Joe Hill is the kind of author whose works burrow under your skin. Months after finishing one of his books, certain scenes will pop up in your memories at unexpected moments. Characters will haunt you, their travails or deaths stalking you during work meetings, Twitter scrolling, even through other books. Hill writes horror fiction with a style as eviscerating as it is visceral. His works critique and peel apart our sociocultural ideals by pushing his characters to the extreme, and he does it all with geeky Easter eggs and literary eloquence.
There was a time not long ago when I could bring up author Joe Hill and no one would have any idea who I was talking about. Nowadays nearly every reader I encounter has heard of him, but many haven’t yet read any of his works. The son of authors Stephen and Tabitha King, Hill has written numerous novels, short stories, and comics, as well scripts for two TV shows (even though neither made it to air). His back catalogue, while a boon to long-time fans like myself, can be overwhelming for a newbie unsure of which to read first. Some are intimidated by his larger tomes while others by the horror tag. But I maintain there’s at least one Joe Hill story for everyone. It’s just a matter of digging around until we find it. Let’s see if I can’t do something about that…
After his high school sweetheart is found brutally murdered, Ig is convicted in the court of public opinion. One night he goes on a drunken bender and wakes the next day to find devil horns sprouting from his temples. The horns induce people to indulge in their darkest desires and spill their deepest secrets, which brings him into conflict with his former BFF, the saintly Lee. Ig is desperate to find out what really happened to Merrin, but when the truth is finally revealed it throws his whole worldview out of whack.
Whenever I recommend Joe Hill to someone, the book I almost always start with is Horns. It has more space to get a feel for his style than his shorter works, has more relatable characters and a more accessible plot than his more convoluted stories, and has enough layers that even a shallow perusal that skips over the deeper religious and political criticisms still lends a thoughtful read. It has a little bit of everything that Hill does so well: morally ambiguous protagonists, terrifying antagonists, bone-chilling frights, scathing critiques of American society and finger-wagging religious types, and a complex, sometimes meandering plot where nothing is what it seems. So if we treat Horns as a sort of Hill starter pack, figuring out which book to read next will depend on which of its elements you liked best.
If you were hooked by the scarier bits of Horns but want something longer to sink your teeth into, NOS4A2 is a good next step. Think Dracula by way of Stephen King. It’s the story of a young woman named Victoria and her various encounters with Charlie Manx, a monster from hellscape he calls Christmasland. Manx wants Vic dead and as her battles with him increase in frequency and violence, he may get his wish. Hill tells a long, twisting story involving a multitude of characters interacting with Manx, a truly terrifying creature with some pretty heinous ideas on parenting. There’s also a miniseries prequel comic just about Manx, The Wraith, if you finish NOS4A2 but aren’t ready to move on.
Locke & Key
Like NOS4A2, Locke & Key covers a ton of characters over several hundred years going up against a seemingly undefeatable evil, but if you’re more of a comic book geek than a book nerd then this is the next step for you. Spanning six volumes, this comic book centers on the Locke family of three children and their recently widowed mother. The kids find a bunch of magic keys created by one of their ancestors. The keys all do different things—one makes you a giant, another turns you into a ghost, a third gives you wings, etc.—and for a while the kids have fun exploring the boundless possibilities. But when they accidentally awaken an ancient evil, they must risk everything to keep the keys out of its hands before it destroys the world. The horror is a slow burn here, but between Hill’s script and Gabriel Rodriguez’s gorgeous art, there’s enough suspense to keep even hardcore horror fans on full alert. Locke & Key returns in December 2016 for a one-shot comic.
Not ready to commit to something as hefty as NOS4A2 or Locke & Key but still want an unsettling story with a morally gray protagonist and an uncompromisingly wicked antagonist? Was Horns not frightening enough? Try Heart-Shaped Box, Hill’s first full-length horror novel. The horror is visceral and intense and builds quickly. Judas Coyne, a late middle-aged fading rockstar, buys a haunted suit online and ends up with more than he bargained for. Turns out ghost in the suit is Craddock McDermott, the stepdad of a former groupie of Judas’. In true Hill fashion, Craddock and Judas’s personal motivations are trickier than first appearances would indicate. As Craddock grows more malevolent, Judas fears throws everything he has at him to try and stop him.
If you liked the conflicting ethics and detailed character work of Horns but found it too scary, try The Fireman. It’s a big one but it’s worth the time and effort. Think Crichton-esque science fiction thriller rather than straight up horror. A disease called Dragonscale spreads, first in New England than across the rest of the world. The story concentrates on rural Maine as civilization crumbles. Harper, a nurse, catches the infection and is run out of town by her delirious husband. The uninfected form hunting parties where they torture and kill the infected so she hides out with a gaggle of other people with ‘scale at Camp Wyndham. Community harmony produces euphoria in people with ‘scale while stress causes them to burst into flames, but Harper gradually discovers that her refuge isn’t as peaceful as she thought. Harper learns that the people she trusted have betrayed her and that their supposed truths are little more than lies.
Some readers found the middle act too glacial and uneventful, but I relished the minutiae of Harper’s day-to-day existence in Camp Wyndham. Some also took issue with the final act, which has several different endings stacked on top of each other, but, again, I liked that the ball keeps rolling long after most authors would stop it. Lesser writers would end the novel at Camp Wyndham, but Hill wisely lets Harper close out her story when she’s ready. Just go with it and let the story carry you along. I also recommend reading it in long chunks rather than in short sessions. All the better to immerse in the world.
If even Horns is too long for your taste, or you just want to keep sampling Hill’s style, his numerous short stories are a good next step. The most convenient place to start is with his 2005 short story collection 20th Century Ghosts. Within it are stories ranging from the frightening to the bizarre. My personal favorites are “Pop Art,” about the friendship between a human boy and his best friend, a boy made of inflatable plastic; “You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a take on Kafka’s Metamorphosis; and “Best New Horror,” in which an editor’s renewed passion for the horror genre sends him to the house of a reclusive author.
Wolverton Station and Thumbprint, both available as standalone stories but originally published in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2 and Postscripts #10, respectively, are also great takes on horror. Wolverton Station concerns a hitman taking a trip on a train during a business trip in England. The train makes an unexpected stop at the eponymous station and blood and guts ensue. Thumbprint tells of a woman who returns from active duty at Abu Ghraib prison and the memories of the terrible things she did there aren’t the only things to follow her home. Where the first story is solidly supernatural, the latter is psychological horror.
Like short stories but prefer comics over books? For those that really dig horror, I suggest Hill’s recently ended 4-issue miniseries Tales from the Darkside, three eerie, loosely connected vignettes originally written as teleplays for a show that the CW optioned but didn’t greenlight. Hill also has several entries in The Cape canon, stories about a cape that gives a contemptible man the ability to fly, a power he uses to lash out at anyone he deems his enemy. The short story first appeared in print in 20th Century Ghosts then later became a one-shot comic. There’s also a miniseries and a prequel, as well as The Cape: Fallen, scheduled for release next year. But I suggest the 2010 one-shot for your entry point.
This article was originally published in October 2016.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.