How the Amer­i­can hor­ror author fought back from tough times

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kevin Nixon

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.

trou­bled mind

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.

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