On Reading 2: Joe Hill Ain’t Dead

Soon after we met, my wife made it obvious she would like it if I got into Stephen King. I had read some King before I met her; I have read The Shining (a true masterpiece) and Doctor Sleep since. However, because I exist primarily as a wish granted by a genie from Bizarro World, instead my horror author of choice is not King but his son, Joe Hill.

Possibly son, possibly evil clone. Who can tell?

Stephen King is of course still the world’s most famous horrorist; it’s hard to find an article about Hill that doesn’t mention his heritage along with the fact that Hill initially took pains to obscure his own origins. It’s the kind of publicity that’s bound to make an author say thank you, but as sarcastically as he can without being mean. I mean, The Shining is about a very creepy father/son relationship and is dedicated to Joe Hill King, so the clues were out there, but he also didn’t tell his literary agent about his secret identity for 10 years.

The fact remains that Hill chose to omit his given last name on his books because he wanted to make his own way in the horror prose world (located through a magic portal in an abandoned carnival’s secret graveyard– I call it Horrorprosia). In a way, not wanting to use King’s famous name is a family trait. King himself invented the alternate persona of “Richard Bachman” to write under to see if he could succeed as a writer not once but twice. Shockingly, Bachman slowly gained a cult following, and while Bachman’s sales increased tenfold after King’s true identity was leaked, he was already selling books in the tens of thousands. It was a singular achievement. When King’s son dubbed himself “Joe Hill” and stepped out on his own, Hill was taking on a similar challenge. Doing so he has both proven himself as a writer and managed to dodge out of his famous father’s shadow. Another singular achievement unlocked.

I first encountered Joe Hill via his comic series Locke and Key, which drew my attention along with his familiar and resonant name. I was actually turned off by what seemed like a gratuitously bloody slasher-inspired first issue, but several years later a friend encouraged me to check out the first volume from my local library. The first volume was good, the second volume amazing. I was impressed by the sheer scope of imagination in the story, the combination of fantasy and horror that gave me the feeling the Keyhouse was a kind of corrupted Narnia, the smart-but-flawed heroes and villains, the knowledge that no one was safe and that I had no idea which side would win. The series left me ravenous, wanting more Hill. So I started checking out more books.

I’d heard about Hill’s novel NOS4A2 in a book review on NPR, and remembered I’d been surprised by the imaginative weirdness the critic was describing. I picked it up next, and damn if it wasn’t one of the creepiest and best reads I’d ever encountered. A book about a kid with super powers, sure, but such strange powers, unlike anything I’d ever encountered. And then the villain! Charles Talent Manx III and his terrible flunky The Gas Mask Man were brutal, stupid, and frighteningly dangerous men possessed of both magic and righteous self delusion– not to mention the terrifying theme park, Christmasland and the horrible elves that inhabit it.

It wasn’t just a good book. Even though I’m not steeped in King lore like some of my friends, I’d absorbed enough to recognize that NOS4A2 is also a tribute to Hill’s father’s works. Some of the references are humorously obvious– there’s a killer car (Christine), a Saint Bernard is prominently featured (Cujo). More subtly, there are things like the villain’s passing mention of the True Knot, the villainous psychic vampires that bugaboo Daniel Torrance in Doctor Sleep. Then there was the moment that tied everything together for me– the map.

The creepy distorted map of the United Inscapes of America is one of those great flourishes that stick with you. In the novel it appears on an iPad when the heroes try to trace a kidnapped child’s iPhone, but at that moment the child only exists on a road inside the mind of Charles Talent Manx III. As a result we get to see the other magical/imaginary places that exist nearby. This includes not only Hill’s own Lovecraft Keyhole (Locke and Key) and Playground of the Mind (Horns), but also the Pennywise Circus, home of the child-eating clown in It!

Hill was purposefully placing his books inside the structure of the Dark Tower.

Even though I haven’t read King’s Dark Tower series, I’d picked up enough to know that King’s books are connected by a multi-world structure known as the Dark Tower. My friend Mike had even run a role-playing campaign that borrowed and even improved on the idea, with a climax that included not only King’s Dark Tower and Crimson King but also their opposite numbers– the Ivory Tower and the Childlike Empress from Michael Ende’s Neverending Story. Mike’s “Jack Tales and Tommy Guns” game had driven King’s mythology like a stake into my psyche’s heart; I had to keep exploring.

Everyone told me that Hill’s novel Horns was the book to read next– a story about a man whose magical-realist devil horns compel people to confess their worst secrets to him, whether he wants them to or not. Being who I am, instead I picked up Hill’s short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. That’s when I realized I was dealing with not just a skilled craftsman but a master.

The collection is full of lovably creepy stories, variations on familiar themes– B movies and Lovecraftian horror– that I’d never seen before. Even a brief essay on the ghosts of trees that reminded me of something M.R. James might have written if he’d lived an extra hundred years. It was the first story, “Best New Horror,” that really proved it to me, though. Immaculately crafted, the lengthy short story details the sad life of a horror anthology editor. Long exhausted with his work, unable to abandon it for financial reasons, he runs across a story that rekindles his love for the genre, but he can’t seem to track down the author to pay for a reprint. Pursuing the author, the editor ignores all of the warning signs and tropes he should know so well, plunges deep into the horror subculture and ends up not only jeopardizing his own existence but also finding reasons to live. It was a masterpiece, filled with incredible realist details, full of the love for and weariness with the horror genre that most fans experience– and smartly, with a skillful synopsis of the story that drives the editor’s search, a description that does the job it needs to and lives up to the hype. I would have wanted to publish that story. Not enough to get chainsaw murdered in the process, you understand, but I still would have wanted to publish that story.

It was the best new horror story I’d read in a very long time.

Heart-Shaped Box came next in my readings, a soulful ghost story about middle-aged rock star named Judas Coyne who buys a ghost on the internet. It goes badly for him, of course. For him, for his girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, his dogs, his assistant… for the ghost. Helluva story, and just like “Best New Horror” it takes a semi-contemptible protagonist and redeems him through torment, reminds him that life and love are worth fighting for. This thesis repeats in Hill’s latest novel, The Fireman, where a bored young housewife proves and refines her mettle by fighting for survival– while pregnant– across an U.S. devastated by a plague of spontaneous human combustion.

Needless to say, I’m completely hooked on Hill. I still haven’t read Horns— even though somehow they got Harry Freaking Potter to play him in the movie– so I have that to look forward to.

Apologies to Danny Boy Radcliffe. I’d be tired of boy wizard jokes if I were an adult badass.

I haven’t read Hill’s previous hardcover, Tales from the Darkside either. Or NOS4A2 prequel graphic novel Wraith, or the Locke and Key prequel comics either. And while researching this article I saw that there’s another short collection titled Best New Horror.

Hill’s going to be keeping me happy for a while. If you like his dad’s stuff check him out. If you like your twisted stories with heart and soul– or if like me you didn’t think twisted stories could have much heart and soul– then check him out. If you are literate enough to read these words, check him out.

Joe Hill does not disappoint. And if you say otherwise… well, have you ever heard of a lovely little theme park called Christmasland? Lovely place, I’m sure we could arrange a visit. Soon.

On Reading 1: Christmas Ghosts

There’s a nearly-lost tradition of Christmas ghost stories. The most famous, of course, is Darles Chickens’ A Christmas Carol, where 3 spirits +1 troll a mean old man mercilessly until he becomes a better person. All joking aside, it’s a magnificent tale– one that Dickens himself considered relatively unimportant, but a story most of us know better than The Pickwick Papers or The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This is partially because it’s short– novella length, and Dickens is well known for being paid by the word for his serials. It’s also because it’s a great story. Not only is A Christmas Carol creepy, well-written, and strange, it takes an unlikable protagonist– the miser, Ebenezer McDuck– and by telling his story it humanizes him. It even humanizes him to himself, lets him forgive himself, and start giving himself to the world again. Plus, you know, Muppets.

When he wrote this story, Christmas was very nearly dead in England. Oliver Cromwell, the late Lord Protector of England, had hated fun and religious fun with no scriptural basic most of all. He had declared an actual war of Christmas… which, you know, one step lower than the actual murderwar he declared on everyone he disagreed with, but it was still really bad. This combined with the Industrial Revolution’s busier pace meant that, by Dickens’ day, fewer people could take the day off to celebrate Christmas.

The curious thing is that, in spite of all of the above, Dickens had experienced enough of the holiday to mourn its loss in prose. He didn’t anticipate the story’s incredible success– he ended up doing numerous live readings, touring not only England but also the United States, and made a huge amount of money in the process. Almost as an accident, he rekindled an interest in the holiday, both in England and on this side of the Atlantic; without this story it wouldn’t be celebrated in (largely non-Christian) Japan as the equivalent of Valentine’s Day.

And without the tradition of Christmas ghosts it wouldn’t have been written.

Christmas-themed horror movies are totally a thing and in fact 1974’s Black Christmas predated Friday the 13th (1980) and Halloween (1978) and basically invented the slasher genre. It’s also an actual good movie– not great, but good– if you’re in the market for such things. And I think we can all agree that there’s something sinister about the identical Santas that line our malls and streetcorners and those unblinking angels that sit in judgement from the tops of Christmas trees. And nothing could be scarier than the Elf on the Shelf.

With that in mind, here are some ghoulish Christmas stories, stories of ghosts, old school Irish Faeries, and other dangers to life and sanity.

Richard Chase’s Grandfather Tales is where I first encountered both the idea of Old Christmas (aka Twelfth Night– it’s off topic so Google it) and the idea that wonderful/terrible things might occur. The story “Old Christmas Eve” only ends up listing a handful of creepy stories in the margins, but I do love it and the affection the book has for these traditions.

M.R. James was perhaps the greatest ghost story writer of his era, and he made sure he had a fresh ghost story every Christmas. Either check them out here at thin-ghost.org or, if you’re feeling adventurous, trying looking up the 5 James-based stories from the BBC’s “A Ghost Story for Christmas.” My personal favorite James stories include “Casting the Runes,” “Count Magnus,” and “Lost Hearts.” “There Was a Man Dwelt By a Churchyard” is the one that’s most obviously a Christmas ghost story; it completes the never completed tale in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” is a nicely creepy Yuletide story. It’s Lovecraft, so it’s all Necronomicon this and “madness from beyond the stars” that, but I like it.

E.F. Benson’s– yes, scary writers love their initials, don’t they?– “Between the Lights” is a story of croquet and Christmas ghouls, as delicious as any goose dinner.

Algergnon Blackwood has by far the most satisfying name for any horror writer ever. “The Kit-Bag” is his story of holiday travels and misplaced luggage turned murderous.

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the most famous of the ones I’ve opted to list here. Honestly, it gives the tradition a better known writer to attach it to, beyond Dickens and Shakespeare and Marlowe… oh wait? Are those the greatest names in English literature? Boopsie!

Finally, W.B. Yeats’ “The Twisting of the Rope” is a short, sharp shock that should remind readers that faeries aren’t all sweetness and butterfly wings, regardless of what pop culture has managed to turn them into. No one knew this better than Yeats, who loved stories of Irish magic and horror.

And of course I do love scary movies, so here’s Robert Zemeckis’ delightful short from 1989’s Tales from the Crypt. Much better and than the series– and the series episode of the same name. Enjoy!

Read and drink deep this holiday season, friends. I’ll have a seasonal tale of my own to share soon enough.