Heart of darkness
He might be the King of Horror’s offspring, but Joe Hill tells Brian Donaldson that striking out on his own would prove to be his passport out of literary misery
One of the biggest skeletons in literature popped out of the cupboard earlier this year when Joe Hill’s true identity as Stephen King’s son was unveiled. Having ploughed away secretly for over a decade as writer and editor of short stories (most notably 20th Century Ghosts), once he hit the publicity trail for his debut novel Heart-Shaped Box, the mask began to slip. ‘I sound like Bruce Wayne or something,’ he tells me from his New Hampshire home in an accent which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the set of Fargo. ‘My publishers didn’t know who I really was but when I started to do readings and signings, I felt like I was being blogged to death. People started to mutter on those message boards: “hey, who do you think he looks like?”
Joseph Hillstrom King kept his surname close to his chest for reasons both practical and honourable. ‘I needed to know that my stories could sell on their own merit and I think most writers need to make their mistakes in private; the pressures of being a famous guy’s son would probably not have been helpful.’ King Snr and Hill’s wife are his most trusted critics, both having an uncanny knack of picking out the same things he should change or keep on any given page. A couple of years ago, they finished books in the same week and swapped manuscripts. ‘His got published a little earlier than me because he’s on a slightly faster publishing track than me,’ Hill states with a hint of amused pride.
The beard and the voice are the biggest giveaways but once you start to peel the pages of Heart-Shaped Box, the addictive nature of the writing that has made Stephen King among the most famous living writers in the world has clearly been handed down (Hill’s brother Owen King wrote a short story collection We’re All in This Together in 2005). In Heart-Shaped Box an ageing grunge star, Judas Coyne, buys a ghost on eBay, but it soon transpires that the seller ensured Coyne’s bid would be victorious. The spectre is Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of a woman who committed suicide after breaking up with Coyne and who is now hell-bent on making his life a nightmare.
Originally intended as a short story entitled ‘Private Collection’, Hill quickly realised that there was flesh to be slapped onto the tale’s creepy bones. ‘I figured that Jude would order the ghost online as a stunt and that the ghost would eat him for breakfast. But what then happened is that Jude refused to lay down and die on schedule and I got more interested in how he wound up this angry, isolated person with all this money and no friends.’ Soon though, as both characters are revealed, we realise that Craddock is less of the avenging angel that he initially seems.
‘As a writer, I believe in ghosts,’ Hill states. ‘I think they are a tremendous metaphor for that idea about how the past stains the present. You can’t ever live free of the things that have gone before you. But in terms of real life, I think the evidence for them is shaky at best. Mind you, I wouldn’t sleep in a graveyard.’
Heart-Shaped Box is published by Gollancz on Thu 22 Mar