This post has been updated since it originally posted. I have included more Joe Hill books that I have read but I have not been able to keep up with his prolific output, forgive this list for not being complete.
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Author: Joe Hill
I continue to read Joe Hill’s books even after they have proven to be uneven in quality. The unusual thing about Joe Hill is that even though I did not find his first couple of novels spectacular I felt a strong urge to keep reading what he put out. He has a sort of magnetic pull that draws me in and keeps me reading until the last page. Many of his novels suffer from being far too long but with every single one I really wanted to see how it ended.
The main reason I want to spotlight Joe Hill is because of the absolutely marvelous graphic novel series Locke & Key. Without a doubt it is one of my favorite books of all time, of any genre. More on that shortly.
One would think that an author who could reach that high status with a reader would have a fully captivating bibliography but he fluctuates wildly. But just because he wrote, in my opinion, one very bad novel and other mediocre ones does not make him a bad author. He is still young and is obviously full to bursting with original ideas.
Just because I really didn’t like The Fireman doesn’t mean he isn’t going to write another even better than Locke & Key masterpiece later. No author is perfect and maybe not all of their books will be for you. It is a sign that they aren’t churning out the same formula with each volume. That they are actually branching out and trying new things in their literature is a good thing, even if they stumble.
This is how I would rank Joe Hill’s works starting with the worst and working up to the best.
The Fireman is yet another post apocalypse plague book that follows a group of survivors as they struggle to keep one member’s messiah fetus alive. The basic plot and structure has been done a million times before. What was new was the plague. Hill created a lovely new disaster that is as horrifying as it is glamorous.
Victims spontaneously combust, sometimes right away but sometimes after developing what they call dragonscale. A skin disorder that makes the victims look like they’ve developed scales and cracks the colors of a camp fire, complete with the burning glow. Victims can attempt to hide their infection for a while but it spreads to the whole body and eventually it will kill.
Overall, I really did not care for The Fireman. I found myself several times wondering if I really needed to finish all 768 pages. The book is slow and many of the characters are deeply unlikable. It felt, to me, like trying to slog through a Stephen King novel. For full disclosure, Hill is King’s son and I am not (!) a huge fan of King’s, at least of his longer more bloated works.
The premise of The Fireman is laid down and then the characters do nothing except awkwardly exposition themselves in clunky dialogue. Every character was a cliche and stereotype making them boring and predictable. I didn’t care about any of them and found myself yearning for the plague to take over and just kill every last one of them.
However, after all of that I still wanted to see how it played out so I read the whole damn thing. The premise of a beautiful plague intrigued me. The imagery was captivating. I can still picture the way he describes the dragonscale like veins of burning embers on people’s skin even years after having read the book. This is definitely a low point for the books of Hill but it still has its moments and maybe you’ll like it more than I did.
Plunge is maybe the most forgettable Joe Hill book that I’ve read so far. It’s a supernatural horror graphic novel, part of DC’s Hill House line of comic books. It’s a seaworthy tale that has better images that it does story, just like The Fireman but with actual pictures.
The basic premise is that 40 years ago a research ship vanished. Now it’s returned but its occupants haven’t aged a day. Something creepy is afoot.
This series shows that Hill is always willing to try new things and take some risks. This is why he has become nearly as popular as his father already. He’s already become quite prolific and some of those books are flops but at least he’s not predictable and repetitive.
Plunge can be skipped in my opinion but maybe you’ll connect with it more than I did.
NOS4A2, pronounced Nosferatu, is basically Stephen King’s IT except the clown is Michael Jackson and it’s set at Christmas. If that doesn’t sound scary to you then I don’t know what would! The premise is that an ancient evil who drives a Rolls Royce (NOS4A2 is his license plate) kidnaps children and takes them to a wonderland called Christmasland where they’re not as safe as they might feel at first.
I would say that I liked this one after forgiving it for a few flaws. Once again, it is way too long. Just shy of 700 pages makes for a large slump in the second act of the book. The beginning caught me and got me interested but it was a chore to get through the middle to see what happened at the end.
But I would say it was worth it to finish it. And if I remember correctly I found myself still finding time to get there. Not like with some overly long novels that take two years of reading a couple pages at a time until it’s finally over, I believe I finished this one within a month.
For all of Joe Hill’s flaws he sure can paint a word picture. I can vividly picture Christmasland and the world he created here in NOS4A2. I found it interesting and unusual. Hill is creative and passionate, he just needs a better editor.
This book has since been made into a TV show, I haven’t watched it and therefore have no opinion. Let me know if you’ve given it a shot and how it was.
Hill has adapted several of his short stories into full comic books or movies. He took this story from the Strange Weather collection despite it being the weakest of the bunch. It was probably wise to revisit and expand on this story but it didn’t quite work for me.
In yet another apocalypse scenario crystal shards rain down from the sky and kill anyone who isn’t under shelter. A lesbian couple is torn about and the survivor is left to face the horrors of the rain and an unusual amount of bigotry from the small population left behind.
The art is great and the characters are interesting but as a whole the book is too unrealistic to connect with. Not the rain part, horror elements don’t need to be real, but the bigotry part. I know people everywhere suck but it didn’t seem true to life and didn’t add much to the story overall.
Basketful of Heads
Joe Hill’s Basketful of Heads could move up or down this list depending on personal tastes. If you enjoy supernatural horror stories this one is definitely for you. You might like it a lot more than the next two entries on the list. If you are not a fan of unexplained phenomena or magic you might like it less than NOS4A2.
The basic premise is that a young adult female comes into possession of a magical axe that can cut off heads while keeping them alive. She therefore, ends up with a basketful of these heads.
The protagonist is both badass and endearing which really carries this graphic novel through. If you are a comic book fan this horror entry to the Hill House line of spooky comics is definitely worth checking out.
Joe Hill’s Horns is much more fun than the previous entries on this list. It is a dark comedy more than horror and makes a punchline out of the darkness that we all keep suppressed in order to maintain a functioning society.
Our protagonist wakes up with devilish horns on his forehead and the ability to make everyone around him speak their uncensored minds. Every snide comment, nervous rambling, and white lie comes pouring out of everyone he comes in contact with. He obviously thinks himself quite mad but then attempts to use his new power to get himself out his personal and legal troubles. The humor that comes from this premise wears thin fairly quickly but Hill makes up for it with a couple of more touching moments.
This is a perfectly fine book that was turned into a perfectly adequate movie staring Daniel Radcliffe. At the reasonable length of 370 pages it is one of Hill’s more approachable novels and a great place to start.
Heart Shaped Box
For me Heart Shaped Box wins out over Horns by a hair. It has a similar protagonist and dark humor style but Heart Shaped Box is definitely more in the horror category and I simply relate to it more. Our main character, Judas, is obsessed with the macabre and is a collector of all things creepy. I get this, this would be me if I had more money. He buys a box that is advertised to contain a ghost. I’ve price checked that very thing for a Christmas present for a friend. A box with a ghost! What could go wrong?!
Well turns out a lot apparently. This particular ghost has a vendetta against Judas so shit starts to go sour real quickly. I love this idea. I’ve heard of people coming back to haunt others on purpose but this is a whole new level.
I’ll say it again, Joe Hill is creative. My only problem with this book that I can remember is that it just didn’t have that extra oomph that would’ve pushed it into a five star book. This is one of his first novels and he may just not have felt the same connection to the characters that he has in his better writings. But his imagery is still insanely good. This was the first Hill book I read and just as with all of his others there are particular images he describes that have vividly stuck with me. Heart Shaped Box is haunting if nothing else.
Strange Weather is a collection of four novellas: Snapshot, Aloft, Rain, and Loaded. As with any book of short stories some are stronger than others but reading Hill in a shorter form like this was a delight. The stories are more contained and to the point. We get his creativity and imagery without the bloated exposition or meandering side plots. I look forward to more short stories from Joe Hill in the future.
Snapshot is about a teen who is getting long term harassed by a man with a magic camera that can take memories away with each picture it takes. As someone who is very terrified of getting Alzheimer’s or any other memory disorder this story was very disturbing to me. The descriptions of some of the characters and photos though came across as though Hill had recently rewatched Memento before sitting down to write.
Aloft is definitely the weirdest of the four stories. It’s about a man who goes parachuting for the first time and lands on an inexplicable solid cloud high in the sky with no way to get back down to earth. An interesting premise for sure but I kept waiting for it to add up to something more. If it was symbolic of anything deeper it went over my head.
Rain is a standard horror tale about an apocalyptic event that causes the sky to rain crystal needles. That’s about it. But in true Hill form the imagery is outstanding and you’ll feel like you are right in the middle of the terror. This is the story that inspired the comic book that was bulked up and illustrated later.
Loaded is far and away the best of the four stories and the main reason to pick up this book. Honestly, it’s one of the best things I read that whole year. The story follows a small town security guard who stops a mass shooting. He’s the good guy with a gun that people theorize about. But what unravels is a deeply unsettling story that kept me on the edge of my seat while profoundly commenting on the gun crisis in America without ever coming off as preachy.
20th Century Ghosts
20th Century Ghosts is about tied with Strange Weather. It contains far more stories than the four in that collection and many are quite strong so I think it squeezes ahead. This collection contains the story The Black Phone which has been made into a full length movie that became fairly well received. However, I thought it was one of the weakest stories of the bunch. I have also watched the movie since originally creating this list and though it plain sucked. That’s not a reflection of the story though since it was wildly different.
The short stories that truly highlight Joe Hill’s talent are Pop Art and Abraham’s Boys. His creativity is out in full force as he creates entirely new worlds and characters or puts a spin on some old classics. Plus, you just have to read a story where the main character is a balloon.
Hill shines with short stories. He can pack more into 50 or fewer pages than many authors strive to create in a whole career. Although there are some weaker stories in the middle of this book it is definitely still worth reading. The beauty of shorts is that if you don’t like one there’s another one right after with great potential to be your new favorite.
The Cape is another of Hill’s graphic novels based on a short story from 20th Century Ghosts. It is a self contained story about a sad sack with a cape that gives him the ability to fly. What makes this entry towards the top of the list is that it is not even close to your average superhero story.
This man, who suffered a traumatic head injury as a child and just went downhill from there, has no interest in saving anyone. Not even himself. He takes his new powers and immediately jumps into the dark side. He was never going to get better, he was never going to turn his life around, and this magic just helped him do it faster.
I always say that Hill is at his best in shorter form stories and this helps prove it. The whole comic book can be read in about an hour and it’s worth every second.
Full Throttle is a somewhat more recent addition to Joe Hill’s library.
Full Throttle is the rare collection of short stories that is strong the entire way through. I so rarely give short story collections 5 star ratings because there are always weak links. Not so with this one, each and every story is captivating and original. There are also two bonus stories co-written with Stephen King that are highly entertaining.
Joe Hill continues to prove that he is living up to his father’s high standards. He is not living in his father’s shadow he’s absorbing its power. In the Tall Grass was my favorite of the co-written ones and is truly terrifying. Like so many King and Hill projects it has since been turned into a movie but I once again haven’t watched it because the story was too good to taint.
Locke & Key
That brings us to the absolutely phenomenal Locke & Key. This is one of those books that you cannot read fast enough but at the same time you never want it to be over. Locke & Key is about a grieving family who moves into a big spooky mansion. Classic. The youngest child, drawn to be just the cutest fucking thing, finds a magic key that does a lot more than just open doors. The children/teens of the family begin finding more keys which each unlock their own special supernatural power and so unravels a story that I found in equal parts astonishing, powerful, emotional, witty, and captivating.
Gabriel Rodriguez deserves special credit on this one for taking the images out of Hill’s head and displaying them on the page in such a striking way that I would sometimes linger over panels like a hungry dog eyeing a treat that’s just out of reach. It’s best to just jump on in and read the series, I really don’t want to give too much away. Just know that by the end I was absolutely bawling just from the pure emotional connection I felt to the characters and having come to the close of their story. I cannot wait to reread this one over and over again and I recommend it strongly to everyone.
It has also been since turned into a TV show but I haven’t watched it because I’m afraid it won’t live up to my own opinion of the books.
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