It may seem like horror is mainly used to elicit fear and terror, but its ability to frighten and rattle its audience is actually rooted in an unlikely emotion: sympathy. Even the most cynical character can be found worthy of redemption if the circumstances which jaded them are deemed tragic, and even the darkest villains are made more interesting by exposing their insecurities. It is this gray area in which brilliant author Joe Hill seeks to explore the darkest depths of the human mind throughout his portfolio of work, and the result of his inquiries is a large stack of fascinating publications.
Born Joseph Hillstrom King, Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, the famous writer of iconic works such as Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Gerald’s Game, Cujo, Salem’s Lot, The Green Mile, Misery, and many, many more. Stephen King has become a household name, and although it would be easy for his son to ride his father’s coattails to the top of the literary world, he has opted instead to hide his identity (or at least he tried for as long as he could) and become a success on his own merits. Lucky for him—and for his readers—Hill happens to be both talented and hardworking enough that he doesn’t need the title of “Stephen King’s son” to rise to the top.
Hill’s latest novel, titled The Fireman, is a story about a pandemic sweeping the nation that causes people to spontaneously combust. The book hit shelves in May of 2016, and has been well-received by critics and fans alike. Honestly, it’s really not a surprise at this point. Joe Hill’s writing is taut, tense, and palpable. Not only does he craft fully realized worlds and create wickedly self-destructive, rough-around-the-edges antiheroes, but he also somehow manages to make his characters so intriguing that it becomes a challenge not to root for them, even if they come across as initially unlikable. His mixture of careful pacing and truly horrifying elements creates an air of creeping dread. However, the scariest components of Hill’s writing aren’t the supernatural scares, but rather the humans themselves.
All of this and more make Joe Hill’s collection of work the perfect choice for reading material this fall. His spooky stories and fast pacing make him an ideal author for a breezy autumn evening spent on the couch with a book cracked open and a pumpkin resting safely nearby on the coffee table. Check out my five Joe Hill reading recommendations below, and up the ante on your usual fall festivities.
Heart-Shaped Box: Judas Coyne has never taken his relationships seriously. A washed-up rocker with too many hit records and too much money to count, this jaded musician had a chip on his shoulder long before fame claimed his soul. A victim of child abuse, Jude embraced the dark side of life with open arms, filling his crooked collection of twisted items over the years with everything ranging from a cookbook for cannibals to actual snuff films. The more taboo the object, the more its presence draws Jude in, which is why it comes as no surprise that for his latest purchase, Jude chose to buy a ghost, of all things, or rather, a dead man’s suit. Supposedly, the suit, which showed up on Jude’s porch in a black heart-shaped box, carries the spirit of the dead man with it, and will haunt whoever owns it. He laughs it off at first, but when he begins to witness the presence of a real non-corporeal entity stalking the halls of his home, Jude has no choice but to confront his past and lean on his girlfriend for help, before the dead claim him as their own.
On the surface, Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box is an eerie and unsettling warning about messing with dark forces, but at its core, it is a heartbreaking journey of redemption. Jude can’t go back in time and change the events which led to this moment, but he can rectify his wrongs by bringing some justice to his dearly departed and allowing himself to be vulnerable for the first time as an aging rock star willing to admit he’s in love.
NOS4A2: Christmas may seem like a concept that always warrants cheery behavior, but bike-riding brat Victoria McQueen would argue otherwise. After her run-in with child murderer and Christmas enthusiast Charlie Manx when she was a little girl, Vic has been avoiding the holiday altogether. It all started when Vic raced her bicycle as fast as she could over the Shorter Way Bridge, and accidentally opened a magical portal that allows her bike to act as a vessel and extend the bridge to any spot in the world that she desires, as long as she focuses on an object she’s trying to find. Unfortunately for Vic, and for children everywhere, she’s not the only one who possesses this power. Charles Manx can also use his vehicle to travel to faraway places at the speed of light, only in his case, he’s using a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith to pick up kids, drain them of their souls, and drive them to Christmasland, where it’s Christmas every morning and Christmas Eve every night, and they can never leave.
When Vic and Max eventually cross paths during one of her journeys across the Shorter Way Bridge, she just barely escapes his bony grasp, but years down the line, this modern-day vampire still remembers all the grief Vic gave him, and he’s dead set on claiming her as a passenger in his wicked car—he’s even saved a spot for her son.
Arguably Joe Hill’s most accomplished work, NOS4A2 is an epic odyssey that spans Vic’s entire lifetime and is not only wildly imaginative and thrilling to read, but also serves as a fierce reminder that even the most damaged people can still become heroes in the end, if not for themselves, then for the sake of their family. The horror in this novel stems from the struggle of being a parent, and knowing there’s only so much you can do to protect your child from the world’s harmful ways. Vic might not be able to save herself from heading down a dark path, but at least she can pour every ounce of strength she has left into fighting for the safety of her kid, to save him from the kind of traumatizing childhood she had to endure because of Charlie Manx and life in the McQueen household.
The Cape: Ever since he was a kid, Eric’s always been the bad guy. He and his brother Nick played pretend like most children, forcing Eric to fill the role of the villain while Nick always got to be the hero. It’s funny how some things never change, isn’t it? Eric swore back then that his trusty safety-blanket-turned-superhero-cape really made him fly, but no one believed him—not until he strapped it on and soared above the skyline as a fully grown adult. This is usually the part in the story where the everyday man with newfound powers takes on the responsibility to protect his city and the people in it—but this is no Marvel movie. Oh no. This is a work of fiction by gut-wrenching, unforgiving author Joe Hill, and he will offer you no comfort if it compromises the significance of the stories he tells.
After learning that his old cape can literally make him fly, Eric is going to use it for evil. After all, that’s what he’s always been, right? What difference would it make if he decided to be a hero now? Joe Hill’s short story The Cape is a gritty and merciless cautionary tale about how apathy can lead to violence when people blame everybody else for their problems and finally decide to punish them for it. Eric feels like the world is against him, so in his eyes, all of his actions are merely self-defense. He may be labeled the bad guy, but to him, he’s not only justified, he’s doing the world a favor. It’s a scary place, getting into the mindset of a casual killer, but Hill does it with discomforting ease, and allows his viewers to see firsthand what it would be like to be so fed up with life that you decide to burn it all to the ground.
20th Century Ghosts: A collection of Hill’s short stories, 20th Century Ghosts features several standout segments, including “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead,” “Last Breath,” “20th Century Ghost,” and, of course, the aforementioned “The Cape” (which was later adapted into a graphic novel), but his best entry in the bunch without a doubt is “Best New Horror.” In the short, Eddie Carroll, the editor-in-chief of a tired old anthology journal called America’s Best New Horror, has been working for the publishing company for so many years and become so complacent in his job that he can’t even remember the last time he read a submission that truly rattled him, or even raised an eyebrow. However, that all changes one random day when he receives an unusual package from Harold Noonan, a recently fired editor of a competing magazine, The True North Literary Review, with a copy of his first (and last) published journal, and a letter urging him to read “Buttonboy: A Love Story.”
Apparently, Noonan was let go after allowing the entry to be printed, with his superiors citing the story as misogynistic and horribly offensive. Despite these claims, Noonan still believes it’s a story worth reading, and urges Carroll to publish the segment in his own magazine, suggesting that he hunt down the author, named Peter Kilrue, and ask for his permission. It’s an odd thing, a complete stranger who so desperately believes in an author that he would urge another company to publish the man’s work even after being fired for doing the very same thing, but after reading the short, Carroll understands why. It’s a sick and twisted account of a woman being kidnapped by a towering giant and tossed into the back of a truck alongside a boy with smiley face buttons pinned to his eyelids, and one that ends in a manner even more perverse and haunting than it starts. However, as morally depraved and unsettling as the story may be, it does undoubtedly leave an impact, and sticks with the reader, whether they like it or not. He’s not an easy man to reach, but once Carroll finally finds the home of the disturbed yet talented Peter Kilrue, he quickly comes to the realization that it may not necessarily be that this author is able to use his imagination to conjure up wicked stories about petrifying monsters and their helpless prey, but rather, to his horror, that Kilrue is merely writing about his everyday activities—and now, Carroll might be his next victim.
Horns: Everyone knows he did it. The local priest, his grandmother, his father, his mother—they all know that Ig Perrish assaulted and murdered his girlfriend, Merrin Williams, and got away with it. Of course, they would never tell him this to his face, that is, until he sprouts horns from the top of his head and people start involuntarily telling him their deepest and darkest thoughts without a moment’s hesitation the moment they lay eyes on him.
Now, Ig can’t stop the secrets from spilling out, as people treat him like the devil’s preacher—confessing their sins, asking for acceptance, and requesting permission to act out their innermost desires. It may seem too hard to handle at first, but when he runs into his older brother, Terry, and learns the identity of Merrin’s true killer, he finds that his newfound link to Satan has earned him the vindication that he so desperately seeks, if only he can find a way to prove his innocence and settle the score with the man who took his beloved.
If NOS4A2 is Joe Hill’s best example of world building, then Horns is his best example of slick, stylistic writing. Every sentence is structured so beautifully, and each statement made about how the devil is much nicer to man than God is to his children is written with such specific clarity, that it turns a somewhat ludicrous premise into a stunning account about a man sinning his way to salvation. The hilariously sick and twisted humor in each over-the-top conversation between Ig and the people hypnotized by his horns is as uproarious as it is disconcerting. Hill struck a delicate balance of laughs, tears, and terror with this one, making it a perfect read for a chilly fall evening.
Note: The above image for The Cape is from the cover art of issue #4 of IDW Publishing's limited comic book series adaptation of Joe Hill's short story.