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From 20th Century Ghosts to NOS4A2: Where to Start with Award-Winning Horror Author Joe Hill

Stephen King’s son proves the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

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  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Are you ready to step into the twisted world of horror novelist Joe Hill? With the television adaptation NOS4A2 currently running on AMC, the novel that inspired the series is now more widely read than ever. For many readers, this may be the first time they’ve been introduced to Hill’s work, in spite of his accolades: Hill has won the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, Locus, and Eisner Awards, to name just a few.

If you’re new to Joe Hill, the first thing you’ll quickly learn is who his father is. If you’ve ever seen a picture of Hill (he looks a lot like his dad), it probably comes as no surprise that he was born Joseph Hillström King, and that his mother and father are authors Tabitha and Stephen King.

Yes, that Stephen King.

Related: 11 Nightmare-Inducing Authors to Check Out After You've Read Everything by Stephen King 

You could say that Hill comes by his talents naturally, and it’s certainly true that he’s followed in his father’s footsteps—just about all of his novels, short stories, and comic books land solidly in the horror genre. But you don’t get all those awards just by being your father’s son, and Hill has carved out an impressive reputation of his own in the literary world.

Hill, who assumed a shortened version of his name as a pseudonym in order to succeed or fail on his own merits rather than those of his famous father, made his first big splash on the literary scene with the 2005 publication of his debut short fiction collection, 20th Century Ghosts. It secured him a Bradbury Fellowship as well as the Bram Stoker, British Fantasy, and International Horror Guild Awards for Best Collection.

In 2007, Hill followed up with his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, a tale about a fading rock star who acquires a dead man’s funeral suit—and inherits the vengeful ghost who once wore it. By then, Hill’s secret identity was out in the open, and the novel nabbed Bram Stoker and International Thriller Writers Awards for Best First Novel.

Since then, Hill has published three more novels, a book of essays, and a second short story collection, with a third, entitled Full Throttle, due out in October 2019. He has worked on comic books and written (as-yet unproduced) scripts for television, and his work has been adapted to film—in 2014, director Alexandre Aja helmed an adaptation of Hill’s second novel, Horns.

All of that can make Hill’s oeuvre feel a tad overwhelming for newcomers, but before we dig too far into where to start if you’re new to Hill, I want to take a short detour to tell a story. In 2011, Hill hadn’t yet released his third novel, NOS4A2, which would come out in 2013. But he was already working on it—perhaps even finished with it—and he talked about it at the World Horror Convention in Austin, Texas.

I remember because I was there. This was a year before my own first collection came out, and so it was a rare pleasure to not only get to meet Hill, whose earlier works I had already read and enjoyed, but to appear on a panel with him where we discussed short story writing.

Some time afterward, Hill and Steve Niles, best known for writing the comic series 30 Days of Night, invited myself and author Selena Chambers, along with a few others, out to dinner at a Cajun restaurant across the parking lot from the hotel.

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There, we feasted on alligator, crayfish, and oysters while discussing, among other things, the relative merits of the various Howling sequels. It’s an evening that’s almost impossible to forget, and I bring it up not (just) to brag about having met Hill in person, but because in some ways it illustrates what you can expect from Hill’s fiction.

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The familiar, sure. Anyone who has read Stephen King will find a welcoming creepy home in Hill’s books. But also elements that are as unexpected as Hill’s remarkable aptitude for eating crayfish; one this poor author could never come near to matching. And always a humanity and a playful intelligence that welcomes both the highbrow and the low, as ready to talk Shirley Jackson as marsupial werewolves.

That’s been my experience with Hill’s fiction, anyway, and my limited experience with Hill himself. As for where to start if you’re new to his work, for those who are coming off the AMC series of NOS4A2, it will obviously be tempting to start with that novel. But NOS4A2 is one of Hill’s more ambitious books, and, for my money, I would start the same place Hill started: with his short stories.

where to start with joe hill

20th Century Ghosts

By Joe Hill

Hill’s debut collection won him several awards for a reason. Like any collection, there are standout stories and lesser ones, but just about everyone will find something they like within the pages of 20th Century Ghosts—if not, you’re not apt to like much of Hill’s other work, either.

Horror fanatics may enjoy the deconstructionist “Best New Horror,” while those who like their stories a bit less macabre may gravitate toward the enchanting “Pop Art,” the story of a boy and his best friend, who just happens to be made of inflatable plastic. It’s a ridiculous premise, but Joe Hill not only makes it work, he makes it sing.

“My Father’s Mask” is there for those who prefer their horror to be more Robert Aickman than Texas Chain Saw Massacre, while “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” offers a ‘50s drive-in version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and “The Cape” shows the dark side of comic book superheroes.

From there, if you can’t get enough, you can move on to Hill’s second collection, Strange Weather, which gathers four novellas. (King fans will be overjoyed to find that Strange Weather almost feels like a response to King’s Different Seasons.)

Related: Watch the Creepy New Trailer for Netflix's Stephen King and Joe Hill Horror Movie Adaptation, In the Tall Grass 

where to start with joe hill

Heart-Shaped Box

By Joe Hill

If you’re just not a short story person, then I recommend dipping your toes into Hill’s work with Heart-Shaped Box. Hill’s later novels may be more ambitious, piling in more characters and more subplots, but Heart-Shaped Box is lean and poetic while still giving you a good, solid taste of what a Joe Hill story is all about.

It’s the tale of Judas Coyne, a faded rock star who collects creepy memorabilia. The latest addition to his collection is a dead man’s funeral suit, which is said to be inhabited by the man’s ghost. Unfortunately for Judas, the ghost belongs to the stepfather of a former groupie who had committed suicide, and the ghost blames him for her death.

Combining psychological realism with creepy accounts of the supernatural, Heart-Shaped Box also introduces many of the themes that will come up in Hill’s other works, including music, haunted and cursed items and places, and pasts that we cannot leave behind.

where to start with joe hill

Locke & Key

By Joe Hill

Since 2008, Hill has written six volumes of a comic book series every bit as ambitious and dramatic as any of his novels. Locke & Key tells the story of the Locke children, who move into Keyhouse, a magical abode filled with mysterious keys that allow the kids to do all sorts of incredible things.

Of course, this is still a Hill story, so even before the keys are discovered there has already been bloodshed—the murder of their father, which drove them to the house in the first place—and it doesn’t take long before they realize that the keys can also unlock terrible evil powers. It’s a multi-generational story that’s also a classic kids-on-bikes horror, told through Hill’s words and the art of Gabriel Rodriguez. 

The sprawling, visually-inventive tale has been optioned for television and film several times, but has never yet made the leap. Directors who have circled the project include Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson and Andy Muschietti, director of It (2017) and It Chapter Two (2019). Currently, Netflix is considering developing the series after Hulu passed on the project.

Hill has also written a variety of other comics, including spin-offs of his short story “The Cape” and a comic adaptation of some of his scripts for a proposed Tales from the Darkside reboot series—the scripts themselves are also available in book form.

Related: 11 Nightmare-Inducing Authors to Check Out After You've Read Everything by Stephen King 

where to start with joe hill


By Joe Hill

If all of this has only whetted your appetite, now it may finally be time to dive into NOS4A2. The novel promises to tell a “different kind of vampire story,” and might be Hill’s most ambitious novel to date. 

From there, there’s someplace to go for just about every predilection. Those who want more of a murder mystery with supernatural trappings can pick up Hill’s second novel, Horns—I wasn’t personally a fan, but many others were—while those who are looking for an apocalyptic science fiction tale which Hill has described as “less like Hell House, more like The Andromeda Strain” can read his 2016 novel The Fireman.

What’s next? The short fiction collection Full Throttle will be hitting shelves in October, including a story that Hill co-wrote with his father and one that will be part of Shudder’s upcoming Creepshow series reboot. After that, another book called Up the Chimney Down has been mentioned for a possible 2020 release. Until then, there’s plenty of back catalogue to keep you busy…

Featured photo: Alchetron