With his dark, straight hair, full beard and intense eyes, Hill, at 34, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Stephen King on the paperback cover of “Danse Macabre,” published in 1981, when King was the same age. Like his father, Hill married young, has three kids and lives in an isolated part of New England. Also like his father, he shows his manuscripts to his wife. “A lot of people marry their moms,” he said. “I kind of married my dad. I’ll go from the manuscript I gave her and the manuscript I gave him and go back and forth, and it’s the same comments.” (Hill’s wife, Leanora, and King are so in sync that she reads King’s drafts too.)
Hill is even more protective of his privacy than his father was for much of his career. (King didn’t have Google Maps and other online search devices to contend with.) Though Hill’s fallback demeanor is congenital niceness, he wouldn’t even consider an interview in his hometown and cut off any questions about his children. Hill is certainly no stranger to aggressive fans. When he was 12, he found a six-pack-toting ex-convict at the front door. “I just got out of Thomaston Prison,” Hill remembered the man saying, “and I just wanted to tell you that your dad’s books are the only things that kept me from killing someone in there.” Here, Hill made a sound effect to suggest that at that moment his head exploded, cartoon-style. “My memory is that my dad went outside and had a beer with the guy.” But, he added, “there have been people who have broken into the house. You get into a little bit of a defensive crouch.”
Hill did concede this much: He lives in a remote part of New Hampshire, not Maine, where he grew up. And he works at home. In his office, Hill keeps files full of letters that mark his long literary apprenticeship. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. He could have had it another way.
When he was about 12, The Bangor Daily News accepted an essay he submitted. “I was completely pumped,” he told me. “I felt like I was on the verge of major celebrity, and my excitement about the piece lasted right up until the day it was published. When I read it in the newspaper, I realized for the first time that it was full of trite ideas and windy writing. At the end, they had added a little postscript that said, ‘Joseph King is the son of best-selling novelist Stephen King,’ and when I read that I knew that was the only reason they published the piece. You know, at that age the fear of humiliation is probably worse than the fear of death, and not long afterward I started to think I should just write under a different name.” He toyed with several before eventually settling on Joe Hill.
Hill found his agent, Mickey Choate, by straightforward query. (Choate was his agent for eight years before Joe told him about Dad.) His early efforts met with little success. “I got a lot of written personal rejections,” he said. “They’d all say, we really like this on a technical level, but I don’t think they have an interior life. Those stories didn’t excite them, and they didn’t excite me, either.”
The first full-length work he submitted for publication under his pseudonym was “an epic fantasy novel.” But it was a fantasy that didn’t conform to established rules of the genre. Hill envisioned it as “a J.R.R. Tolkien-type novel, but written with the values of a John Irving novel. It wouldn’t have a quest or dragons. It would be about family and raising children, but it would be set in a fantasy world.” When it was turned down everywhere, Hill toyed with the idea of submitting under his real name. He was genuinely pleased with the book and wanted to see it published. “After that,” he said, “maybe there was some feeling like, uh, you know, maybe you should. ... But I actually kind of wound up feeling like the pen name had done its job. If it wasn’t good enough to get accepted on its own merits, then that was a healthy thing.”
For years after his epic novel was rejected, Hill kept the fantasy genre at arm’s length — until he rediscovered a story that reminded him of the many uses to which fantasy could be put. It was “The Jewbird,” by Bernard Malamud, in which a skinny black crow settles in a family’s kitchen, cawing, “Gevalt, a pogrom,” a comic and ultimately dark treatment of anti-Semitism. The story, which has been called a homage of sorts to “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, undid him. Why, he wondered, should his storytelling be straitjacketed by realism? Hill began writing and selling “strange” short stories to small literary and genre magazines, which were later collected in “20th Century Ghosts.”
In one of the standouts in Hill’s collection, a jaded editor hunting for a family of “deranged literary hillbillies” addresses a conference of horror fans and, expanding an argument Hill first encountered in a Malamud essay, tells the fans that even though most horror fiction was “creatively bankrupt,” the best works “took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes.” It is an apt description not only of Hill’s short stories but also of an informal literary movement known as “slipstream” — a combination, as its name suggests, of science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery and realism. “The Specialist’s Hat,” by Kelly Link, the genre’s critical darling, is a chiller about children, a castle, a hat trimmed with teeth and a baby sitter. “The Raw Shark Texts,” the first novel by the British writer Steven Hall, which will be published in the U.S. this month, revolves around “conceptual” sharks who track down humans and devour their memories, a horror-dystopic-philosophical mash-up that has critics drawing comparisons to Borges, “The Matrix” and “Jaws.” In Hill’s own allegorical “Pop Art,” a boy who happens to be a blow-up doll is persecuted not just by schoolyard bullies but also by his best friend’s father.
For Hill, making a mash-up of his identity conferred benefits not unlike those that came with the mashing up of genres: “I liked crime stories, suspense stories, fantasy stories, and I felt like if I wrote as Joseph King I might not want to write genre fiction, but if I wrote as Joe Hill, I could write whatever I wanted. So that’s what I did. I had 10 years to write and not have the pressure of being a famous guy’s kid.”
At the time Joe was born, in 1972, the Kings were a couple of aspiring writers in their mid-20s with little money and a toddler named Naomi. Stephen taught high school and worked at a commercial laundry; Tabitha worked evenings at Dunkin’ Donuts. But before Joe’s first birthday, his dad sold “Carrie,” and the family’s financial woes were over. When I asked Hill what it was like growing up in the King household, he quoted an old Jay Leno joke, which went, he said, something like this: Stephen King asks his kids, “Hey kids, you want to hear a bedtime story?” And the kids scream, “Noooooo.”
“But it wasn’t like that,” Hill explained. “My dad is a great storyteller, and we loved to have stuff read to us. As a family, my mom and my dad would sit down and the book would go around the circle — we’d sit and read all together. It sounds very 19th century, but it’s true.”
Hill’s parents never told him what books he could read or movies he could watch. “When I was like 11, 12,” he told me, “my parents asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said, ‘Let’s have all my friends over and we’ll watch “Dawn of the Dead.” ’ So we’re sitting there watching it. I’ve seen it like 10 times at this point, and I’m just having a blast and I hardly notice my friends trickling out of the room.” A couple of boys stayed with him. One boy was “just lathered in sweat and completely pale.” Here, Hill put his hands over his face in imitation of a scared little kid, and in a wavering voice said, “ ‘I don’t think we should be watching this!’ ”
In the novel King dedicated to his son Joe, the “shining” refers to a profound sensitivity to paranormal activity. Even if you remove ghosts from the equation, Joe, according to those who knew him, always had a kind of shining, an openness. Peter Straub, the best-selling novelist who collaborated with King on two books, remembered that King would play “some kind of imaginative game with the children, but especially with Joe. He’d make up a kind of graph with a matrix on it, and he’d start by saying, ‘O.K., George Appleby is driving his Ford pickup truck along this road,’ and then he’d say, ‘There’s something happening over here — what does he do?’ And the kids would say, ‘Well, I think he should turn around,’ and elaborate on the story.” Straub nodded approvingly, smiling at the memory. “If ever I saw mentoring, that was it.” Among the unpublished works in King’s papers at the University of Maine are early artifacts of that mentorship: “I Hate Mondays,” a five- page collaboration with Owen King, and “But Only Darkness Loves Me,” a two-page fragment written with Joe, of which one page is typed, the other handwritten.
The King boys grew up riffing on each other’s fantasies; in what they called the Writing Game, a literary version of tag, one brother would write for a few minutes and pass the story to the other. “We used to play Call of Cthulhu,” Owen told me, referring to the role-playing game based on the H. P. Lovecraft story. “Joe was always dungeon master. You had sanity points, and it was like, if you encountered Yog-Sothoth one too many times, you were crazy. You could only have so many adventures, and then you had to have a new character, and I thought that was brilliant.”
As grown-ups, the brothers collaborated on a few screenplays after college, but Owen and Joe say they have little influence on each other’s fiction. They don’t read drafts of works in progress, and except for the rare crossover novel like Michael Chabon’s “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” they don’t even read the same books. Owen, Joe told me, set about “very consciously building a career around not writing genre fiction.” Joe kept coming back to it.
When we first met, Hill, who has the beguiling manner of a kid who has been allowed to skip the classes he hates, the subjects that bore him, was quick to rank some of his genre favorites: “the best, most frightening short story since Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’ ” (Link’s “Specialist’s Hat”); “the most frightening young-adult novel of all time” (Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline”); “the absolute best story about 19th-century dentistry ever written” (his brother Owen King’s “Frozen Animals”). He sang the praises of Elmore Leonard, Chabon, Malamud and a host of tough-guy “manfiction” novelists, to use his affectionately satirical term. The embrace of genre fiction by literary lions like Chabon and Jonathan Lethem means a lot to him.
And “Heart-Shaped Box” is indeed genre fiction, a mainstream horror novel that Hill himself admits follows closely in the path of work that has come before him. The first third is a haunted-house story as tightly wound as Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Jude Coyne, a dissipated rock musician, decides to add one more treasure to his collection of Goth memorabilia — a ghost for sale at an online auction site, who arrives as ordered. Gritty naturalism gives way to a master class in startle effects as the ghost chases Jude through a high-concept version of the Deep South, with supernatural accouterments that are all the more effective for their homeliness: an old man’s possessed electrolarynx, a wicked ghost’s annunciation on right-wing talk radio, an otherworldly pickup truck no man can outrace. A family of psychics, led by an abusive dowser armed with a hypnotist’s razor, propels the story. It’s a family you might find in, well, a Stephen King novel.
For Joe, being close to his father in his ambitions meant he had a role model and a protector, but it also meant his father’s footprints were everywhere — even, as it turns out, in his adoption of a pseudonym. Early in his career, the prolific King needed another outlet and published four novels as Richard Bachman. When a bookstore clerk outed King, his publisher released a statement saying that Bachman had died from “cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia,” and sales of the fifth Bachman book, “Thinner,” exploded.
When Hill finally sold “Heart-Shaped Box” to a major U.S. publisher, he thought he would probably be similarly outed. After the contract was negotiated, Hill called his editor, Jennifer Brehl, and told her his full name and who his father was. Brehl agreed that they would publish the book under his pseudonym and play down the family angle as much as possible. But there wasn’t much she could do. “I had pretty much run to the end of my rope around that time,” Hill told me. “I had done an appearance in England, and people kind of noticed a little bit of a family resemblance. There started to be some muttering going around.” Later Hill told me, a little wistful that the statute of limitations on his pen name had expired, “It would have been nice if the book could have come out and been out for a while, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
That “Heart-Shaped Box” is more like his father’s work than Hill’s short stories are may be because Hill can finally suffer the comparison to King. As Straub put it to me, any writer who grows up reading genre fiction needs to corrupt it in some significant way in order to write it himself. “Back in the 1970s,” he said, “I understood that I could do more or less anything I liked with horror because the field was so despised that no one would notice except the fans. Now I see that the genre itself allowed me to do anything that I wanted.” It took Joe Hill a while to realize the same thing.Continue reading the main story
At the moment of his execution (link to Death Penalty) on November 19, 1915, Joe Hill became a martyr and symbol for labor movements throughout the world. His trial and death sentence had become an international controversy, involving the president of the United States (link to President Wilson) and the highest officials in Sweden. On the morning following his death, the New York Times prophetically worried that Hill's execution might "make Hillstrom dead more dangerous to social stability than he was when alive," and predicted, "there will grow up in the revolutionary group a sincere belief that he died a hero as well as a martyr." This comment was extremely accurate, and the facts of Joseph Hillstrom's life and trial have evolved into a well-known legend in the labor community. Vernon Jordan states that the legend of Joe Hill has "become as fixed a part of the American landscape as have Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed." Like these two other American legends, the stories surrounding Joe Hill are often exaggerated, romanticized and misleading.
One of the most common misconceptions of Joe Hill is that he was not given a fair trial granted by the constitution. While he may have had a poor defense, and was convicted on largely circumstantial evidence, experts like Vernon Jordan agree, "it is clear that Hillstrom had a proper trial." Author Wallace Stegner, who extensively researched and reviewed the life and trial of Joe Hill, concluded that Hill "was probably guilty of the crime the state of Utah executed him for." Because Hillstrom chose not to testify on his own behalf or comment on his injuries during his trial, much speculation has been made concerning his guilt or innocence. This silence was used by the IWW (link to IWW) and other groups after his execution to mold Joe Hill's memory into the martyr and legend that he is today.
Sometimes the myth of Joe Hill blames specific groups for his death. The Mormon Church (link to Mormon Conspiracy paper), as well as the local "copper barons" are often blamed as conspirators with the biased Utah State Government and officials for Hill's execution. The Mormon church, although it may not have agreed with Joe Hill's political leanings, was not directly involved in the trial. The myth that everyone involved in the trial was Mormon is also disproven because most of the key figures, such as the lawyers and justices of the supreme court were not members of the L.D.S. church. "Copper Barons," although responsible for certain social problems of the day, also do not appear to be involved in the trial in any covert or conspiratorial manner.
Governor Spry (link to Governor Spry), Utah's governor during the Joe Hill controversy, expressed his concern to President Wilson about his interference and postponement in Hill's death. "Your interference in this case," he writes, "may have elevated it to an undue importance and the receipt of thousands of threatening letters demanding the release of Hillstrom, regardless of his guilt or innocence, may attach a peculiar importance to it." His concerns were valid, for as soon as Joe Hill was executed, his story was used as inspiration for unions around the world for decades to come. Judge Hilton's (link to Judge Hilton) two hour eulogy to Hill in Chicago also helped create the legend, as well as IWW leaders who made Hill a "labor martyr."
The myth of Joe Hill has endured for generations, gaining strength and power, because of the emotion and controversy stirred up at the time. Joe Hill was viewed by many as an ordinary worker who was taken advantage of unjustly by the government, big business, the Mormon church, among other groups. Thousands were moved by his story, so the myth continued to be passed on and retold. Various types of artists have used Hill as inspiration in their work. A few include: John Dos Passos who wrote his book, 1919 on Joe Hill, Earl Robinson, whose song, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," has been remade by various musicians, and Barry Stevens, who wrote a play entitled The Man who Never Died.
Although the case, trial and life of Joe Hill is still full of mystery, his legend lives on. As Wallace Stegner wrote in his essay, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," "They killed everything of Joe Hill but the poet, and the poet went on to organize. The Joe Hill who may never have walked a picket line in his life has been on hundreds since his death. He has been improved and remade in the image of his makers. As a legend, he is whole and unambiguous." This "whole and unambiguous" image of Joe Hill is what survives today. The actual person, perhaps not as glamorous, purposeful, or refined, remains a mystery.