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Joe Hill on writing horror in an era of Twitter and toxic politics

Joe Hill on writing horror in an era of Twitter and toxic politics


‘People really only understand problems through stories’

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Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

In recent years, horror author Joe Hill has emerged as a major presence on bookstore shelves. The son of horror legend Stephen King, he’s forged his own career with a string of best-selling novels. His comic series, Locke & Key is currently being adapted into a TV series for Hulu.

This week, Hill published his latest book, Strange Weather, but it’s not a novel. Instead, it’s being billed as four distinct short novels — Snapshot, Loaded, Aloft, and Rain — each of which deals with a horrifying incident.

In Snapshot, a boy named Mike contends with an ailing housekeeper who’s having her memories stolen by a mysterious man with a camera. Loaded follows a mall security guard who is thrust into unexpected fame after a mass shooting, only to fall apart as his story does. Aloft deals with a terrified skydiver who finds himself stranded on a strange cloud. And Rain deals with a horrifying change in the weather: razor-sharp crystals fall from the sky instead of water, shredding anyone unlucky enough to be outside.

I sat down with Hill recently to discuss the book, the current events that informed his writing, and how he’s trying to entertain in an era of internet toxicity.

Image: William Morrow

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So where did Snapshot come from?

I wrote Snapshot while I was on the road for my third novel, NOS4A2. I had a notebook and some time to kill while waiting for flight, and I thought, “I'll start a short story.” Only it turned out not to be very short. It expanded to fill the entire notebook, a placemat, and most of another notebook.

Something triggered my memory while I was out in California when I started it, and I got to thinking about the games I used to play on my Commodore 64. Another big influence for the story was Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. There's a lot of stuff there about what it was like to grow up in Cupertino and the surrounding area in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I thought, “This is interesting: I can merge some of this with my own memories of the ‘80s and write something that captures a time and place in an interesting way.” Writing about the past seemed to flow very naturally into a story about memory.

There’s been a resurgence of stories set in that era, like It and Stranger Things. Why do you think audiences respond so well to the 1980s?

Because guys like you and me remember that time, and enough time has passed that even the bad parts of it press the nostalgia button. Every generation goes through this. When my dad was my age, there was this tremendous outpouring of love around the movie American Graffiti. It was because it brought them back to their childhood. Stand By Me is a film that, for the Boomers, was a throwback to the youth that they had.

The interesting thing about writing the ‘80s is that I've wanted to write historical fiction for a long time, and now I can. I don't know if style is a trap. I think that anything you can use to make memory more sticky could potentially be helpful for you. I think one of the things we see with the rise of friendlier or sunnier or more good-humored fascism is that people don't remember how fascism works out, which is not too well for anyone.

Snapshot is about a camera that steals memories from its photo subjects. Do you think it’s more terrorizing to have something that steals your memories, or to have it happen naturally?

Having Alzheimer's strip everything you remember about yourself and your personality is more terrifying than cancer. It’s one of the most dreadful things that can happen to a human being.

After I wrote the story, I had a friend of mine read it. His mom had suffered from Alzheimer's in the last two years of her life. He said he really liked the story because he always wanted to punch Alzheimer's. The story takes this idea of your facilities declining in old age and embodies it in a physical enemy, a man called Phoenician. There's something satisfying about being able to — at least in the world of fiction — fight back. But at least in the playground of fiction we can make this horrible disease that takes people's lives away from them and we can embody it into something we can hate and strike and get even with.

In the story, Mike figures out the inner workings of this camera, and uses them in developing smartphones. What prompted that connection?

Our phones have become our outboard brains. There was a study of young English men between the ages of 18 and 24, and they scored the lowest on tests of geography, history, politics, and economic theory of any generation of British males going back to when they first started this survey in the late ‘60s. When they dug deeper, the explanation they got was, “I don't need to know that because Google knows it for me.” I do think that we have delegated our memories to our devices, which in some ways is a great blessing of modern science, but you could argue that it's maybe also not all that healthy for us.

Do you think phones and social media are good for us?

I think that’s a difficult question. There are clearly some real, enormous positives of the technology, but whether or not the positives outweigh some unmistakable negatives, I don’t know. It’s like social media. Everyone is addicted to social media. Everyone's on. Everyone loves it. There's no walking away from it. We’re all completely embedded in living our lives with Instagram as counterfeit.

“social media has broken us down along tribal lines, and it reinforces those lines every single day.”

The other thing that social media has done is it's broken us down along tribal lines, and it reinforces those tribal lines every single day. You know it encourages you to pull for the people and think exactly like you do, and it rewards you for hating the people who don’t agree with you. It's energized racists and fascists and created safe spaces for them, and I’m not convinced that any of that has been helpful for us.

Do you look at this as material for another horror story?

That’s kind of my job: to look around at the different facets of modern life, take it, and exaggerate it into the fantastic in a grotesque way. Throughout Strange Weather, a lot of what I've done is simply take metaphor and make it literal. My last novel, The Fireman, was this way as well. It is, in some ways, about the kind of cultural flame wars we have online. By blowing it up by making it bigger than it is, you sometimes see it more clearly.

That’s probably true of Loaded, which is about the weekly gun massacre that we have right now. That’s probably true of Rain, which is about climate change, where the climate changes so that instead of raining water, it rains nails. I did that not to be preachy, but because incremental changes in temperature, or slightly more powerful hurricanes happens so slowly. What you can do with fiction is say, “Okay, let’s put this under a magnifying glass, exaggerate it, and present it to you in a hopefully entertaining form.” With Rain, you have a climate change scenario where the change is absolutely impossible to miss, because people are being torn apart when they step outside.

In Snapshot, you have a paranormal camera, in Aloft, you have a guy on a cloud that’s not a cloud, and in Rain, you have a strange rainstorm, but Loaded is not supernatural at all. Because the gun violence is so dramatic, do you think that it’s more powerful to forgo the fantastic?

I think that people really only understand problems through stories. It's been pointed out a few times that if you tell people 100,000 refugees have drowned trying to escape a war zone, it doesn't register emotionally. It's just a number on a page. If you show them a drowned toddler who washed up on a beach, that hits like a punch to the solar plexus.

In the case of Loaded, I wanted to write about every single facet of gun violence that we're aware of as a culture, and that we seem to be helpless to respond to: you have an unarmed black youth who was shot by law enforcement and no repercussions. You have suicide by gun, which is one of the leading causes of death among white males. You have the mass shootings. So Loaded kind of looks at all of this stuff and says something like, “Wow, things are pretty crazy.”

I didn't mean for it to be a topical book, and I don't mean it to be a political book. Some people probably won't believe that. But my only goal when I write a story is to keep turning the pages, to entertain, for it to be a good time, for people to have fun with it and be excited to see what happens next.

As a horror writer, do you think this makes your job easier?

[Laughs] Um, I don’t know. In some ways maybe it makes it harder, because I think in some ways people were more interested in being scared when things weren’t scary in the every day. Popping online for half an hour is like plunging into a horror novel. I think in some ways, it’s probably safer to write stuff that's comfort.

“Popping online for half an hour is like plunging into a horror novel.”

Personally, I love watching Foyle's War, and I think that's part of why. Because no matter how terrible things are, at the end it all makes sense. Christopher Foyle will return to order what appeared to be dangerous chaos.

Do you think there’s a downside to spinning out comforting stories where there’s an easy resolution at the end of the book?

I will say that I think people use stories to understand their world. That's what human beings have always done. It’s funny, because I used to be very political on Twitter, and I've almost completely stopped with that kind of thing. I don't post much personal stuff on Twitter anymore, in part because the place makes me so uncomfortable and just sitting on Twitter for a couple of minutes makes me anxious in a way it didn't used to. It gives me tremendous discomfort, but also I just don't think it's helpful. There are many people who are fighting for progressive change and express themselves on Twitter in a positive way, and I support that. I think that's good, but I don't think that may be the best way for me to express my ideas. It’s in my stories, not in my tweets.

Stories can — maybe if you're lucky — sometimes move the dial a little bit in the way social media can’t, because whatever you say in social media just gets lost in the corners.

Talking a little about social media and tribalism: New England has a history of small, close communities where horrible things happen, which translates nicely into fiction. Do you think living there helps with your stories?

That's the rap on New England communities. It's like The Lottery, where they're all waiting for that time when you draw the short stick and get stoned by your neighbors.

I think the online world is much more tribal. When it’s winter and there's a big snowstorm and someone is stuck in a snowbank, you pull over to help them without checking their political credentials first, without confirming to yourself that they believe the things you believe and share the views that you share. You just get out help. Whereas on the internet, we relish when the people we disagree with suffer, and abhor their victories. We love to pile on online. I hate that. It's gross. I don’t like being the person who piles on. I don’t like what it does to me.

I wanted to talk a bit about the differences between Strange Weather and your longer novels like The Fireman and NOS4A2, which are huge, complicated epics. Did you find it liberating to go shorter and simpler?

Very much so. It was so much fun. We’ve been talking about politics and social change, but it's not like I sit down to preach. I don't think anyone wants to be preached at. I hope I've managed to avoid that entirely. One of the things I'm proud of about Loaded is that I know some people in the NRA who have read the story, and they liked it. They thought that everything in it was true, essentially the world we live now.

“You want every paragraph to hit with a blunt-force impact. You want those pages to fly.”

You want to entertain. You want every paragraph to hit with a blunt-force impact. You want the pages to fly. You don't want to be boring. You don't want to be preachy. In the case of writing Strange Weather, I wrote all four of the stories, I was just having fun. It was a good time. With every single one of them — even the bleakest and darkest of them — I was happy to be sitting down to work.

Do you find that you have fewer constraints when you write a huge, sprawling novel?

What's fun about is that it’s always a great pleasure to immerse yourself in a big imagined world where you're surrounded by lots of characters and lots of moving parts. I think that's true. I feel that as a writer, but I also feel that as a reader. I'm reading World Without End by Ken Follett. It’s the second of the Kingsbridge books. It's a thousand pages long. Pillars of the Earth is a thousand pages long. His new one, which is the end to the series, called The Column of Fire, is a thousand pages long. I love it. It's a deep dive into this imagined world where you're surrounded by beheadings and mystery and se and failed relationships, massive construction projects, secrets, and lies.

It's terrific to live there, but it's also nice to have something to read in one sitting. I definitely think stories of horror and suspense, often really live their best lives when they are short enough to be read in a day or two. I'm thinking of stuff like Susan Hill’s Woman in Black, which is so great and so scary, and Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House could probably be read in a weekend. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is probably Neil Gaiman's best novel, and that can probably be read in a day.

It’s hard to not compare your long books to your dad’s books. Do you guys see similarities in how you approach these stories?

Everything I know about writing, I learned from my dad — if I didn't learn it from my mom first. NOS4A2 in some ways is a horror story about horror stories in the way It is a horror story about horror stories. The Fireman is very explicitly an updating of The Stand.

Did you find that you were writing differently with these books? Did you intend to go short with them?

They just came out this way. I think that artists go through periods of contraction and expansion. I did two fairly lean novels, Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, then I began to expand with NOS4A2 and The Fireman, which are large-scale, big books. I seem to be contracting again. Strange Weather was four short novels, and lately I've been writing short stories. Maybe the next book is a collection of 12 or 15 short stories like 20th Century Ghosts. I’m the incredible shrinking writer. Who knows, in a couple of years I’ll be publishing my book of haiku.