How the American horror author fought back from tough times
The author on his own difficult road to success.
It may be a book about the world as we know it going up in flames following a pandemic, but Joe Hill says he had “a blast” writing The Fireman. “I do think if I wasn’t a writer I would probably have burns all over my arms, and I’d be in jail for arson, and I’d wet myself anytime anyone lit a cigarette because I’d get so excited,” he says. “All my books have a lot of burning in them.” Relax, he’s laughing. Indeed, when SFX catches up with Hill over tea and cronuts – croissant- doughnut pastries, as indulgent as they sound – in Covent Garden, he’s positively chipper. Some of this good humour, it appears, is down to spending time with Harper and John, the heroes of The Fireman, a novel that imagines humanity being infected with Dragonscale, a spore that looks like a beautiful tattoo on the skin, but which causes people to die of spontaneous combustion should they come under stress. “They’re both very cheerful, brave souls,” he says of his central characters.
They’re also, metaphorically, zombies, infected themselves with Dragonscale. It’s a way for Hill to explore “how we hate the sick, how we as humans despise the sick because they could infect us, and we’re just totally freaked out by illness”. At least in part, think of the novel as a kind of sly riposte to The Walking Dead, and the way the series and comic play on one of our darker urges.
“The Walking Dead speaks to an animal desire to massacre, to commit savagery on a daily, broad level and to be honoured for it, to be a hero,” says Hill. “There aren’t that many bad guys we can wipe out without any discrimination. Even when we have a movie where you kill Nazis, you still think, ‘ Maybe he’s not really a Nazi, maybe he has children,’ but no one feels bad for zombies so you can just shoot them in the head.”
child of horror
Not that Hill is averse to splatter. As a child actor in the big- screen adaptation of his father Stephen King’s Creepshow ( 1982), he hung out with legendary special effects man Tom Savini. “He had a book full of autopsy photos and he was just cool,” says Hill of his “first rock star”. While horror films spook him just as much as anyone else, says Hill, he’s the kind of person who “laughs at all the wrong moments, all the moments when everyone else is screaming”.
This is something of a recurring theme in conversation with Hill. Discussing his comic Wraith: Welcome To Christmasland and its vampire children, he says, “There’s horrible, horrible slaughter that goes on for page after page. Oh, it’s hilarious to write, it’s so funny to write.”
Writing hasn’t always been so enjoyable. After a long struggle to gain recognition, in part because he refused to use the family name, Hill finally broke through in his mid- thirties with his debut novel Heart- Shaped Box ( 2007). A sophomore slump followed as Hill worked on three books he couldn’t finish, “terrible pieces of work”, and his marriage broke up. He completed Horns ( 2010) following a big struggle, but even now he prefers the movie version (“The movie is fun, I look at the movie and I think, ‘ Oh, Dan [ Radcliffe] just knocked it out of the park’”) because he was so miserable when he wrote the book.
Worse was to follow when Hill went on tour. While the events, which saw Hill joking with his audiences while wearing plastic horns, were fun, his mental state was precarious. “I’d get back to the hotel room and I’d tear the hotel room apart looking for fibre- optic cameras,” he says. “I was convinced I was being spied on, I was very paranoid.”
Every night he called his father and, “We’d talk about what my latest crazy idea was and he’d patiently go through why it wasn’t a realistic thing to think. I’d always had some of that, I’d had flare- ups of this kind of paranoid anxiety, but never so extreme. But after the marriage fell apart, it was like a tsunami of anxiety and some really weird ideas, some really not- normal ideas, about how the world worked and what people thought about me, what people said about me.”
Eventually, realising his kids needed a father who wasn’t an “unhappy, crazy person”, he sought treatment, which he’d been reluctant to do because he was worried it would mess up his creativity. Not true. “What really makes great art is happiness, emotional balance, patience and calm, being connected to people around you,” he says. “Depression just sucks, it doesn’t make for great art, it makes you a miserable person.”
Happily, to use an apposite word, there should be plenty more books ahead. Bibliophile Hill wouldn’t have it any other way. He’d like to spend eternity in Waterstones’ Piccadilly branch, he jokes. An authors’ ashes section, suggests SFX. “You know what, no bookstore has that and it would be so cool,” he says. “I like the idea of my ashes in a steel urn and my books below it. And it says something like: ‘ Remember the man, 50% off your second Joe Hill purchase.’ You’ve always got to be selling, always got to be selling. We can repurpose those ashes to good use.”
The Fireman is published by Gollancz on 7 June.