Pedal to the floor

Joe Hill on Full Throttle, Netflix Adaptations, and Working With His Dad

Pedal to the floor
Image: Andrew Liptak

Horror author Joe Hill has had a busy month. He released a second collection of short stories, Full Throttle, and later that week, Netflix released an adaptation of one of those tales, In the Tall Grass, which he co-authored with his father, Stephen King.

The collection brings together a number of Hill’s shorter stories, and comes after a pair of doorstopper novels, NOS4A2 and The Fireman, and a quartet of novellas, Strange Weather.

I recently spoke with Hill when he stopped in Nashua, New Hampshire for a reading. We spoke about Full Throttle, his experiences working with his father, and what the ongoing streaming TV landscape means for writers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Image: Andrew Liptak

What are your thoughts on how you’ve changed since you first published 20th Century Ghosts?

I think that the stories in Full Throttle are deeper and more textured. That there’s sort of a depth of cultural and social awareness that I didn’t have when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, which is when I wrote the stories and 20th Century Ghosts.

They’re more varied in terms of their viewpoints. Every single story in 20th Century Ghosts is about a young, alienated white male who finds themselves, usually through their own thoughtlessness, finds themselves in a position of peril. I didn’t have to stretch too hard to imagine my way into those characters.

But Full Throttle features a lot of very different characters. There is a sort of proto-fascist Italian laborer at the beginning of the 20th century who attempts to get away with murder in “Devil on the Staircase.” “Thumbprint” is a story about a female torturer who comes back from Abu Ghraib and returns with all her guilt and regret and finds trouble here in America. In the closing story, “You Are Released” it rotates through nine different viewpoints from a middle-aged, gay violinist in Boston to a bloviating producer on a right-wing news channel, to the young pilot who is expecting their first child, to the black girl who just won a spelling bee and is leaving LA for the first time.

Throughout the stories, I would say that there’s there’s certainly a broader range of perspectives because I know more about the world. And I think the stories are more confident. I feel like with, 20th Century Ghosts, I was doing everything I knew how to do, that it was the total limit of what I was capable of. And I have, hopefully, built my skill set out a little bit in their time since then.

I felt like 20th Century Ghosts was—I don’t want to say straitjacketed by genre—but this one is broader. In your introduction, you speak about the influence of Ray Bradbury, and I felt like this collection of stories was more Ray Bradburyesque with a wide range of genres. It’s not as horrific as I was expecting.

There is plenty of horror in there. There’s a werewolf story, a story about a devil, a zombie story —we cycle through some big horror tropes. There’s also several crime stories—“You Are Released” might be described as a straight thriller.

My favorite one so far is “Late Returns”.

“Late Returns” is sort of a soft, sentimental fantasy, and I think that’s probably my favorite in the collection too, that and “You Are Released.”

I do think I think you’re right that there’s a wider, wider range of genres. I was actually surprised at how much Bradbury is in the book. I didn’t realize it until I was writing the introduction and going through the stories. But “By the Silver Waters of Lake Champlain” feels a little bit like a rip on Bradbury’s classic tale “The Fog Horn,” about a prehistoric monster falling in love with a lighthouse. “Faun” is about men who go to a farmhouse in Maine who slip through a tiny door and enter a Narnia-like world called Palomino, full of orcs and trolls and fauns. They’ve gone their ton to shoot Fauns and to shoot orcs, and bring home ahead, you know, a trophy head for the wall. That story has a little bit of C.S. Lewis and a little bit of Hemingway in it. But a lot of Bradbury, a lot of “Sound of Thunder.”

How do you do genre—what is your view on it?

I’d like to think I’m genre-fluid.

Genre can provide the underlying skeleton, for the rest of the creature. I don’t know if that’s a very good metaphor. When I start a story, I’m usually looking for some concept, some elevator pitch that you can hang the whole story on. I’ve learned to trust the elevator pitch — if you have a thrilling idea that can be stated in just a single sentence, you probably got ahold of something that might interest readers.

The elevator pitch for NOS4A2 is it’s a story about a man who has a car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. The elevator pitch for “Snapshot” (the first story in Strange Weather) is a young boy runs afoul of a man who has a camera that steals memories. “Late Returns” is the story of a guy who operates a bookmobile that delivers books to people who are dead.

That one felt like a love letter to genre.

And of books and book people, and this idea that people who like books are story junkies and the frustration and disappointing thing about death is it’s the end of the narrative. I’ve sometimes said, that there’s nothing worse for a bookworm than imagining dying in the middle of a good book.

Thanks, I have a new thing to be terrified of now.

Right? Because you didn’t get a chance to live to see how it all comes out. Everyone who dies doesn’t get to see how it all comes out. In some ways, the inspiration for the story was a thing I heard about JK Rowling visiting a girl who had juvenile cancer, and she was afraid she wouldn’t live to find out what happened in the last book. And so JK Rowling visited her and told the girl the end of the story, and I think she did die a couple of weeks later. I like the idea that the world can be a generous place and you can get satisfaction and one last good story.

Some of the Bradbury-eqsue or Twilight Zone-esque stories seem deeply rooted in what you grew up reading. In your introduction, you describe bouncing around the shelves a bit.

Right, so if I seem sort of genrefluid is a writer, it’s only reflecting who I am as a reader. In some ways, I was more willing to hop between genres as a kid. Now I have certain grooves that I tend to fall in as a reader. As a kid, I read omnivorously. I read Sherlock Holmes one week and Stephen King the week after that.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Last time we spoke, you had just released Strange Weather, four shorter novellas. You joked that your next book would be one of haikus—you’ve gone from big doorstop novels to shorter works. What do you have coming up?

The next thing up is I’m doing a series of comic books with DC, Hill House comics. The first one is very tastefully titled Basket Full of Heads. That’s a story about a young woman named June Branch, who finds herself besieged one night by four home invaders, and to protect herself. She has an antique axe with occult powers. It will take a man’s head off and afterwords, the head is still alert, awake, talking, and thinking. It’s sort of a mystery story, and it’s also kind of like a Sam Raimi horror film. I’m doing that one, I’m doing Plunge, Sea Dogs. With IDW, I’m doing more Locke & Key, and I’m doing a comic called Dying is Easy, which is a straightforward crime story in the mode of Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block.

What’s the additional Locke & Key comic about?

We’re still doing some standalones, for a book that will probably be called World War Key: The Golden Age, and it will be the zero book in the World War Key series. There’s a new one called Dog Days, and another one right after that, and [then] a two-parter. It’s pretty awesome, and it’s got a pretty awesome angle. And then after that, we’re going on to write World War Key, which is a six-book series. We’ve been talking about it now for a couple of years, and we’ve been talking about it more seriously [lately] because the Netflix series will be out next year.

What’s the latest update on the Locke & Key TV series? When we spoke a couple of years ago, you were about to head off to watch them film the pilot for Hulu.

Netflix inherited it after Hulu. Hulu had corporate turnover and so basically, the guy who came in decided to just wipe the slate clean. Almost nothing [continued in development] at Hulu, except for The Handmaid’s Tale and maybe one or two other programs. Netflix picked up the pieces, and said we love this property, we love the story, characters, and we’d love to do something with it. I did a bit of work on that with Carlton Cuse (Lost) and Meredith Averill, who was one of the lead writers on The Haunting of Hill House. She’s great.

That’s all filmed. I’ve seen the whole series—it’s like TV crack. It came out really well.

The season won’t be the whole series, but an ongoing thing, right?

It’s going to be true to the characters in the comic, although it introduces some new characters, and it somewhat follows the storyline of the comics. There are some curve balls thrown in, some of which I’ve suggested myself, because I like the idea of keeping—I don’t want people who read the comics to read something that’s so faithful, because they known what’s going to happen. So there are a couple of surprising left-hand turns.

While we’re on the topic of Netflix, it just released its adaptation of In The Tall Grass. What was the experience of that like?

In the Tall Grass has never been collected—it was originally published in Esquire, in two parts. We also wanted it to be in Full Throttle, and to have it out around the same time as the film. I think [director] Vincenzo Natali did a wonderful job. It’s really scary, it’s a really, really upsetting, film. It’s like a gory, hayseed Inception, because it plays with interlocking timelines in a way that’s very disorientating. In a fun way.

You co-wrote the story with your dad. How did you work together?

That was one of two stories in Full Throttle that I wrote with my dad, the other being the almost title story, “Throttle.”

In the case of In The Tall Grass, I had come down to visit my parents in Florida, and I was there for a week. I got in pretty late, and my dad picked me up at the airport. We drove to a Colonial House of Pancakes, because I was hungry, and we wound up having flapjacks like 10 in the evening. He had just finished working on a novel and I just finished working on something, and I said, you know, maybe we ought to write a story together this week, or maybe he said that.

We spitballed for about 20 minutes and came up with In The Tall Grass, and we started writing the very next day. Basically, I’d get up in the morning, and there would be a couple of pages waiting for me. So i’d edit them and then would write a few pages, and sent them back. Then in the afternoon, he would edit what I wrote and sent it back in the evening. We wrote the whole thing in like 6 days, and then they made a huge movie out of it, which is crazy.

While we’re talking about places like Netflix and Hulu, what opportunities do you see for writers moving forward?

I think if you’re writing cinematic stuff, you know if your stuff has cinematic hooks in it, it’s like a gold rush for content. I mean there’s Disney +, there’s Hulu, Apple TV +, Netflix, all the big players, then there’s all these little players—the Criterion Channel, Shudder, which is doing the Creepshow series. There’s the legacy media outfits like ABC, NBC, and Fox, all the second-generation cable services like FX and AMC.

It’s kind of mind blowing, because they’re all building up their content libraries. There are these opportunities to get stuff developed that’s far beyond anything that existed four years ago. It can’t last, but maybe it can! Someone asked me what streaming television would be like in ten years, and I said “I think probably in ten years, we’ll be scrabbling around in the ruins of our civilization, hoarding canned goods and trying to bang them open with rocks while we hide from the slow mutants.”

It seems like there’s not only a lot of places for adaptations, but the format of a television series is more appealing to writers than a two-hour movie.

I think so. I think a 10-episode season is very novelistic. When you look at something like Mindhunters Season 1 or Season 2, they feel like they have the weight and depth of character that you’re used to finding in a novel and time to spread out. Everyone seems to be hooked on it.

When you get done with a day of work, the thought of a two-hour movie is exhausting, but you’re like, “Hey, I can watch 45 minutes of Stranger Things.” So you watch one episode, and you have such a great time that you put in the second and you wind up watching the third and by the time you’ve gone to bed, you’ve spent more time than you would if you watch the movie — but it didn’t feel like it.

What do you see coming up in the horror field that you’re really excited about?

If you want to know what I think that’s coming up next, it’s hard to say or make any predictions. But I loved The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, and I thought it wildly raised the bar for what’s possible in terms of horror on TV. So I’m really excited to see Mike Flannigan’s second season, which is an adaptation of [Henry James’s] Turn of the Screw.

There’s a writer, Charles Soule who’s been doing interesting stuff. He’s done a few novels now, but I know him best for his comic stuff, specifically Curse Words, which is terrific, terrific fun. It’s about a sort of wizard from another dimension showing up on our world. He came to destroy it, but he falls in love with it so much, and he can’t bear to wipe us all out. And he has a talking pet Koala, so you know it’s gotta be good.