Joe Hill says it took him quite a while to find the spark that would make his riveting new horror novel roar to life. Though he ended up writing the bulk of NOS4A2 in about seven months, getting the book started wasn’t easy.
“I struggled with figuring out how I wanted to write a female lead,” Hill says by phone from his home in New England. The novel’s main character, Victoria McQueen, is a tough, wild thing with an unusual talent. When we meet her as a young girl, Vic has just discovered that sometimes, much to her surprise, her beloved Raleigh bicycle takes her to a covered bridge that shouldn’t exist. When she rides the Raleigh across the bridge, Vic finds whatever lost object had been on her mind: a teddy bear, her mother’s bracelet and, later on, serious trouble.
From the start, Hill knew the basics of the story, its broad arc and time span. But he wasn’t quite sure how to frame it. “That took a little while to figure out,” he says.
Then, like Vic, the author set out to find trouble—specifically, he needed to find Charlie Manx, the story’s villain, a creepy but weirdly charismatic old man, a kidnapper who might also be something much worse. “It took me longer to find Manx’s voice than almost any character I’ve ever struggled to reach,” Hill says. “That was a lot of the struggle early in the book. Then once I found it, it was like a big car engine turning over.”
“Sometimes the less you know, the scarier someone is.”
Charlie Manx drives a sleek black 1938 Rolls-Royce with the license plate “NOS4A2.” (“It is one of my little jokes,” Manx tells another character early in the book. “My first wife once accused me of being a Nosferatu.”) Manx’s crooked teeth, bony skull and hawk-like stare make him instantly sinister, but he’s also—like all the best bad guys—mysteriously seductive, and he genuinely believes he’s helping the kids he lures in. It’s precisely this bizarre mix of evil and magnanimity that makes the old guy such a charmer. As Hill puts it: “He’s so happy!”
Manx drives around collecting children with bleak futures, “rescuing” them and taking them to a place he calls Christmasland. To Manx, he’s doing these kids the favor of their lives. Even if they resist at first, a ride in the Rolls makes Christmasland irresistible to Manx’s young passengers. “When they get out of the car,” Hill says, “they are filled with joy.”
Never mind that they are also . . . in for a surprise. The Rolls-Royce, it turns out, runs on souls instead of unleaded.
“I like a big, fat, high concept to hang a story on,” Hill acknowledges. And this is an enormous novel: 704 pages long, spanning 25 years and much of the United States, not to mention a few landscapes in other dimensions. Hill says he’d been wanting to go big for a while, and part of the draw of writing such a vast tale came from his fondness for episodic storytelling, the kind Dickens used to do. As far back as the ’50s, Hill points out, one of the highest goals for a fiction writer was to have a story serialized in The New Yorker. Even today there’s plenty of great episodic storytelling to be found—it just happens to be on television instead of paper. “ ‘Breaking Bad’ isn’t a TV show,” Hill says, “it’s a novel.”
As Hill’s fans know, NOS4A2 is not his first venture into epic storytelling; he’s spent years writing episodes of the dark-fantasy comic book Locke & Key, which is illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (who also did the illustrations for NOS4A2). Like the novel, Locke & Key is concerned with the idea that magic and wonder, though commonplace in childhood, are either lost or dangerous to adults.
“When I was growing up, a lot of my literary heroes were comic book writers,” Hill says. He mentions Alan Moore’s 40-issue run on Swamp Thing; Frank Miller; Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; and later examples such as Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, all of which turned him on to the idea of writing something episodic. “I wanted to have something like that,” he says. “I wanted to see what it was like to have a story that would take me years to tell.” The constancy of writing Locke & Key, he found, was a comfort, a touchstone he could rely on during difficult times in his personal life.
Like the issues of Locke & Key, chapters in NOS4A2 frequently end with a cliffhanger—sometimes even in the middle of a sentence.
“I had no shame,” Hill says. “I tried to make one chapter end where it would be hard to put the book down.” Further demonstrating the pull of episodic storytelling, this was an “extension of what I’ve done in Locke & Key.”
Later this year, Hill adds, he plans to write a comic book set in the NOS4A2 universe. It will be drawn by Charles Wilson III (The Stuff of Legend), whose style Hill calls “really terrifically disturbing, like if R. Crumb illustrated Winnie the Pooh.” The comic will include a Charlie Manx origin story that originally took up almost 100 pages in the novel but was lopped out for pacing reasons, and because Hill thought it somehow reduced the level of Manx’s menace. Using the example of Darth Vader, Hill points out that some of the greatest villains are great only until we find out where they came from: “Sometimes the less you know, the scarier someone is.”
Which brings us, conveniently, to the Joe Hill origin story. Hill’s dad happens to be Stephen King, though he kept this a secret for the first decade or so of his writing life. He’d started writing fiction seriously while in college, and he worried that even if he wrote something mediocre, someone might publish it anyway because of the famous name, and then he’d be branded as the guy trying to “ride the coattails.” He also wanted the freedom to write whatever he felt like, including genre fiction. So he chose a pen name (drawing on his full name, Joseph Hillstrom King) and kept his famous parentage under wraps mostly “by failing,” he says, adding with a laugh: “Nothing assures your anonymity like failure.”
Though it was, of course, frustrating when he couldn’t sell his first novel to a publisher, Hill now sees that as “the pen name doing its work.” He did find early success in comics and with his short stories, and eventually his agent (who also didn’t know he was King’s son) sold a collection of stories to PS Publishing, which opened the door to the publication of his novel Heart-Shaped Box, in 2007. That book drew enough media attention that clues to his identity began to emerge. Bloggers would speculate, particularly after readings and public appearances (Hill looks strikingly like his father). But his savvier fans cooperated in keeping the secret, until eventually a mainstream magazine broke the news. By then, though, the pen name had done its job: Hill was confident that he had earned his success on his own merits. “In the end,” he says, “you will always be judged by your own work, and it doesn’t matter who your dad is.”
(Adding to the family’s literary legacy, Hill’s brother, Owen King, has also just published a novel, Double Feature.)
Hill is hard at work on his next novel, which he’s about halfway through and expects to publish in 2014. “I’m trying to get faster,” he adds. He writes full-time: “It’s a 9-to-5 job.”
When he’s not at work, Hill likes riding his motorbike, a Triumph Bonneville (not coincidentally, an old Triumph figures prominently in NOS4A2). For the novel’s publicity tour, he says, “I was toying with the idea of getting an Evel Knievel suit and riding from bookstore to bookstore . . . you know, you want to put on a good show.”