Joe Hill’s just flown in from London, and it’s not just his arms that are tired. The author of Heart-Shaped Box and the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts was a few hours late flying in to Toronto to promote his new novel Horns (blame an active Icelandic volcano), but he’s here now, and the sharp wit at play in Horns is also on display during our face-to-face, despite his obvious fatigue.
Hill’s energy makes Horns an easy read even though it was a difficult book to write. The story may also be a bit difficult for the horror fans who made Heart-Shaped Box a hit to accept. Even though it’s primary scenario – a young man (Ig Parrish) wakes up one morning after a drunken night out to find horns growing out of his head – sounds profoundly horrific, the book relies more on drama and character than gory shocks to make its points.
Still, there is more than enough black humour and devilish details to sustain the interest of fans of the fantastic.
I understand that you listen to music while you write.
I’ve always been a guy who sits down and cranks the volume up to eleven and writes for six hours, until just recently. In the last couple of years I found myself turning the music off more and more so I can hear the voices in my head when I’m working on a story. And probably the coolest thing about being a writer is you can sit across from a table with someone and say, ‘I sit in a room by myself listening to the voices in my head’ and the person you’re with will be like ‘nice! That’s so creative,’ whereas if you were interviewing an investment banker: So how do you get your stock tips? ‘Basically, I sit in a room by myself and do whatever the voices in my head tell me to.’ Not the dude you want to invest with.
You mention in the preface that this was an easy book to write.
The preface is tongue-in-cheek. I said writing the book was as easy as baking birthday cake and as fun as eating it, but I didn’t mean it. The book was terrible to write. Every day was a new opportunity to screw up. Whenever I was faced with a creative choice, I inevitably made the wrong choice and would write fifteen pages of crap, then have to go back and throw it out.
I don’t want to overplay that because it’s not a hard job like it’s a hard job to roof a house. But Heart-Shaped Box was an easy book to write; Horns was a hard book to write. In the end I’m very proud of the way Horns came out, and I think the end result you’re aiming for is roughly the same, which is that it should fly for the reader, it should be compulsive reading as early as possible and you should keep the gas pedal mashed down, and you should keep people flying through the pages. There may be pages that I spent days working on that will only take you five minutes to read, but that’s what you’re working towards. It’s not about how it feels for me, it’s just about how it feels for the reader.
So Horns was not real fun to write, but I’m proud of it. Every piece of work can’t be easy and thoughtless, and sometimes you have to fight for something.
How important is humour to your work?
Well, there’s a lot of puns. Maybe there’s even too many devil puns. You’ve got the devil in a blue dress before the book is over. What can I say about all those puns. The devil made me do it.
You know, when I was growing up, other kids had posters of athletes and rock stars on their walls, but I read Fangoria magazine faithfully, and most of the posters on my walls glorified the guys who made splatter films. It was stuff ripped out of Fango. It was Tom Savini and Rob Bottin and Stan Winston and George Romero. Those were the guys who were really my heroes.
The special effects guys, when they have a demon alien bursting from someone’s chest, they call that a gag, and I don’t think that’s accidental. You know, when you alien bursts from the chest, that’s the punchline. And horror and humour are very close allies.
And so I do think a horror novel can be fun and can be funny, and can swiftly swerve from the horrifying thing to the thing that gets the black laugh.
But the other thing is audiences respond to things differently. I’ve always been a guy who goes to horror films and would laugh in places where people are… sticking their fingers in front of their eyes, and every once in awhile you’ll run across someone who loves horror novels and will say they have the same reaction. The shock and jolts of horror operate in a very similar way to the shock and jolts of a good comedy routine.
Where did the idea for Horns come from?
I’ve given about eighteen different answers to this question, and every one of them is true. For me, I’m a guy who probably thinks too much about stuff. I pick at ideas like scabs. I’m interested in traditional storytelling forms. 20th Century Ghosts, my story collection of traditional horror stories, isn’t very edgy. It’s edgy in places because of the content, but it doesn’t take an experimental approach.
There’s a tradition of 19th and 18th century American folklore tales about the devil, and these stories, they’re basically all revenge stories, they all basically operate the same way. They’re all about the wicked and the unworthy getting their just desserts on the business end of the devil’s pitchfork. It’s funny because the audience for those stories [are] probably fairly religious, but when they read those stories, they’re rooting for the devil. Even though the devil’s the ultimate bad guy, he is nevertheless the one is going to make sure that the everyday human sinner, the worst of us, get what’s coming to them.
So Horns is very much from that tradition. And you know I had written a lot traditional ghost stories, and I felt it was time to play with one of the other toys in the dark fantasy sandbox, and that would be the devil.
Ig’s primary power is his ability to coax people’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
He doesn’t have to coax, it just comes pouring out. Everyone sees him as their own personal demon, and they can’t wait to pour forth their ugliest secrets and darkest temptations. So you’ve got the doctor who says ‘you patients, all you care about is yourselves’ because what he wants to do is grind up Oxycontin and spy on his daughter’s friends, and you’ve got the little kid who says about her mother, ‘I want to burn up mummy in her bed with matches.’ So Ig, in the first 100 pages, Ig lives this paranoid fantasy where he keeps turning to people for help, and instead of helping him all they want to do is make these terrible confessions, and this is how he comes to realize that he’s inherited the powers and knowledge of the devil.
This is a power you’ve explored in earlier work. Do you have a particular fascination with people’s secrets?
There’s two things about that, but the first thing is this is always the writer’s goal, is to take a character and then peel them away to the essence. This is why we have stories, to examine people’s complexities, and people are mysteries. Raymond Chandler used to say he had no interest in whodunits, he was only interested in whydunits. And by the same token I’m not really interested in whodunits, I’m more interested in ‘who are they?’ And so almost all my stories build to this point of confession where characters finally have nowhere else to go. They can’t hide anymore, and they reveal themselves completely to another character, also to the reader and also to themselves.
And Horns turns that slightly on its head because the book opens with Ig frantically searching for help and faced down with these terrifying confessions from all the people he loves and all the people he thought he could trust. But that’s just the beginning.
It also goes on to suggest that these terrible confessions are not the whole of the picture. And Ig, even though he faces all this darkness, clings to his humanity and stubbornly insists that there’s more to the people he loves than just their worst, and he’s right.
So we get these terrible confessions, but in Horns, unlike some of the other stories, it starts with the point of confession and then winds things backwards and forwards and jumps around to reveal that people are more than just the sum of their worst moments.
I understand that Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was an influence on Horns. Can you speak to that?
Yeah. I’ve written about Kafka’s Metamorphosis twice, and I still think that it’s one of four or five stories of horror that particularly fascinate me.
I tackled The Metamorphosis for the first time in a story called ‘You Will Hear The Locust Sing’, and the way that came about was I’d just read The Metamorphosis for the first time, I was in Florida, riding a bike around, and I was in bare feet. And I put my foot down on the ground in a mound of red ants and just got the hell chewed out of my foot; it was just like having acid poured on my foot. And it reminded me in The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach and then just kind of wastes away depressed and unable to fight for his own life. But most insects have more fight in them than that.
So I ended up writing a story about a kid who wakes up one morning after turning into a giant locust, and far from being horrified and depressed, it thrills him. This is [one of] his deepest fantasies. He’s always wanted to be a giant monster. So that was the first time. And then Horns… takes the same kind of grotesque transformation and examines it in a darker, I think more complete way.
I do have to say that I think a lot of my stories are about ordinary, lost, harmless guys who experience this grotesque transformation and become this thing larger than life and maybe a little frightening but also more powerful and more free. Heart-Shaped Box is partially the story of this abused, lonely country kid who is nobody special until the day when he’s seventeen, he takes his guitar and climbs on a Greyhound bus and goes to New York, and when he gets off the bus in New York seventeen hours later he’s reinvented himself as this guy Judas Coyne, and he becomes this big rock star. Very different kind of transformation in some ways, but in some ways Jude is a rock ‘n’ roll devil and it’s very similar.
And here is Joe talking about whether Horns actually is or isn’t horror…