Joe Hill on NOS4A2's reality-bending horror and his appearance in Denver tomorrow
A young woman with a supernatural talent for finding things goes looking for trouble and gets it in the form of a monstrous man who uses children for his own dark ends in Joe Hill's new novel NOS4A2. The book delves into a world where certain special people can make dreams real, then explores what happens when some of those people are dedicated to their nightmares. His first novel, Heart Shaped Box, made the New York Times bestseller list and he's collected a variety of awards for his fiction, including a Bram Stoker award for his short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. Oh, and he's also the son of Stephen King.
Given all that, and the fact that he's referred to NOS4A2 as his senior thesis on the horror genre, it's no surprise that the book is an irresistible dive into the dark side of fiction, full of compelling heroes and villains and unforgettable images. Before Hill's appearance Thursday, May 9 at the Tattered Cover LoDo, where he'll read from and sign NOS4A2, we caught up with him to talk about the book, his unified theory of fiction, and why he loves Joss Whedon and The X-Files.
Westword: In NOS4A2 you deal a lot with dreams and the inner mental landscape. Is that a particular area of interest for you?
Joe Hill: Yeah. The book, in some ways, has this idea that people live in two different worlds. They've got one foot in the real world, where there's bad coffee and bad jobs and bad hair and gravity and physics and all the rest of it. But a lot of us spend just as much time in our private world of thought. In the private landscape of thought, emotion is as real as gravity. That's an idea that runs, like a thread, through all my stories, but I tried to take a special look at in NOS4A2. The animating concept of NOS4A2 is that some people are strong enough, creatively, to bring their imaginary worlds into the real world. So we have this kind of vampire, Charlie Manx, who has a private place called Christmasland, that's a place where it's Christmas every morning, and every night is Christmas Eve, and the fun never stops. And Charlie kidnaps children and takes them there and by the time he dumps them in Christmasland, they've been changed. They're not the same any more. They're monstrous. Vic McQueen has her inner landscape, represented by a bridge called the Shorter Way bridge, which she can use to cross vast distances and to find lost objects and to solve riddles.
Those seem like elements of fantasy -- Christmasland and the Shorter Way bridge seem very fantastic. But actually I think it's not that weird. People pull stuff out of their imaginations and fling it at the real world all the time. That's how Keith Richards makes his living. He hears a song in his head, then he grabs his guitar and before you know it, you're hearing his song in your head. So NOS4A2 really takes what creative people do anyway and pushes it to extremes.
You've called this book your "senior thesis on horror." Can you explain what that means and elaborate on that idea a little bit?
Yeah, you know I have always loved dark fantasy and horror fiction, and I have always loved stories of suspense. My first few books were very tightly focused, and I wanted to do an "everything but the kitchen sink" book. I really wanted to do something on a much bigger scale, a much bigger canvas, with lots of characters and a timescale that was big, and a lot of ideas and big action set pieces. That seemed like a fun challenge and NOS4A2 kind of became a chance for me sort of use everything I know about the writing of horror fiction. To kind of explore all the big horror fiction concepts that had excited me when I was a kid.
So then if this is your senior horror thesis, is this idea of the "Inscape" in the book -- the inner landscape of ideas and emotion and fantasy -- your thesis statement?
It's my unified theory of everything. It's kind of this idea that both supports this novel but also kind of supports the novels that came before and, to a degree, Locke and Key, my comic book. There are some concepts there that seem to be essential to my understanding of fantasy.
In NOS4A2 you delve into one of the pillars of horror, the children in jeopardy trope. That's not something you've done much in your other novels, is it?
I actually think there are a couple of other stories I've written, especially in my book of short stories, where you have young adult characters or kids or teens at least who are in jeopardy. I've had some questions like, "What do I make of all the violence against women in NOS4A2" and "What do I make of all the violence against children in NOS4A2?" And I think there's a lot of violence directed against grown-up males as well! It's a horror novel, and it's in the nature of such stories for the good guys to come in for a certain amount of rough treatment, regardless of age, race or gender. I'm a believer in equal opportunity terrorizing.