Joe Hill Kicks Ass in NYC

I was so excited to see Joe Hill read yesterday that it was hard to keep myself tethered to the ground. But then a series of mean, petty incidents at the place where I’ve worked in-house the last five months escalated to an unbearable level, and with mad tears, I quit just like that. I was so upset and called my sister after my walkout, wondering if I should just go home because I felt so miserable. She said, “No, no, go to the reading. It’ll make you feel better.”

Somehow I took the subway up to the Upper East Side and realized that I was on the wrong side of Manhattan. I needed to be at the Barnes & Noble on Eighty-Second Street and Broadway. Looking at the map in the Eighty-Sixth Street station, I thought it would probably be faster to walk through Central Park than to loop back to Grand Central and transferring and transferring. Also, stomping through the park helped me burn off some of my anger.

Smelling of armpit wrapped in a merino wool sweater—how I hate business casual—I sat near the back, where I could get a clear view of the stage. I had an aisle seat a few places down from an adorable girl who had outfitted herself with a pair of red horns à la Iggy Perrish from Joe Hill’s Horns. I read a few pages of the paranormal romance series project that I’m in the middle of editing, and then read the acknowledgments page of NOS4A2. There it was—another public thanking of his copyeditor. This pleased me so much as one of those working in the trenches of publishing—when an author takes time out to thank those who help them look their best with their words. Feeling a little bit better, I was ready to hear a story when Joe Hill came onstage to read.

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He was very courteous, making sure to read a different part of the book because there were some repeat attendees in the crowd and he didn’t want them to be bored. He was also a bit of a smart-ass—but a nice smart-ass—threatening to call on random members of the audience if they didn’t have any questions for him after the reading.

He was a good reader, and I settled in and was visualizing a bald Keith Richards with small, brown teeth—a horrifying image—when a couple, running late, tapped me on the shoulder. I think I must have jumped a foot. The guy apologized for scaring me and they slid into the available seats next to me, but I’m sure it was Mr. Hill who was responsible for that.

After the reading, Hill talked about his theories of horror, which I wholeheartedly endorse. He noted a part of his book that seemed to slow down and get too mechanical and said, “I…got thinking about Hannibal…When we met Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, he was the most terrifying thing anyone had ever seen. He’s only in that book for about two chapters. When we come across him in Silence of the Lambs, he’s onscreen with Jodie Foster for fourteen minutes. That’s it, fourteen minutes. And he’s the thing everybody remembers from that film, how terrifying Hannibal Lecter was.

“But then there was another movie and then another movie and book after book, and now there’s a TV series, and at a certain point, he becomes so familiar he’s like your toaster. You’re just not scared of him anymore…What’s really scary is that shark in the water, which we hardly ever see in Jaws. The shark is terrifying because you don’t know how to stop it and you don’t know where it is.”

I’m a sucker for hearing about other writers’ processes and routines and was happy when Hill shared his. “I’m very habit driven. I have a to-do list that I follow religiously,” he said. “I have a morning routine that consists of five items. The fifth item on the list is getting a thousand words. And nothing else in my day happens until I do that. And the other four things aren’t necessarily all that interesting but it’s read a poem, read one article in the New York Times, feed and walk the dog, take my Paxil.”

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Surprisingly, nobody brought up Hill’s famous mother and father, but when the Q and A sped into the lightning-fast round, an audience member asked who his favorite writers were. Hill said, “My parents both write; they’re my favorite writers. My brother would definitely be running a close third.”

I admire that kind of fierce family loyalty, but it’s even better when it’s true, and Stephen and Tabitha King, Owen King, and Joe Hill have become a kind of American literary dynasty.

After the Q and A, the line was long to get books signed by Hill, but truthfully I had expected it to be much longer. I was imagining a Gaiman-length line. I sat around sending texts to another pal in publishing until it shortened up, and then joined behind a family in matching heavy metal T-shirts—a mom, a dad, and a son who was about eight years old and carrying a Shakespeare puzzle. They had a bagful of books and insisted that I go before them. We chatted about books, the talk Hill had given, and the crazy guy who was on line about eight people ahead of us. It made me so happy and brought me out of my slump. Horror folks are good people.

My signed copy--in gold!

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Horns by Joe Hill

I’m a big fan of Joe Hill’s work. I think my favorite is his collection of short stories 20th Century Ghosts, which is full of quirky twists on the horror genre. The story that sticks out the most deals with an editor going through his slush pile–a task that can be one of the circles of hell, I’ve heard–and finding that most elusive of things: a fresh short story by an unknown talent. Then the editor goes to court that talent and winds up in a scene similar to the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Bad move.

It’s hard to sustain that type of story for a full-length novel, but I found Hill’s novel Heart Shaped Box admirable, combining seemingly unreconcilable things from pop culture with a haunting and producing a delicious horror story.

I started Horns with a sense of anticipation, expecting that same kind of knockdown, and for most of the book, it was there. A scene involving the youthful protagonist Iggy Perrish, his older brother, a cherry bomb, and a turkey was brilliant, and Hill’s ability to draw characters, both male and female, is spot-on. In the end, though, I found Horns too similar to Heart Shaped Box and my interest flagged while finishing the book.

In Heart Shaped Box, the protagonist is an aging musician with an interest in all things that are evil since it’s good for his stage persona. In Horns, the protagonist is the son of a famous jazz musician and brother to another famous musician, a trumpet player with his own TV show. Both protagonists are dealing with the deaths of their recent romantic partners, licking their wounds while taking up with second-best girlfriends. In Horns, I did appreciate the more sympathetic portrayal of the second best, Glenna: “She looked good, a curvy girl in stonewashed gray jeans, a sleeveless black shirt, and a black studded belt. He could see the Playboy Bunny on her exposed hip, which was a trashy touch, but who hadn’t made mistakes, done things to themselves they wished they could take back.”

Horns starts with an interesting scenario. Iggy Perrish wakes up with a terrible hangover and discovers that overnight he’s sprouted horns on his head. The horns appear to act as radio antennae, and people give Iggy their unedited thoughts when he speaks with them. If Iggy touches somebody, he can see what they’ve done, reading their deepest, darkest secrets.

After setting up this scary situation, Hill goes back to when Iggy was fifteen and met his best friend Lee and the love of his life, Merrin, filling in the backstory. Here, Iggy is shown as a kid full of high jinks and spirit, but he is also kind and compassionate, almost saintlike. I wonder if it’s this section that makes the end of the novel not work for me. After seeing the heroic Iggy, I found it a stretch to jump back to Iggy as the devil, coming to avenge the murder of his girlfriend. The ending of Horns fell flat for me, and I really didn’t want it too after loving the first two-thirds of the book.