Joe Hill is the first guy to admit that it's probably a good thing he took up writing instead of acting. He was just 9 years old when the zombie auteur George Romero cast him in "Creepshow," a 1982 fright flick written by Hill's dad, who also played a dimwit farmer. "There were all these cool rubber monster parts lying around," Hill told me over dinner in December. "For a little kid, it was a blast. There was my dad, there was some one-on-one time with my dad. But I was terrible. Oh, was I bad." The bit about his father he sort of tucked into the conversation as if it were an aside. His dad is a topic he discusses with great reluctance, not because he doesn't love the guy but because when you are as much your father's son as Joe Hill is Stephen King's, once you start talking about your dad, you might never get a chance to talk about anything else.
As it happens, Dad dedicated his early novel "The Shining," the semi-autobiographical tale of an alcoholic writer and his sensitive, gifted son, to "Joe Hill King, who shines on." Thirty years later, Hill has chosen to put down roots in the very same literary neighborhood, even though his father, as huge a star as American letters has ever produced, can block the sunshine for an entire state. Of course, there's nothing new about writers, from the literary Amises to the best-selling Higgins Clarks, following in Mom's or Dad's footsteps and letting academics parse the shared strands of literary DNA. But Hill's first novel, "Heart-Shaped Box," the story of a merciless ghost and an aging rock musician, also marks the end of a rather elaborate identity game, the public debut of the man behind a pseudonym adopted more than a decade ago.
Published last month, "Heart-Shaped Box" received mostly rave reviews. The book is, as they say, an "instant" best seller; it is currently perched at No. 10 on the New York Times list. Both Hill's editor at William Morrow and the producer Akiva Goldsman (the Oscar-winning writer of "A Beautiful Mind" and "The Da Vinci Code"), who optioned the novel, insist that they learned of Joe's true identity only after they made their respective deals. But if the timing of the leak seems suspiciously fortuitous, the question of who knew what -- and when -- matters less in the end than why Hill went to the trouble to hide in the first place.
In part, the answer lies in Hill's early efforts to reinvent horror as a genre. It was a work no American publisher would buy, a collection of short stories called "20th Century Ghosts" (brought out in England in 2005 by PS Publishing, a small specialty house), that first made Hill's reputation. The stories won two Bram Stoker Awards, a World Fantasy Award (other winners that year included Haruki Murakami and George Saunders) and an International Horror Guild Award.
Hill writes in two traditions that he would argue are artificially walled off from each other: genre fiction, with its emphasis on breakneck, often outrageous, plot and metaphor; and literary realism, which values detailed characterization, psychological depth and subtle epiphanies. In this, he keeps to the family line. Hill's mother, Tabitha, is an accomplished novelist who straddles the divide between literary and genre. His brother, Owen, published his first collection of short stories in 2004 but is also editing an anthology of superhero fiction; Owen's wife, Kelly Braffet, mixes genre elements -- serial killers, incestuous romance, C.I.A. operatives -- into her fiction. And Stephen King, of course, has long moved freely between what some critics have called lurid potboilers and the quieter work that has won him the respect of the literary establishment. Hill, who spent years trying to write fiction in the spirit of Cormac McCarthy, found his voice only when he returned to the fantasy novels and horror stories -- some fresh from his father's desk -- that he loved as a kid.
With his dark, straight hair, full beard and intense eyes, Hill, at 34, bears an unmistakable resemblance to the Stephen King on the paperback cover of "Danse Macabre," published in 1981, when King was the same age. Like his father, Hill married young, has three kids and lives in an isolated part of New England. Also like his father, he shows his manuscripts to his wife. "A lot of people marry their moms," he said. "I kind of married my dad. I'll go from the manuscript I gave her and the manuscript I gave him and go back and forth, and it's the same comments." (Hill's wife, Leanora, and King are so in sync that she reads King's drafts too.)
Hill is even more protective of his privacy than his father was for much of his career. (King didn't have Google Maps and other online search devices to contend with.) Though Hill's fallback demeanor is congenital niceness, he wouldn't even consider an interview in his hometown and cut off any questions about his children. Hill is certainly no stranger to aggressive fans. When he was 12, he found a six-pack-toting ex-convict at the front door. "I just got out of Thomaston Prison," Hill remembered the man saying, "and I just wanted to tell you that your dad's books are the only things that kept me from killing someone in there." Here, Hill made a sound effect to suggest that at that moment his head exploded, cartoon-style. "My memory is that my dad went outside and had a beer with the guy." But, he added, "there have been people who have broken into the house. You get into a little bit of a defensive crouch."
Hill did concede this much: He lives in a remote part of New Hampshire, not Maine, where he grew up. And he works at home. In his office, Hill keeps files full of letters that mark his long literary apprenticeship. Rejection. Rejection. Rejection. He could have had it another way.
When he was about 12, The Bangor Daily News accepted an essay he submitted. "I was completely pumped," he told me. "I felt like I was on the verge of major celebrity, and my excitement about the piece lasted right up until the day it was published. When I read it in the newspaper, I realized for the first time that it was full of trite ideas and windy writing. At the end, they had added a little postscript that said, 'Joseph King is the son of best-selling novelist Stephen King,' and when I read that I knew that was the only reason they published the piece. You know, at that age the fear of humiliation is probably worse than the fear of death, and not long afterward I started to think I should just write under a different name." He toyed with several before eventually settling on Joe Hill.
Hill found his agent, Mickey Choate, by straightforward query. (Choate was his agent for eight years before Joe told him about Dad.) His early efforts met with little success. "I got a lot of written personal rejections," he said. "They'd all say, we really like this on a technical level, but I don't think they have an interior life. Those stories didn't excite them, and they didn't excite me, either."
The first full-length work he submitted for publication under his pseudonym was "an epic fantasy novel." But it was a fantasy that didn't conform to established rules of the genre. Hill envisioned it as "a J.R.R. Tolkien-type novel, but written with the values of a John Irving novel. It wouldn't have a quest or dragons. It would be about family and raising children, but it would be set in a fantasy world." When it was turned down everywhere, Hill toyed with the idea of submitting under his real name. He was genuinely pleased with the book and wanted to see it published. "After that," he said, "maybe there was some feeling like, uh, you know, maybe you should. ... But I actually kind of wound up feeling like the pen name had done its job. If it wasn't good enough to get accepted on its own merits, then that was a healthy thing."
For years after his epic novel was rejected, Hill kept the fantasy genre at arm's length -- until he rediscovered a story that reminded him of the many uses to which fantasy could be put. It was "The Jewbird," by Bernard Malamud, in which a skinny black crow settles in a family's kitchen, cawing, "Gevalt, a pogrom," a comic and ultimately dark treatment of anti-Semitism. The story, which has been called a homage of sorts to "The Raven," by Edgar Allan Poe, undid him. Why, he wondered, should his storytelling be straitjacketed by realism? Hill began writing and selling "strange" short stories to small literary and genre magazines, which were later collected in "20th Century Ghosts."
In one of the standouts in Hill's collection, a jaded editor hunting for a family of "deranged literary hillbillies" addresses a conference of horror fans and, expanding an argument Hill first encountered in a Malamud essay, tells the fans that even though most horror fiction was "creatively bankrupt," the best works "took the most basic elements of literature and pushed them to their extremes." It is an apt description not only of Hill's short stories but also of an informal literary movement known as "slipstream" -- a combination, as its name suggests, of science fiction, horror, fantasy, mystery and realism. "The Specialist's Hat," by Kelly Link, the genre's critical darling, is a chiller about children, a castle, a hat trimmed with teeth and a baby sitter. "The Raw Shark Texts," the first novel by the British writer Steven Hall, which will be published in the U.S. this month, revolves around "conceptual" sharks who track down humans and devour their memories, a horror-dystopic-philosophical mash-up that has critics drawing comparisons to Borges, "The Matrix" and "Jaws." In Hill's own allegorical "Pop Art," a boy who happens to be a blow-up doll is persecuted not just by schoolyard bullies but also by his best friend's father.
For Hill, making a mash-up of his identity conferred benefits not unlike those that came with the mashing up of genres: "I liked crime stories, suspense stories, fantasy stories, and I felt like if I wrote as Joseph King I might not want to write genre fiction, but if I wrote as Joe Hill, I could write whatever I wanted. So that's what I did. I had 10 years to write and not have the pressure of being a famous guy's kid."
At the time Joe was born, in 1972, the Kings were a couple of aspiring writers in their mid-20s with little money and a toddler named Naomi. Stephen taught high school and worked at a commercial laundry; Tabitha worked evenings at Dunkin' Donuts. But before Joe's first birthday, his dad sold "Carrie," and the family's financial woes were over. When I asked Hill what it was like growing up in the King household, he quoted an old Jay Leno joke, which went, he said, something like this: Stephen King asks his kids, "Hey kids, you want to hear a bedtime story?" And the kids scream, "Noooooo."
"But it wasn't like that," Hill explained. "My dad is a great storyteller, and we loved to have stuff read to us. As a family, my mom and my dad would sit down and the book would go around the circle -- we'd sit and read all together. It sounds very 19th century, but it's true."
Hill's parents never told him what books he could read or movies he could watch. "When I was like 11, 12," he told me, "my parents asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said, 'Let's have all my friends over and we'll watch "Dawn of the Dead." ' So we're sitting there watching it. I've seen it like 10 times at this point, and I'm just having a blast and I hardly notice my friends trickling out of the room." A couple of boys stayed with him. One boy was "just lathered in sweat and completely pale." Here, Hill put his hands over his face in imitation of a scared little kid, and in a wavering voice said, " 'I don't think we should be watching this!' "
In the novel King dedicated to his son Joe, the "shining" refers to a profound sensitivity to paranormal activity. Even if you remove ghosts from the equation, Joe, according to those who knew him, always had a kind of shining, an openness. Peter Straub, the best-selling novelist who collaborated with King on two books, remembered that King would play "some kind of imaginative game with the children, but especially with Joe. He'd make up a kind of graph with a matrix on it, and he'd start by saying, 'O.K., George Appleby is driving his Ford pickup truck along this road,' and then he'd say, 'There's something happening over here -- what does he do?' And the kids would say, 'Well, I think he should turn around,' and elaborate on the story." Straub nodded approvingly, smiling at the memory. "If ever I saw mentoring, that was it." Among the unpublished works in King's papers at the University of Maine are early artifacts of that mentorship: "I Hate Mondays," a five- page collaboration with Owen King, and "But Only Darkness Loves Me," a two-page fragment written with Joe, of which one page is typed, the other handwritten.
The King boys grew up riffing on each other's fantasies; in what they called the Writing Game, a literary version of tag, one brother would write for a few minutes and pass the story to the other. "We used to play Call of Cthulhu," Owen told me, referring to the role-playing game based on the H. P. Lovecraft story. "Joe was always dungeon master. You had sanity points, and it was like, if you encountered Yog-Sothoth one too many times, you were crazy. You could only have so many adventures, and then you had to have a new character, and I thought that was brilliant."
As grown-ups, the brothers collaborated on a few screenplays after college, but Owen and Joe say they have little influence on each other's fiction. They don't read drafts of works in progress, and except for the rare crossover novel like Michael Chabon's "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," they don't even read the same books. Owen, Joe told me, set about "very consciously building a career around not writing genre fiction." Joe kept coming back to it.
When we first met, Hill, who has the beguiling manner of a kid who has been allowed to skip the classes he hates, the subjects that bore him, was quick to rank some of his genre favorites: "the best, most frightening short story since Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery' " (Link's "Specialist's Hat"); "the most frightening young-adult novel of all time" (Neil Gaiman's "Coraline"); "the absolute best story about 19th-century dentistry ever written" (his brother Owen King's "Frozen Animals"). He sang the praises of Elmore Leonard, Chabon, Malamud and a host of tough-guy "manfiction" novelists, to use his affectionately satirical term. The embrace of genre fiction by literary lions like Chabon and Jonathan Lethem means a lot to him.
And "Heart-Shaped Box" is indeed genre fiction, a mainstream horror novel that Hill himself admits follows closely in the path of work that has come before him. The first third is a haunted-house story as tightly wound as Ira Levin's "Rosemary's Baby." Jude Coyne, a dissipated rock musician, decides to add one more treasure to his collection of Goth memorabilia -- a ghost for sale at an online auction site, who arrives as ordered. Gritty naturalism gives way to a master class in startle effects as the ghost chases Jude through a high-concept version of the Deep South, with supernatural accouterments that are all the more effective for their homeliness: an old man's possessed electrolarynx, a wicked ghost's annunciation on right-wing talk radio, an otherworldly pickup truck no man can outrace. A family of psychics, led by an abusive dowser armed with a hypnotist's razor, propels the story. It's a family you might find in, well, a Stephen King novel.
For Joe, being close to his father in his ambitions meant he had a role model and a protector, but it also meant his father's footprints were everywhere -- even, as it turns out, in his adoption of a pseudonym. Early in his career, the prolific King needed another outlet and published four novels as Richard Bachman. When a bookstore clerk outed King, his publisher released a statement saying that Bachman had died from "cancer of the pseudonym, a rare form of schizonomia," and sales of the fifth Bachman book, "Thinner," exploded.
When Hill finally sold "Heart-Shaped Box" to a major U.S. publisher, he thought he would probably be similarly outed. After the contract was negotiated, Hill called his editor, Jennifer Brehl, and told her his full name and who his father was. Brehl agreed that they would publish the book under his pseudonym and play down the family angle as much as possible. But there wasn't much she could do. "I had pretty much run to the end of my rope around that time," Hill told me. "I had done an appearance in England, and people kind of noticed a little bit of a family resemblance. There started to be some muttering going around." Later Hill told me, a little wistful that the statute of limitations on his pen name had expired, "It would have been nice if the book could have come out and been out for a while, but it just didn't work out that way."
That "Heart-Shaped Box" is more like his father's work than Hill's short stories are may be because Hill can finally suffer the comparison to King. As Straub put it to me, any writer who grows up reading genre fiction needs to corrupt it in some significant way in order to write it himself. "Back in the 1970s," he said, "I understood that I could do more or less anything I liked with horror because the field was so despised that no one would notice except the fans. Now I see that the genre itself allowed me to do anything that I wanted." It took Joe Hill a while to realize the same thing.