'All killer, no filler,' says horror writer Joe Hill

American author Joe Hill’s Strange Weather comprises four novellas.
American author Joe Hill’s Strange Weather comprises four novellas.PHOTOS: GILLIAN REDFEARN, GOLLANCZ

In his new book, Joe Hill, son of horror legend Stephen King, explores issues such as gun violence and climate change

"All killer, no filler" - that is what American horror writer Joe Hill likes to see in a novella.

His latest book, Strange Weather, puts four such novellas to the test. Short - though not in the least sweet - he wants them to "live fast and leave a pretty corpse".

"I love big books," says Hill, 45, over the telephone from the United States. "They are a heck of a lot of fun. But if that's all you ever write, you become the bore of the party. There is a lot to recommend in economy."

He knows a thing or two about epic tomes. His last novel was the 768-page The Fireman (2016). He also happens to be the son of horror legend Stephen King, whose verbosity on the page is renowned.

Just before Strange Weather was published in October, King released Sleeping Beauties, another hefty tome co-written with Hill's younger brother Owen.

Sibling rivalry might seem imminent, but Hill, who also writes the Locke & Key comic series, does not see it as such.

"If there's a competition, it's between us and all the writers of cr** fiction out there."

The father of three teenage boys, whose real name is Joseph Hillstrom King, chose to hide his parentage from the publishing world so that he could make his name on his own merits.

He stuck by this decision through a decade of tough rejections, before getting his big break with Heart-Shaped Box (2007), a ghost story about an ageing rock star, and later having his 2010 novel Horns adapted into a Hollywood film starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Looking back, Hill says he would not have done anything differently.

"I felt that if I wrote as Joseph King, I would get published even if I was writing cr**. I wanted to avoid that at all costs. All those rejections are instructive - they teach you that you're not there yet."

He wrote the first story in Strange Weather, Snapshot, four years ago while on tour, using two notebooks and a placemat from a 1950s diner. Screen rights for it have already been snapped up by Universal, with horror director Mike Flanagan in talks to write and direct.

In it, a sinister man stalks the inhabitants of a small town in the 1980s, wielding a Polaroid camera that robs them of their memories with each flash.

Hill was inspired by the amusing moment when his son tried to use a rotary phone. "He dialled the number, hesitated and said, 'Where do I press send?'" He decided to make the Polaroid camera, a similar icon of yesteryear, the centrepiece of this story on memory.

"People's memories are not as good as they used to be," he reflects. "Now, we have outsourced our memories to our devices. We count on Instagram to remember our own history for us; we count on Facebook to remind us what we were doing this time last year."

The mysterious man attacks people during lightning storms and, indeed, strange weather is the thread that runs through the collection.

"We are tiny specks on the surface of a grand planet constantly rippling with vast, invisible forces," says Hill. "The weather is a good metaphor for the big, invisible pressures that weigh down on us in our lives, that we are forced to respond to if we want to survive."

In the book's final story, Rain, the world descends into apocalypse as nails rain down, wiping out large swathes of the population in seconds.

Hill is concerned that people do not grasp the urgency of climate change. "Things don't seem to have changed very much, so it's difficult to work up any real worry. So I was thinking, what if the clouds started raining nails and shredding people to ribbons in the street? That would be hard to ignore."

In Rain, the president of the United States responds to the crisis by tweeting about it. Hill intended this to be an exaggerated representation of United States President Donald Trump, but as the book headed to press in September and Mr Trump started threatening North Korea over Twitter, he realised that perhaps the truth might actually be "weirder and more dismaying than fiction".

While three of the stories are speculative in nature - the third, Aloft, is about a skyjumper who gets stranded on a sentient cloud - one is completely devoid of the supernatural. This is Loaded, the collection's longest story, which looks at gun violence in America.

"It was scary enough without a ghost or a demon in it," says Hill. "All the demons in that story are in people's minds."

Worn out by the constant arguing around gun control, he decided to turn to fiction instead.

"Whether you're in favour of more restrictions or believe in the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms), it's possible to read Loaded and agree that the world it depicts is the world we're living in and it's not ideal. It's not the way things are going right now in a civilised society."

Fiction, he says, is a safe playground in which to explore the worst.

"We read fiction to wrestle with the big questions of what would frighten us most - what would it be like to die. We're wrestling with the idea that our own lives are finite. The end of days is coming for everyone, sooner or later."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'Horror writer goes short, scary and strange'. Print Edition | Subscribe