would do and then exceeded it by a great deal.

Observer: His American accent is like killer.

JH: Oh yeah. The character in the story experiences a lot emotionally. You know, there’s a lot of grief and rage and loss and madness. And Dan was able to do all those things in an hour and 45 minutes and make it look easy.

Observer: Maybe this is just on my mind because of all the Gone Girl culture right now, but watching the movie and re-reading Horns, I thought I noticed some parallels between Ig and Nick Dunne. The question of, you know, he’s been accused of this hideous crime and he’s not reacting normally to it, so could he have possibly done it?

JH: My idea about the story was “What would it do to you to know the darkest secrets about everyone you loved?” To know the darkest stuff inside them? And I thought “I don’t care if you were the best person in the world, or the kindest person. It would destroy you. It would turn you into a devil. But then in the course of writing the book I found out it wasn’t true. That even when forced with the worst in the people you loved, you could still maintain a humanity.

But I would say it’s somewhat of a surprise to me that Horns got made at all. You know it’s not really a horror film. It’s a love story with a black comedy in it, and sort of a Kafka-esque concept. You know with my other novels and Locke & Key, they have fantastic elements, but they’re all kind of explained, they abide by their own internal rules. Horns is very much like Kafka: Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and he’s an insect. Everything else is the same, but he’s a bug.

But Gregor Samsa felt like an insect even before he turned–his family looked at him like an insect, he felt pointless, his job was to just push paper. He felt like a bug, so he become one. And in Ig’s case, he’s lost the person most important to him. And for any of us, that would be hell. And everyone thinks he’s the person who killed her. So he becomes literally the face of the devil. In both the film and the novel you have this internal truth becoming external, in a way that’s never really explained. It’s not exactly horror film material, though.

Observer: The inscapes that you made reference to in Nos4ra2…one of the most interesting throwaway details was that the character was able to see Pennywise the Clown, from your father’s book IT. And I know this must be a tired question, but how have your parents’ work influenced the way you write–or don’t write–in the horror genre?

JH: You know both my parents are wonderful writers, and I couldn’t imagine a better classroom of writing than the household I grew up in. For me, two things I decided in college. One was that I would never write scary fiction, and two was that I never wanted to be known as Stephen King’s son. And so I dropped my last name and wrote for ten years without anyone finding out about my dad. And in that time I was able to sell short stories to literary magazines, to sell a book of short stories to a small press in England, and I was able to build up some confidence in myself I desperately needed. I was able to sell those stories for the right reasons: that people liked them, and because I had done them well…not because I had a famous daddy.

So I was able to create a persona that felt like my own space and my own identity, but I found I couldn’t get away from horror and fantasy. I loved them too much to not write them. Growing up, my friends were reading Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone, and I was reading Fangoria. I was reading horror magazines. All my favorite films were horror films, and ghost stories and science fiction. I was–and am!–a huge Stephen King fan. And I loved all those novels, I read them over and over again.

And as an artist, the material you’re stuck using is your own life: your childhood, your enthusiasms, your passions, your own inscapes.

Observer: So Ig not being able to play the horn like the rest of his family…

JH: Well, I guess that’d be me if I couldn’t write. But Ig is not me, Ig is a lot better than me. Ig isn’t my Mary Sue. He’s got a sweetness and innocence that is just not me. I know a lot of people who write characters that are modified versions of them. I try to write characters that are as different from me as I can get.


Taking the Bull by the ‘Horns’: A Conversation with Genre-Bending Author Joe Hill