by S. T. Joshi
(From 21st-Century Horror)
Joe Hill (b. 1972) burst onto the scene with a short story collection entitled 20th Century Ghosts (2005), an oddly titled book, since the great majority of the stories were published in the twenty-first century. He followed up this volume with three novels, Heart-Shaped Box (2007), Horns (2010), NOS4A2 (2013), and The Fireman (2016). Lately he has turned to comic-book writing, specifically a multi-volume series of comics set in the imaginary realm (Christmasland) that was the focus of NOS4A2.
When his first book came out, it was quickly revealed that Hill was a son of Stephen King, and it is implausible to believe that his relationship to his best-selling father did not have some role in the publication of his work—and, more precisely, in the wide acclaim that work received. I myself, however, have strong doubts as to whether that acclaim is deserved; if anything, Hill’s work has declined precipitously in quality in the course of the past few years. I covered his first two books in Unutterable Horror, remarking of the story collection that “there is not a single wholly satisfactory story” in it; his first novel, I maintained, “has an intriguing premise but is poorly executed,” crippled by an excess of supernaturalism that cannot be harmonised into a coherent whole. This latter failing is at the heart of the deficiencies in his subsequent three novels as well, as a detailed examination will demonstrate.
Horns opens with a purportedly striking scene: the twenty-six-year-old Ignatius Martin Perrish (called “Ig” throughout the book) wakes up one day with horns growing out of his forehead. Our immediate concern is whether this is a real event or merely a hallucination on his part. The issue would be resolved if others could see the horns, but the verdict on this point is mixed: Ig’s girlfriend Glenna can’t see them, but a doctor whom he consults can; but as soon as he looks away from Ig, he forgets about them. Moreover, Ig develops the remarkable property of being able to learn certain thoughts and feelings of people whom he touches, specifically their secret (and usually unwholesome) desires.
Ig himself is convinced that the horns are the result of his desecration of the grave of a woman named Merrin Williams (he had recently urinated on the grave). We are later told that he is “under suspicion of being a murderer” (9)—a point soon clarified when we learn that Ig is widely held to be Merrin’s killer. But Ig’s greater concern is that everyone he touches seems fired with despicable thoughts: his priest, who goes by the remarkable name of Father Mould, exhibits lust and anti-Semitism; his mother, Lydia, and his grandmother, Vera, hate him; his father, while believing Ig to be Merrin’s murderer, tells him a story that leads Ig to believe that vital DNA evidence in the case was deliberately destroyed. Most shockingly of all, his brother Terry states bluntly that Ig’s friend Lee Tourneau killed Merrin.
At this point we get a long, tedious flashback about Lee, who apparently saved Ig’s life when they were teenagers, after Ig had plunged into a river when riding a shopping cart down the slope of a steep hill on a dare. Even though, at this point, Glenna is Lee’s girlfriend, it becomes evident to Ig that Lee lusts after Merrin also. But it is Ig who develops a relationship with Merrin, becoming informally engaged. But Ig is outraged when, as he is about to leave for England for a six-month job, Merrin suggests that they should be free to see (i.e., sleep with) other people. He abandons Merrin in a restaurant and drives away; becoming drunk, he spends the night in his car. The next morning, he learns that Merrin has been killed, and he is picked up as he arrives at the airport.
At a later stage we are treated to a further account of Merrin’s death. Lee and Terry are driving around and pick up Merrin at the restaurant. They take her to a deserted foundry. Lee and Merrin wander off while Terry falls asleep in the car; later Lee comes back alone, saying that Merrin is dead. But he claims that she had made a sexual advance to him and fallen over a root, hitting her head on a rock. Lee has, however, cleverly planted evidence to make it seem as if Terry was also involved in the killing, thereby sealing Terry’s lips about the whole matter.
In yet another, later flashback, we get some information on Lee’s motivations in regard to Merrin. After Lee has essentially killed his ailing mother by denying her medicine, Merrin comes over to his house to offer sympathy. Lee thinks she is interested in him, but at the foundry Merrin throws cold water on that idea: “How could you think I’d break up with Ig so I could screw you? I’d rather be dead, Lee. Dead. Don’t you know that?” (292). Apparently he does, for he strangles her with a tie and hits her with a rock. As a capstone to his misdeeds, he has sex with her while she is barely alive, then completes the job of killing her.
After Ig learns much of this backstory from touching Terry and others, he is fired with the desire to kill Lee, who is now working for a slimy New Hampshire congressman in Portsmouth. But Ig also has to deal with Eric Hannity, Lee’s sidekick from high school, who now works for him. At one point Eric tries to kill Ig in his own apartment, but Ig manages to scald him with boiling water and flee. Ig realises that Lee is somehow immune to the effect of his horns, and only later learns why: he has been in possession of a necklace of Merrin’s.
Ig and Lee do have a confrontation, during the course of which Lee sets Ig on fire in his car; but Ig miraculously contrives to drive the car down a hill and into the water. He also emerges from the car unhurt. It is here that we learn that Lee is terrified of snakes, and we know full well that this tidbit will come back at a later stage. And so it does. Ig meets Glenna at the foundry, and she conveniently drops her cell phone. Ig uses it to summon Lee, somehow managing to sound like Glenna. Both Lee and Eric show up, and in a conventional shoot-’em-up scene Lee ends up shooting Eric with a shotgun, but then pummels Ig with it; Ig responds by goring Lee with his horns, at which point a snake goes into Lee’s mouth and down his throat, killing him. Ig is gravely injured, but he had recovered previously from injuries worse than this. He now sets himself on fire, presumably to put an end to his life—but instead he magically recovers again (“His head was clear; he felt well, felt as if he had just run a mile and was ready for a swim” ). Ig and Terry reconcile, and so the book ends with a clumsy happy ending.
There are so many things wrong with Horns that it is difficult to enumerate them. The first, and overriding, matter is the issue of the horns. How did they emerge on Ig’s forehead? What is their true purpose, literally and symbolically? Are they meant to imply that Ig is a kind of devil? Surely not, for he emerges as the makeshift hero of the novel. And the whole issue of how Ig develops the property of learning people’s innermost thoughts and desires by touching them is similarly unexplained: it seems to be merely a means for the author to convey certain key elements of the plot (or, rather, to have Ig learn them) that he couldn’t manage in any other fashion. And Ig’s amazing ability to recover from life-threatening injuries is also unaccounted for. Hill has, as I have suggested, shown persistent weakness in justifying the supernatural manifestations that he so insouciantly throws about in his works, and here the issue sticks in the reader’s craw from the beginning to the end of the book.
Then there is the figure of Lee Tourneau. He is portrayed as a despicable sociopath—aside from his killing of Merrin and his own mother, he emerges as a falsely pious right-winger who has gained renown for claiming that he has reformed from being a juvenile delinquent by discovering God—but Hill offers not the slightest account of why he has become such a monster. At one point we are informed that his mother punished him for wetting his bed, but surely we need more than this to have any true understanding of the sources and motivations of Lee’s actions.
The most charitable thing one can say about Horns is that the mechanics of the plot are oftentimes a bit too evident. At the outset we are purportedly torn by the moral dilemma of knowing that Lee killed Merrin but also once saved Ig’s life. (Only much later does Lee admit to Ig that he did no such thing—that he was in fact trying to kill Ig when he had fallen into the river.) In a later scene, Merrin’s father pops up for the sole purpose of passing on to Ig a letter that Merrin had written to him, informing him that she had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and that she was deliberately pushing him away so that he could be happy with some other woman and not see her die. The father immediately disappears from the narrative and has no further function. Indeed, nearly all the characters seem like mere puppets pulled on a string to serve the author’s purpose. Add to all this the fact that nearly the entire novel is written in a flat, affectless prose that fails to generate any vital or genuine response in the reader, and the end result is a novel that fails on almost every level.
And yet, Horns is marginally superior to the two novels that followed it. NOS4A2 (the licence plate of the villain of the piece) is an incredibly turgid, long-winded, and pointless exercise in calculated emotion-twisting (children, of course, are involved in the process) and, as is customary for Hill, utterly unexplained and unbelievable supernatural phenomena. The book focuses almost entirely, and at interminable length, on a conflict between Victoria (or Vic, as she is called throughout the novel) McQueen and the purportedly redoubtable Charlie Manx, who is introduced to us in a prologue emerging from a coma in a prison hospital, where he has been confined for many years for multiple murders. The book spans nearly the entire range of Vic’s life, although leaving large parts of it blank and unaccounted for. She herself exhibits supernatural traits of a peculiar sort: when she rides on her Raleigh bicycle, she makes her way to a covered bridge spanning the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire (her family home is in Haverhill, Massachusetts); this bridge was in fact destroyed years before, but on her bicycle Vic is able to ride through it and magically able to find various lost items, as well as traversing vast distances in seconds. A neat skill to have! How does all this happen? Vic, as a teenager, goes through the bridge and meets a young librarian in Iowa named Maggie Leigh; Maggie explains to her that the bridge is a “short circuit in reality” (99), which leaves readers almost as puzzled as they were before. It is plain that Hill needs this convenient supernatural device to advance the plot; its plausibility has no bearing on the matter.
Prior to his incarceration, Manx drives around in a 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. He, it turns out, is some kind of vampire—exactly what kind is never clarified, for he is able to do all manner of things (such as being active during daylight hours) that conventional vampires are unable to do, and Hill does not even make the effort to account for these anomalous properties. Maggie tells Vic at one point that Manx “takes children for rides in his car, and it does something to them. He uses them up—like a vampire—to stay alive” (104). Well and good; but alert readers will, in that case, wonder how Manx had managed to draw himself out of the coma in which he had existed for seventeen years and escape from the prison. What children—or, indeed, other human beings—has he “used up” to resurrect himself? Hill, again, provides not the slightest explanation. He just needs Manx active again in order to arrange for the entirely predictable battle with Vic.
What Manx wishes to do is to kidnap various children and take them to a place of his creation called Christmasland, where the children can celebrate Christmas every day of the year. But in the process, the children become little devils; some of them become the living dead. Manx has enlisted the services of an unsavoury character named Bing Partridge, who has killed his father and possibly also his mother and is otherwise a pathetic excuse for a human being. He yearns to get to Christmasland and teams up with Manx as his security guard. To prove his worthiness, Manx tells Bing that he must “save” a batch of children from “monsters” (83)—i.e., their parents, who cruelly deny them the things they want.
We are given a view of how Manx was captured and imprisoned. Vic has lost her bicycle and therefore her ability to traverse that bridge. During her senior year of high school she takes to drinking and taking Ecstasy. Then she finds the bicycle in her basement, rides through the bridge, and finds herself at a place called Sleigh House, in Colorado, owned by Manx. Although Manx captures Vic’s bicycle and throws it into the covered bridge, destroying both (the bridge “collapsed into itself” ), Vic counters by setting the house on fire. She flees from the place and is rescued by a young man on a motorcycle named Lou Carmody, who takes her to a diner. There Manx engages in a fight with some of the customers, leading to the death of one person; he is caught by the police and convicted of murder. Evidently his supernatural powers have their limitations!
Years pass, and we find Vic and Lou living together in a double-wide trailer, although they are not married. They have a small child, Wayne. Vic, however, is troubled by repeated calls from various children at Christmasland. Eventually, however, she gets her act together and becomes a successful artist of children’s books. Wayne, now a teenager himself, finds a Triumph motorcycle in the carriage house of a property that his mother is renting; and once it is repaired, this vehicle becomes (somehow—who knows how) a new conduit through the miraculous covered bridge. Maggie Leigh shows up and (naturally) tells Vic that Manx is on the loose again. Soon thereafter, Manx and Bing themselves arrive, but Vic escapes their gunshots by diving into a lake. The two villains, however, make off with Wayne. (Manx had commandeered his Rolls again, after it had been repaired by a hapless individual whom Manx dispatched.)
At this point, there begins a tedious police investigation into the kidnapping, led both by local officers and the FBI, some of whom suspect Vic herself of making off with her own child for unknown reasons. Indeed, as an FBI psychiatrist, Tabitha Hutter, is about to arrest Vic, she flees and takes off on the Triumph. At one point Vic seems to have been captured by Bing, who is seeking to make her inhale a gas called sevoflurane that will subdue her, so that he can rape and kill her; but she manages to use a cigarette lighter (pilfered from Hutter) to cause an explosion. Exactly how she herself escaped being killed or even significantly injured in the blast is never made clear.
Once again Vic meets up with Maggie, who always arrives at the most opportune times to tell her vital bits of information. She now says that Manx’s supernatural powers are tied to his Rolls; if the car is destroyed, then he will be. In another convenient ploy, Vic gets hold of some explosives from her father, who happens to be an expert in blowing things up; she miraculously escapes machine-gun fire (!) from the FBI as she takes the explosives away from her father’s house. Vic makes her way to Christmasland, where she is besieged by undead children armed with axes and other weapons—a corny attempt to inspire fear with the hackneyed image of evil children. In another standard shoot-’em-up scene, Vic sets off explosive after explosive, snatches up Wayne on her motorcycle (even though she may be mortally wounded from a stab wound), and heads for the covered bridge that she sees in the distance. Manx gives chase in his Rolls, but as he enters it a flock of bats attacks the car and it crashes through the floor of the bridge, “dropping through time to hit the Merrimack River in 1986” (668). Vic comes out of the bridge with Wayne, although she dies soon thereafter. There are some further shenanigans, but Lou and Wayne are left to reconstruct their lives: Vic may be gone, but so is the dreadful Charlie Manx.
The overriding question that we must ask of NOS4A2—beyond its appallingly tiresome length, its slipshod prose (“There was a wavering tone in her voice, like the woman was struggling not to cry” ), and its utterly unremarkable characters, particularly the cardboard villains Charlie Manx and Bing Partridge—is: what is the purpose of this book, beyond merely a hackneyed conflict between good and evil filled with action-packed scenes right out of equally hackneyed films? Is it the attempt to present a corrupted view of Christmas as a source of evil rather than of cheer and good will? If so, this is as hackneyed as everything else in the novel. Possibly Hill thinks that by making Vic a “flawed” (but still, in his mind, a lovable) character he is evading the triteness of the good-vs.-evil scenario; but if so, he’d better think again. Hill may also fancy that he is creating some kind of tragic scenario by having the chief focus of the reader’s sympathy—Vic McQueen—die at the end; but although she is indeed a winsome and engaging character, her death does not carry much emotional weight, and at the end we see her erstwhile lover, Lou Carmody, eyeing Tabitha Hutter as his next inamorata.
But the overwhelming flaw in NOS4A2 is the utter lack of any plausible explanation for the various supernatural manifestations it contains. How does Vic develop her amazing ability to use that covered bridge as a gateway to wherever she wishes to go, merely by riding a bicycle given to her by her parents? How does the motorcycle she and Lou repair serve the same function? How does Manx, in a coma for seventeen years and presumably bereft of the nourishment (whether it be the blood or the life-force of children or adults), suddenly wake up for additional depredations? How did that Rolls-Royce gain its supernatural properties? Hill makes only the most token and half-hearted attempts to account for any of these phenomena, and many of them are deployed with the manifest intention of merely keeping the plot going (or, indeed, in having a plot at all) for this sorry and bloated excuse for a novel.
Undeterred by all these concerns, Hill spent years producing his most prolix novel to date, The Fireman. It (or at least its title) was apparently inspired by Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where “firemen” are the ones who are appointed the task of burning books; but aside from the use of fire as a key plot element, there is not the slightest resemblance between Bradbury’s elegant (and slim) science fiction novel and this drearily verbose farrago of post-apocalyptic horror and sentimental romance. We are asked to believe that, in the relatively near future, a contagion of some kind called Dragonscale has resulted in the collapse of civilisation around the world, as many human beings are infected with a spore that causes them to combust spontaneously. As is typical of Hill, there is not the slightest explanation for how this infection originated; as in other works, this phenomenon is merely the trigger of the plot, and evidently Hill sees no need to account for it either supernaturally or in a quasi-science fictional manner.
The novel, in any case, very quickly becomes a kind of melodrama focusing around the figure of Harper Grayson, a nurse who works at the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Hospital with Dragonscale patients and soon contracts the disease herself, even though she had worn protective gear similar to that worn by medical staff treating Ebola patients; on top of that, Harper is pregnant. Her scoundrel of a husband, Jakob, is not infected, although he thinks he is; so he demands that Harper carry through with their plan to commit joint suicide. Harper, who still has hopes of bearing a child who may be uninfected, flees the house, Jakob in pursuit; she conveniently blows on a slide whistle that some children had given her at the hospital, and the children conveniently appear, along with a man who calls himself the Fireman. This fellow—an Englishman named John Rookwood—is infected but appears to have the ability to control Dragonscale: he scares Jakob away by lighting his own hand on fire and then putting it out. A clever trick, to be sure!
They make their way to a place called Camp Wyndham, a former summer camp where other Dragonscale victims are holed up. It is run by a kindly elderly man named Tom Storey, whose daughter Sarah (now deceased) John had married, producing two children, Allie (now a teenager) and Nick (now a deaf nine-year-old). At first this camp seems to be a haven of security, although food is getting scarce. Tom has taught his charges that “They don’t have to die” (177) as a result of their affliction; that somehow the fire latent in them can be controlled. How exactly this is the case is (naturally) never adequately explained. Evidently we are asked to believe that “harmony” or “strong social connection” (204) does the job. During quasi-church services at the camp, the members start to glow (but not catch on fire) when they sing happy songs.
At this point the novel focuses at great length and tedium on various interpersonal relations among members of the camp, especially when Tom is struck by an unspecified assailant and lapses into a coma. Was he hit by someone who has been stealing items from the women’s dormitory? Did two infected convicts whom the group rescued have something to do with the matter? The upshot is that Carol Storey, Tom’s other daughter, and one Ben Patchett take over the running of the camp, doing so in an increasingly dictatorial manner. At one point Harper, who is now in charge of the camp’s infirmary, sneaks out of the camp, returns to her home, and picks up some medical supplies; but she is almost caught by the evil Jakob and others who are among numerous vigilante groups (called “cremation crews”) who seek to kill the infected, ostensibly to protect themselves. When Harper returns, she is strongly criticised by Carol for jeopardising the safety of the entire camp; and some teenage girls fall upon her and cut off most of her hair. Not nice!
But there are more troubles for the camp. Ben Patchett devises a plan to capture an ambulance to secure more medical supplies, but it goes horribly wrong, resulting in numerous deaths, both of camp members and others. Just as things seem to be getting out of hand, a fiery bird called the Phoenix flies in and comes to the camp members’ aid. This creature was sent by John, although (naturally) there is no explanation as to how he has created or controlled this entity.
Carol now confines Harper to the infirmary to take care of her father, issuing a threat: “If he dies, you’re done here” (642). Carol also threatens to take Harper’s baby away from her once it is born. Sensing that she can no longer stay in the camp, Harper meets secretly with John and others, who plan to leave. They have heard of an island off the coast of Maine run by Martha Quinn (an actual DJ on MTV) where Dragonscale patients apparently are well taken care of. But their plan is detected, and they are summoned to face the wrath of the entire camp. But in yet another typical shoot-’em-up scene, Jakob (now driving a plow) and others arrive to attack the camp; meanwhile, John, Nick, and others make use of their ability to harness fire by hurling flames at all and sundry. Harper, John, and others take refuge in a bell tower, but find themselves besieged by Jakob and his cronies; but they manage to get down by means of a ladder from a firetruck and flee the camp. Many camp members, including Carol and Ben, are dead, as are several of those who attacked them; but of course the redoubtable Jakob is still alive and still in hot pursuit of his hated wife.
Harper, John, and a few others manage to join a fleet of actual firetrucks going to Maine to fight wildfires; but they are pursued by Jakob in his plow. Harper hurls a ball of fire at him to make him crash down a damaged overpass; but their own firetruck also goes over the edge, causing John much injury. And Jakob, naturally, cannot be killed quite so easily. As he is trying to kill Harper with a shovel, a “woman of flame” (1033) hits Jakob with a “hatchet of flame” (1034) and kills him. This entity proves to be Sarah Rookwood, who has somehow survived in this fiery manner. She plangently tells her children she still loves them: “Love never burns away. It just keeps on and on” (1036). Quick, get me my handkerchief!
Harper and others now set out on foot to Martha Quinn’s island, carrying the injured John with them. They seem to be well received by the locals they encounter, but as they are on a boat that is presumably taking them to the island, the operator of the boat—a man named Jim—regretfully informs them that they will have to die: the sanctuary on the island in fact burned up some months before. Jim shoots John in the stomach, but the latter sends out flame from his mouth and destroys the little boat. But Harper and others are providentially saved by another camp member, one Don Lewiston, who has been sailing up the coast. Although John has died, the others now plan to head to Ireland, where an apparently real sanctuary for Dragonscale victims is supposed to be.
It is difficult to describe, short of profanity, the utter inanity and long-winded blather that make up the bulk of The Fireman. No doubt Hill wishes us to care deeply for Harper Grayson, John Rookwood, and the other figures whose tiresome actions he chronicles at such length, but none of them emerge as vital or interesting characters in their own right; they are, once again, so many puppets being manipulated to play the roles the author wishes them to play, and few of them gain any depth or individuality. If any character emerges as in any way distinctive, it is the evil Jakob; but he is merely a focus for the reader’s wrath—selfish, abusive to his wife, and fired by irrational hatred—so that he can be satisfactorily dispatched at the end. Harper herself is implausibly saintly and mild-mannered, Carol Storey a stereotypically self-important neo-fascist, and other characters play their designated roles in the manipulative melodrama Hill has engineered. We have all seen this movie before.
I do not wish to sound like a broken record, but Hill once again makes not the least attempt to account for his central supernatural phenomenon, Dragonscale. Early in the novel it is hinted that pollution may have brought it about (14), but nothing more is made of this hypothesis. Later it is determined that the disease is spread not by contact of skin on skin but through the ash generated when someone is set aflame; but this is not a satisfactory explanation for the root cause of the infection. And how various individuals can control the infection and prevent it from burning them up is also not adequately accounted for. It is as if Hill simply doesn’t care about these matters—the very core of his book, from a weird perspective. He simply wishes to use it as a means of keeping the plot moving.
I stated in Unutterable Horror that Hill should perhaps abandon supernaturalism and become a mainstream writer, for his early work did exhibit some sensitivity to personal relationships and individual psychology. But I am now forced to retract that suggestion. Like his father, Joe Hill has succumbed to the sirens’ song of bestsellerdom. His novels are full of references to popular music, television shows, and other elements that will evoke facile recognition among a certain wide and indiscriminate audience that laps up such works. His prose, once superior to that of Stephen King, has now lapsed into mind-numbing crudity, including an overuse of profanity, slipshod grammar (he apparently harbours the peculiar belief that “Besides” is a complete sentence), and sticky sentimentality.
And his plots echo that of his father also. NOS4A2 is in part a reprise of King’s Christine, with its depiction of a supernatural automobile; and the one scenario is just as implausible and poorly accounted for as the other. The Fireman seems an ungainly mix of King’s Firestarter and The Stand, attempting to mimic the faux “epic” quality of the latter (as The Stand itself does) by mere bulk and verbiage. In fact, just as in King’s novel, we are never given any indication of the universal nature of the cataclysm afflicting the entire world; instead, the focus is on a cadre of bland and colourless individuals in New Hampshire. In his other novels, Hill deploys the same cardboard villains and valiant middle- or working-class characters that King adopts, and their inevitable clash and the equally inevitable triumph of the latter are telegraphed from the very outset.
There is no overriding philosophical or aesthetic message in any of Joe Hill’s novels; they are simply action-adventure tales with a supernatural patina, a kind of literary popcorn that is forgotten the moment it is finished. All this is a pretty sorry excuse for writing, so perhaps Hill can do us all a favour by hanging it up and going into another line of work.