Joe Hill is a neophyte novelist when compared to his famous father, Stephen King, but don’t let this fool you, he is a master of horror. His writing irrefutably attests to this, along with rave reviews by highly respected critics. However, his plot twists and shocking finales are just as beguiling as his pen name — he is in fact Joseph Hillstrom King, son and protégé of the celebrated veteran author of horror and suspense classics such as Carrie and Cujo. As a fan of both father and son, I can confidently confirm that, in the case of the Kings, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Hill has had three novels published since 2007 and a collection of short stories entitled 20th Century Ghosts. I have recently and speedily read through three of these four books, the first of which was Heart-Shaped Box. The plot revolves around Jude, a rock star who buys a dead man’s suit online. If that’s not strange enough, before you know it the suit and its irate deceased owner begin popping up unexpectedly all over the place — behind doors and sitting in the driver’s seat of Jude’s Mustang, the man’s bones dangling as loosely as Jude’s declining sanity. Hill’s petrifying, vivid imagery renders readers unable to turn away from the page or comfortably fall asleep at night, as dreams of an implacably murderous skeleton are inevitable.
In Hill’s most recent and gruesome novel, NOS4A2, Charlie Manx kidnaps children and brings them to a playground of horror he calls “Christmasland,” where they eventually lose their minds and any sense of morality they once possessed. These moribund children make it a point to torture people, especially the protagonist, Victoria McQueen who was once able to escape Manx as a child. They constantly telephone her and beg her to join them in Manx’s disquieting world. Driven to insanity, she eventually decides to burn all of her telephones in the oven. Hill has an extraordinary way of making incidences like these quite common throughout the book, yet no less disconcerting. I also found that rereading the last chapter only confirms that Hill’s ending remains as unexpected and surprising the second time around.
My favorite of the three books is the story of Ig Parrish in Horns. Ig awakens one day with two hooks protruding from his head and the ironically undesirable power that prevents people from lying to him. Even his own loving mother uncontrollably admits she doesn’t care much for him. He is just as bewildered as readers embarking on this mad journey, which only intensifies the ride. Hill cleverly unveils the truth one spine-chilling step at a time — a puzzle that is impossible to complete until the novel’s last pages when Hill hands you the final piece.
Aside from Hill’s exhilarating story lines and capricious conclusions, I enjoy his writing because of the vivid and compelling settings. He bases his novels around New England, an area I am both familiar with and continually intrigued by. Much of NOS4A2 takes place in Haverhill, Massachusetts and on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. This is very alluring to me, as I spent memorable summer days there growing up. I could picture the maze of small green islands spread out across the lake and the sun streaming through the trees, several small spotlights begging for an audience. Serene locales contrasted with harrowing events only makes everything all the more frightening, a key component to Hill’s masterful choice of setting throughout his novels.
Hill effortlessly balances the illusory with the real, refusing to teeter more to one side than the other. His fiction is plausible enough to genuinely frighten, yet imaginary enough to keep one simultaneously shocked and guessing. The only real critique I have for Mr. Hill is that as a fairly new writer, he does not yet have enough published to keep my literary hunger satisfied. For all those lovers of the uncanny, I can assure you that you have yet to truly indulge until feasting on one of Hill’s blood-curdling tales. And so, with high expectations, I eagerly await his next work.