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Shane Leonard

Joe Hill interview: ‘it’s my goal to write like a psychopath’

The famous-fathered horror novelist on un-sexifying vampires, Hannibal Lecter and latest book ‘NOS4R2’


Let’s get this out of the way nice and early – Joe Hill is the son of horror fiction powerhouse Stephen King. But there’s a lot more to the 40-year-old novelist than spooky genes – his second novel ‘Horns’ is being turned into a Daniel Radcliffe-starring blockbuster as we speak and follow-up ‘NOS4R2’ has just been released to a flurry of praise. Precisely none of which has come from teenage girls…

Is your new novel in any way a backlash against the recent sexification of vampire culture?
‘I think it was my attempt to try to write a vampire story without really writing a vampire story, you know – they’re not very interesting. I’m a little bit baffled by how they became such a phenomenon. I don’t find anything particularly sexy about them; they’re no more sexy than a leech or a mosquito. I don’t find sleeping in dirt particularly erotic.’

How would you assess the state of health of the horror genre at the moment?
‘If you look at what’s happening in both books and film you can see a lot of projects with great ambitions and fascinating characters, and a shared sense of humour and playfulness. I would point to movies like “Mama” and “The Cabin in the Woods” and books like “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” and “The Passage”, where it’s evident that these are writers with undisguised literary ambitions playing with horror tropes. And that’s a lot more interesting than where things were a few years ago when the genre seemed like it was lapsing into this torture porn thing, which wasn’t offensive so much as bland.’

How involved are you in the upcoming movie version of ‘Horns’, your novel about a young man who acquires the powers of the devil after the death of his girlfriend?
‘For the most part I’ve just been a cheerleader. Daniel Radcliffe seems to be this genuinely decent guy who attacked the lead role with earnestness, and he brings a sense of naivety and kindness. It’s interesting to see him struggling not to become a demon. You know, to see Harry Potter giving way to the Voldemort inside. That’s kind of exciting.’

You’re pleased with the choice of Radcliffe, then?
‘I don’t exactly know how to explain this, but when you look at the Harry Potter films you see this squad of kids who all grew up to be these tremendously grounded, decent people, who seem to be genuinely interested in becoming complete actors. That never would have happened in America. The only thing that I can think of is in America it may be that acting is deeply, deeply connected with fantasies of celebrity, and that in England acting is more treated as a trade craft. I would love if “Horns” was as good as “The Woman in Black”. That’s kind of what I think everyone is hoping for, that lightning will strike twice.’

Both of your parents and your brother are established fiction writers. How does your writing process differ to theirs?
‘I think both my brother Owen and I kind of absorbed my dad’s work ethic, which is this idea that you go into the office for a few hours every day, including the weekends, and you grind out a few more pages. Both of us are probably a little bit more neurotic than my dad, we have a tendency to fuss longer over pieces.’ 

Do you find being compared to your dad a problem?
‘You look at our dad and he’s a man who’s put together an astonishing body of work and I think that both my brother and I have an awareness of being judged against him. And it makes you a little more careful. In the end you rise or fall on the merits of your own work. Someone may buy your first book because you have a famous daddy, but if it’s no good they won’t buy the second one. I started writing as Joe Hill, and I was able to stay anonymous for about a decade, and that was important time for me. I had a chance to make my mistakes in private, which is where they belong. If I was writing as Joseph King I never would have written horror or dark fantasy, because I just would have been too tense over the natural comparisons.’ 

Do you give each other feedback on your work?
‘Absolutely – you couldn’t wish for a better pair of writing teachers than my parents. With “NOS4R2”, I showed the first draft to my mom and she really liked it. But then she got to the end and she said, “But you know the last couple of chapters just won’t do Joe.” And I knew she was right so I chucked them out and I wrote a new ending.’ 

They don’t hold back?
‘I do think that my parents are parents, you know. I mean they thought I was probably one of the great writers of American fiction when I showed them my first story at nine, because that’s like every parent ever. But at the same time, you know, these are people who between them read 250 books a year, so there is an awareness of what works and what doesn’t. But then, sometimes, as any writer has to, you have to be able to sort of say, well this is the story I wanna tell!’ 

Have you managed to get a glimpse of ‘Doctor Sleep’, your dad’s follow-up to ‘The Shining’?
‘To be honest, I particularly avoided reading “Doctor Sleep”. Some of that story is set in Colorado, some of my story is set in Colorado, my book has a thematic concern with vampirism, “Doctor Sleep” has some concerns with vampirism. I do read my dad, but I try not to overdose, because I’m always worried about my own voice slipping away and starting to compose my sentences and paragraphs the same way he does, which I just don’t think would be good for me aesthetically.’ 

Are you working on any other TV or movie projects?
‘My ongoing comic series “Locke and Key” was actually filmed as a pilot for Fox, but unfortunately never made it to air. Fox felt it was a little too dark and a little too scary, so they decided to make “Hannibal” instead, which as you can imagine is light and frothy. I’ve actually heard that it’s really good, but we already have “Dexter” and there’s “Bates Motel” and you wonder at what point we’ll stop worshipping psychopaths and get back to having shows about heroes. But “Hannibal” was on my mind when I worked on “NOS4R2”. In the first draft, there was a 100-page backstory about my bad guy, Charlie Manx, which was immensely satisfying to write, and taught me a lot about the character. But in the second draft I cut the whole thing right out, because I started thinking about Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader. When we first saw Hannibal Lecter in “Red Dragon” he was the scariest thing ever and he’s only in that book for two chapters. And when we met him in “The Silence of the Lambs” – no one can ever forget those scenes between him and Jodie Foster – it seems the whole movie was about him, but he’s actually only on screen for about 16 minutes.’ 
So it’s enough for the bad guy to be a presence?
‘That’s right! But then there was a sequel, and then another movie, and now there’s the TV series. And the problem is, the more familiar he becomes, the less scary he is, until eventually he’s like your toaster. He’s just this thing you’re acquainted with that has no special power over you whatsoever. The scariest monster in the history of popular entertainment is the shark in “Jaws”, who is maddeningly off screen for two thirds of the picture. And it’s that: it’s not seeing him that makes him so powerful, and makes him so frightening. And so, when I was working on “NOS4R2”, I made this decision to whack a lot of material that explained where Charlie came from, and who he was before he was full vampire. I needed to write that material because I needed to understand the character, but that doesn’t mean the reader needed to read it.’ 

Does it hurt to have to throw away so much material, so many hours of work?
‘I cut without any feeling whatsoever; it doesn’t bother me at all. What would really hurt is publishing a book that’s 250 pages too long, and people quit before they finish. I started writing on a daily basis when I was 12 years old, and I’m a long way past caring about that. I want the reader to feel like they’re on a rollercoaster ride in the dark. There was a thing someone once said about “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”, that it wasn’t just a movie about a madman, it was a movie that felt like it had been directed by a madman. And that’s always been my highest goal, to write novels that maybe feel like they were written by a psychopath.’ 

A psychopath who cuts without feeling. You’re starting to sound sort of menacing yourself…
‘Yeah, that’s right, it’s time to take out the razorblade and start hacking off pieces. No anaesthetic.’ 

What’s scarier, vampires or zombies?
‘I’m gonna go with zombies, even though I’m a lot less enamoured with “The Walking Dead” than apparently everyone else is. But I do think the zombie apocalypse has provided a lot of delicious scares for viewers and readers over the years, and the idea of facing down wave after wave of the undead, which goes all the way back to Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”. But vampires have been drifting further and further away from being seen as frightening. Hopefully “NOS4R2” can do something to change that.’

What scared you most as a child?
‘I was a very nervous kid. We lived on a lake, and I would go for swims in the summer, and I would shut my eyes and I would imagine the shark from “Jaws” coming up beneath me. But strangely that didn’t make me want to swim any less; it made me want to swim faster.’ 

What about these days?
‘People putting my book down 50 pages in and going to look at funny cat videos on YouTube. That’s pretty scary.’
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