Joe Hill didn’t want to ride on his father’s coat tails as a writer, so he invented a name and went out on his own, says Ed Power
Joe Hill is talking about The Secret. “I didn’t want anyone to know my father was Stephen King,” says the bestselling horror novelist, born Joseph Hillstrom King. “When I was in college and wanted to be a writer I abandoned my last name and wrote as Joe Hill.”
Hill maintained the fiction as long as he could. Not because he was ashamed to be the son of American popular literature’s answer to Charles Dickens. He worried that, were his family connections public knowledge, any success he might achieve would be tinged by the suspicion it had all come too easy.
“I kept it a secret for a decade. During that time I wrote a bunch of books I couldn’t get published. I wrote a bunch of short stories that I couldn’t get published. I also wrote some short stories that did sell and won prizes. And I wrote a Spider-Man [series] — I broke into Marvel comics.”
Yet Hill’s growing prominence made it harder to maintain what was essentially a fake identity. He bears an astonishing resemblance to his father and at horror conventions, people would comment on the likeness. In the end there was no choice but walk out with his hands up: Yes, he was Stephen King’s eldest son.
“For ten years not even my agent knew,” he says. “I was a very insecure guy. I wanted to be sure that when I sold a story I sold it for the right reasons. Not because I had a famous dad.”
He needn’t have fretted. Hill has effortlessly stepped outside the shadow of King senior — quite an achievement considering both operate in the commercial horror milieu and often tap the same reservoir of eerie Americana. That’s particularly true of Hill’s latest, The Fireman, a chunky page-turner in the tradition of King blockbusters such as The Stand and It.
“There are artists who do demanding work and push the limits of what is possible with a novel and are deeply advancing the art,” says Hill. “That’s not me. I’m very conscious that we live in an age of distraction. Everyone has a high-speed internet connection in their pocket, the web is full of, you know, funny cat videos — stuff to be outraged about on social media. I am painfully aware of the night to fight for the reader’s attention on every page.”
The Fireman is post-apocalyptic with a twist. There are no zombies or biker gangs scooping out one another’s brains. Instead, society has been defenestrated by an apparently supernatural contagion that causes sufferers to spontaneously combust. Moreover, in focusing on the experiences of those infected with “dragonscale” — rather than those trying to eradicate them — Hill paints a brave and hopeful portrait of humanity. The Fireman at its heart conveys a deeply optimistic and humane vision: No matter how dark the situation, people will behave in a fundamentally decent fashion
The idea of humankind going up in literal flames flows from what Hill considers the absurdities of American politics.
It was the last presidential election and Obama was potentially running against the governor of Texas, who says there is no such thing as global warming. I remember the president saying, ‘this man doesn’t believe in global warming and his whole state is on fire’. I thought, ‘what if those fires were everywhere? What if it wasn’t just Texas. What if there were also fires in New Hampshire, in Seattle… everywhere?’ That’s when I came up with the idea of contagion and humanity being potentially wiped out.”
He thinks of The Fireman — to be adapted into a movie by Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me, The Incredible Hulk) — as the ‘anti-Walking Dead’. On the hit TV show (and the graphic novels from which it is adapted) grunting alpha males stomp around shooting zombies. Hill wanted to push back against this “kill or be killed” vision of the end of civilisation.
“On The Walking Dead they have a heterosexual white dude in a cowboy hat who is relentlessly killing the infected. I’d rather root for the sick – be on the side of the contaminated. The Fireman inverts the thinking behind The Walking Dead. The trigger for spontaneous combustion is stress and anxiety. You have people who want to kill those with dragonscale, so that they don’t burst into flames. And it’s true: there is a feeling now in America that we have to protect what we have from all these others.”
He has been fascinated with spontaneous combustion since childhood, when he developed a morbid dread of the condition and fretted he might randomly go up in smoke at any moment. “I became convinced I was going to die. And it seemed very unfair as my life had only begun.”
“I was having fun and enjoying things. I thought it was wrong that my body’s biology would turn against me. I was haunted by that for several years as an adolescent. In adulthood you look back and think, “hmm– that was actually the brain wrestling with the idea of puberty… this period when your body’s chemistry is coming to a boil.’”
Hill is 43 and so grew up when his father was at the height of his success. It must have been strange — to see Stephen King’s name plastered everywhere and then go home and have his dad pattering around the kitchen in his slippers.
“I didn’t know if I was really that disconnected,” he says. “One of the first writers I fell in love with was Stephen King. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading Talisman for the first time and feeling blown away. I had no idea a novel could be that much fun. I loved Spielberg — Jaws, Raiders, Close Encounters. In my dad I felt I had discovered someone who could do with words that Spielberg could do on the page.”
Is it frustrating to toil in the shadow of a father you cannot hope to eclipse? “I have a ridiculously unfair advantage — outrageously unfair. I come from a family with money. I’m a white male in America — it doesn’t get better than that. I’d had a lot of really unfair breaks.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved