Joe Hill’s weird and fascinating stories started appearing in literary journals around 2001 when he quickly found a following among aficionados of the horror/fantasy genre. In 2005 he released 20th Century Ghosts, his first and only collection of short fiction thus far. Two years later he published a novel, Heart Shaped Box, about an aging rock-star who buys a ghost on e-bay.
I conjure up Hill’s early career to insist that he’d established a strong voice in the horror/fantasy genre long before the news broke that he’s got a famous father: the one and only Stephen King. In fact, Hill intentionally obscured his given name (Joseph Hillstrom King) in order to avoid the long shadow cast by his father’s startling and prodigious writing career. Writing aside, it couldn’t have been easy being the son to whom The Shining was dedicated. I imagine Hill endured a few too many dinner-party conversations about whether King had ever chased him through a hedge maze or chopped through his door with a croquet mallet, and eventually decided to light out on his own.
But the name-obfuscation may have been unnecessary—Hill’s writing separates itself well enough. It’s difficult to convey how deliciously strange these stories can be without placing the book in your hands. His best piece, “Pop Art,” is a heartfelt recollection of a long-lost childhood friend named Arthur Roth, a young man unique for many reasons, least among them being the fact that he is inflatable. Importantly he is also deflatable, but in any case he’s plastic and filled with air. Arthur can’t speak, really, but he can write messages on a pad hung from his neck, so all his “dialogue” in the story appears as text scrawled in crayon (the narrator stresses that any writing utensil with a sharper point could mean curtains for his poor bullied friend). From this bizarre premise Hill builds a story about the fragility of the artistic temperament as it develops during childhood, the transience of adolescent male friendship, and the powerful impact early experiences of loss have on one’s adult identity.
But this is October, after all, and I can’t leave this book without recommending one of its bloodier stories. The best of the shockers also opens the collection: a story entitled “Best New Horror.” In it we encounter Eddie Carroll, editor of a yearly horror-story compilation who’s lost the thrill of his job. “He tried to struggle through Lovecraft pastiches,” Hill writes of Carroll “but at the first painfully serious reference to the Elder Gods, he felt some important part of him going numb inside, the way a foot or a hand will go to sleep when the circulation is cut off. He feared the part of him being numbed was his soul.” But when Carroll receives a disturbing manuscript entitled “Buttonboy: A Love Story,” written by a university groundskeeper Peter Kilrue, he’s re-energized about the possibilities of the genre, and becomes obsessively compelled to meet this strange man and publish his story. From there Hill takes the reader on an insider’s tour of the horror/fantasy publishing world, a place full of fascinating and largely unsavory characters.