In the spirit of Halloween I am using my first monthly spotlight to discuss horror author Joe Hill. I have now read 6 of his books, if you count the Locke & Key series as one, and have enjoyed them to varying degrees. The unusual thing about Joe Hill is that even though I did not find his first couple of novels spectacular I kept feeling 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 another mediocre one 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.
For this month’s spotlight I’m going to list the books of Joe Hill’s I’ve read in order of worst to best.
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The Fireman is 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 fan of King’s. The premise 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.
Buy it here: The Fireman: A Novel
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 of a few flaws. Once again, it is way too long. Just shy of 700 pages makes for a large slump in the second third 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 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.
Buy it here: NOS4A2: A Novel
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.
Buy it here: Horns: A Novel
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 problems 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.
Buy it here: Heart-Shaped Box
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 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.
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.
Buy it here: Strange Weather: Four Short Novels
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.
Seriously though, buy this one here: Locke & Key Master Edition Volume 1