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Novelist Joe Hill on ‘Horns’ and Writing

The Film Adaptation of ‘Horns’ is Now Available on DVD & Blu-Ray

Jan 08, 2015 Joe Hill
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When he started his career in fiction, writer Joe Hill didn’t want to coast in on his literary pedigree. As the son of author Stephen King, Hill worried publishers would overlook his work and only see the family name. It was important for him that he break in like any other writer and for his writing to be judged by its own merits. He adopted the name Joe Hill—an abbreviated version of his given name, Joseph Hillstrom King—and honed his skills while writing and submitting works under the unassuming nomme de plume. It was a secret he managed to keep for more than a decade. Hill’s first two books—the short story collection 20th Century Ghosts, and debut novel Heart-Shaped Box—were published to numerous accolades before his identity was eventually outed.

Hill had succeeded in establishing his own identity as an author, and opted to continue using the pen name. What followed were his second and third novels, Horns and NOS4A2, as well as short stories and comic books. (Hill is the creator of the popular Locke & Key series published by IDW.) At the time of this interview, he was in the midst of revising his fourth novel, The Fireman.

A film adaptation of Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe, was released in 2014 and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. The story follows Ig Perrish, a young man who finds himself accused of murdering his girlfriend and lacking evidence to clear his name. Ig awakes one morning to find he’s sprouted a pair of devilish horns, and possesses powers that compel others to tell him their darkest, most tucked-away secrets. With his new abilities, he sets out to prove his innocence by hunting down the person who took away the love of his life.

We spoke with Joe Hill about Horns, his writing process, and what it was like to watch his work be adapted for the silver screen.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: There’s a line you used in “Best New Horror”I’ve seen you repeat it in interviews, tooabout horror being as much about what the author doesn’t show, as what they do. It’s a smart piece of advice for anyone looking to tell a scary story. Horns, though, at its core is a love story. Are there any similar rules or guidelines you go by to write a love story that will draw readers in?

Joe Hill: That’s a really good question, and not one I’m used to being asked. Usually I get asked about scary stuff. The funny thing is, I think that every book I’ve written has kind of secretly been a romance. They’ve all been love stories, with Horns maybe being more of one than the other two.

Don’t make it easy for them, I guess. You have to have two lovers that feel like they go together like two hands; where they seem like they play two parts of each other. But then the most important thing is not to allow them to have any happiness at all. You have to do everything in your power to drive them apart. Otherwise, you wind up with a story about two wonderful, happy people who love each other and live contentedly, and who wants to see that? Contentment and happiness is death to fiction. Nothing is worse than happy characters. There’s nothing to do with a happy character but rip it all away.

I do think that in all of my stories, whether it’s Horns or Heart-Shaped Box or NOS4A2, I’ve taken some characters and really put them through the wringer. I’ve given them a lot to deal with, emotionally, I think because I’m interested in how people get through the worst. What gets you through it when you’re faced with the worst? Is it your religion? Is it your community? What helps you manage suffering? The thing that I keep coming back to is sometimes it can help if you’ve got one person in your life who really cares about you, to the point where they’d throw themselves in front of wild dogs for you. And that—a hand to hold in the dark—is enough for you to get through something really terrible.

You’d said that when you finished Horns, the novel, that you’d spent years on it and were ready for it to be over and done with. I’m wondering, then, how it felt to have to bring the characters back to the front of your mind once the movie became a reality?

Horns was harder than the other books to write. Horns was a lot harder. I went through some not-very-happy times, emotionally. I sometimes say that it’s a paranoid novel written by a very paranoid man.But, you know, I have a pretty great job. I love that I get to do what I get to do. I detest when writers make it sound like writing is like walking over hot coals. It’s a great job, and unbelievable privilege to get to be able to do it. A friend of mine, Brian K. Vaughan, once said that having a hard day of writing is nothing like having a hard day at the coal mine. It’s a pretty good gig.

That said, I was pretty miserable most of the time I wrote [Horns]. I feel that the book turned out really well, and that’s it a lot of fun to read. A book’s job is to give someone a special experience, to give them a great time and lift them up over their daily troubles and take them someplace interesting and fun. But, a book can be fun on the page, but not very to write. It was not very fun to write Horns. The movie, by contrast, was a blast! I loved watching the movie. I really enjoyed the whole process of seeing it get made, and I’m very proud of the way it turned out. I feel like I had some distance from the film, and that I had the pleasure of being able to watch other artists wrestle with the story. It was a lot more fun to watch other people wrestle with it than it was to wrestle with it myself. [Laughs]

It sounds like it was important to you to let the filmmakers tell their version of your story.

Yeah. I was offered the chance to write the screenplay but I passed on it right away, because I just couldn’t stand to spend another two and a half years working on that story and going back to that place. So, they hired Keith Bunin to write it and he did a great job. And [director] Alexandre Aja, who is known for naughty horror films—he’s known for very grim, gory horror films. The interesting thing about Alex is that he basically has a romantic soul. I feel like that comes through in the film. The film has a very sort-of lush feel of summertime romance to it. There’s a kind of warmth to it that comes through even in its darkest moments.

I did feel kind of like, I’ve never made a film before; this is a new experience for me. I trust who I’m involved with; let’s see what they do with it. I do know this: when a movie is adapted from a novel and it fails, it usually fails for one of two reasons. Either it was too close to the original material and it’s dead on the screen, it just never comes to life because it’s too faithful; or, it’s not faithful enough and it’s so different from the source material that it has nothing in common with it except the name. And then you always wonder why they bothered to adapt something in the first place. Why not just make an original film? I had a short story once that was optioned for a film, and I heard the pitch on the film and it was hilarious because it was so completely, fantastically different from the original story. It had nothing in common. It was this dizzying pileup of set pieces and material, none of which was in the original story. When my agent was all done, he said “Do you have any questions about the pitch?” I said, “Yeah, do I still get paid?” Because it was a totally different story!

I feel like Alex, and Daniel, and Keith struck the right balance between being faithful to the source material, but still allowing the film to breathe and be its own creature. To be a movie, instead of a film trying to be a book.

Daniel Radcliffe did a great job, I thought.

Yeah, I love Dan. I just feel like he crushed it in every single scene. It’s an amazing performance by an actor who has worked really, really hard to master his craft and develop his skills. It’s so amazing to watch him growing in leaps and bounds with each role. I had the chance to see him on stage in The Cripple of Inishmaan. It was on Broadway after the filming of Horns, and it was one of the most electrifying live performances I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just staggering. I think Daniel’s a great actor, and he’s going to have a lot more parts. It will be interesting to see the range of roles he gets to try out in the years to come.

I know you try not to picture actors as your characters when you’re writing them. But now that you’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe take on Ig Perrish, does it affect how you see the character?

I guess at this point if you were to ask me to imagine Ig Perrish, I would imagine Daniel Radcliffe. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s how I would feel if I was reading materials from the book. If I was reading the book aloud to an audience, I might go back to what I felt before it was a film, when I was writing the book. And then I don’t know if I would see Ig all that closely as a person because the book is largely written from his point of view. I saw it through his eyes, so in some ways I don’t have a sense of Ig’s physical characteristics.

Generally with my books, I try not to play the casting game. I try not to say, “This guy should play Judas Coyne,” or “This guy should play Charles Manx.” I think that’s the reader’s privilege. The reader should have room to imagine their own thing.

I don’t know all of your writing habits, of course, but I know you’re not an outliner; that you start with an idea and let it roll outwards from there. Were there any big, recognizable elements of Horns that you didn’t come up with until late in the first draft? Things that you had to later go back and build in to earlier passages?

Almost all of the back story came in the second draft. Sometimes with the film, people call it the Stand By Me sequences, which is funny because I never thought of Stand By Me when I was working on the book; I was thinking about my own childhood in the 1980s. I came to feel that it was important to know who Ig and Merrin, and Lee, and Terry—who all of these people were before Merrin’s murder. That became essential, to me, for the story to work. So when I wrote the second draft, I wrote this novella called “Cherry” about Ig Perrish’s youth. That was the part of writing the book that I had the most fun with. I really enjoyed writing that part of the book. The rest of the book was stressful and hard, but I felt really relaxed when I wrote that.

I don’t trust outlines; I dislike outlines. My idea is when you write a story, it’s more for the characters. You take time to develop who the people you’re writing about are, and get a sense of what they like, what they hate, what they stand for and what they can’t stand. You try to see them in a multi-faceted way. Once you understand the characters, everything becomes a thought experiment. You’re just dropping them into situations—hopefully, exciting situations—and then letting them respond how they would really respond. And that’s really it. That’s why I always feel like outlines are almost sort of—not like cheating, but putting the cart before the horse. You’re deciding ahead of time how your characters will react before you get the chance to know them, and I don’t really like that.

You’re talking to me now about a film that was shot over a year ago from a novel that you wrote six years ago. When you’re juggling multiple projectswriting, revising, promoting—how do you switch gears without tripping yourself up? When you put down the phone with me, can you just pick up your red pen and go back to revising The Fireman, or is there more of a cleansing process involved?

[Laughs] Well, I try not to work on too many projects at once. I mean, Horns is literally a closed book at this point. If you live with a project for a couple of yearsit generally takes me 18 months to write a novel, or sometimes longer. You live with it for a long time and you really get a sense for the characters and the story. You have that mental file to call on if you need to address it, or if it comes up. But generally I only have one mental file open at a time, and that’s whatever the current project is.

I always feel like there’s sort of a stalactite quality to the way the story develops, kind of one muddy drip at a time. They just build up until suddenly there’s something formidable there. I think my editor would probably prefer I was a little less like a stalactite, or that the drip, drip process of developing the stories went along a little faster. But I can’t help it. I’m just slow.

You’re guest editing the upcoming Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy anthology. Have you stumbled across any stories that you’ve had a “Buttonboy”-ish reaction to yet?

Hmm, yeah. So in “Best New Horror,” right, there’s this editor of a best horror collection that becomes obsessed with finding the writer of this one short story. It’s one of these “curiosity killed the cat”-type things, where in the process of looking for the guy who wrote this horror story, he falls into a horror story himself. But he just has to get the rights to that story, because it’s so electrifying.

I’ve read some really great stuff so far. I’ve read an amazing range of fiction. Stuff from all over the place. The two genres of science fiction and fantasy—in some ways, they almost cover every single thing being published in fiction. Because when you think about it, a lot of mainstream literature at this point is basically science fiction. We live in a science fiction world. I’m talking to you on a science fiction device. And fantasyone of my favorite writers, Bernard Malamud, always used to insist that all fiction is fantasy; that all fiction is make-believe. That Alice’s Wonderland is as much a pure fantasy as Philip Roth’s New Jersey. Most places don’t really exist, and have rules that only apply to them. They’re these perfect, imaginary constructs.

I have a lot of stuff to sort through, though. I found a lot of great stories but I still have a lot to read.


For more information about Joe Hill and his books, check out his website.

For the film version of Horns, look here.

Details about Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy are available here.


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March 12th 2018

Good job Joe! I heard about him about one year ago on I think he is very talented peson and he will provide his skills day by day.

William Gist
June 3rd 2019

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