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New king of the spooks

JOE HILL had an old-fashioned childhood; walking alone to school at the age of eight and playing in the woods with friends, but being Stephen King's kid must have been . . . different.

There's that old Jay Leno joke: Stephen King says to the kids, "You kids want a bedtime story?" and the kids all scream, "Noooo!"

If you were going to grow up to be a writer, though, what more could you ask?

Both of Hill's parents were writers: Stephen King, whose books were outselling everything -- Carrie, The Shining, Salem's Lot -- and the quieter Tabitha King. Every day Hill came home to the clattering of keys from two typewriters going full blast.

"It was always a very literary family. Dinner could be a quiet affair, because we were all sitting around with our noses in books," he says. "All my parents' friends were writers too: Donald Westlake (Hot Rock, The Grifters), Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice).

"We'd talk about writing and stories and characters and books, and after dinner, we'd go in the living room and we'd pass a book around and all read together."


He loved comics such as Sandman, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and came of age just at the right time for Spielberg's Jaws, ET, Star Wars and Indiana Jones, and Cameron's Terminator, Aliens and Rambo.

Most of all, he loved Arthur Conan Doyle. At 12, he stayed up late reading the Sherlock Holmes stories, dressed in his deerstalker hat and pipe. So it's no surprise that Hill, who is currently on a reading tour for his second published novel, Horns, has already made a name for himself. The one he uses is a short version of his first and middle names and chosen for the famous union activist in the song.

He didn't want to trade on his father's fame, not out of heroism, he says, but because you might get one mediocre book published that way, but readers won't buy the next.

Early on, Hill worked with his brother, Owen King, on a supernatural thriller, and while they sold the screenplay, producers kept getting replaced and every one wanted a new rewrite.

"We'd meet the new producer and he'd say 'Hey, wouldn't it be great if the toaster did it?' and we'd be like 'Yeah! That sounds great! We could make that work!'"

At the same time he was writing his first four novels, the last a giant epic fantasy but couldn't sell them.

He realised he had to write less. "There were things I needed to learn about economy and dialogue and characterisation, and most of all developing the idea quickly."

Now he was sucking diesel. "I'd started to sell stories to magazines and be nominated for awards and been in a couple of best-of collections."

A talent scout from Marvel saw his story 20th-Century Ghost and commissioned him to write a Spider-Man comic. He jumped at the chance.

"I wrote a perfectly horrid Spider-Man story. Awful. Worst thing I've ever had published." But he started writing his own comics and the first book of his Locke & Key series sold out in 24 hours.

Then came his first huge success: Heart-Shaped Box, a novel about Judas Coyne, a faded but still glorious rock star, living alone collecting gruesome memorabilia, who buys a ghost on the internet -- an evil ghost, dressed like Johnny Cash, with scribbles for eyes, a psychological torturer in Vietnam, who proves as unshakeable as a deathly groupie.


The new book, Horns, about a sweet boy who turns into a satanic demon, is making steady sales, and has been optioned for film adaptation.

A couple of his stories have been filmed, and Horns, Heart-Shaped Box and Locke & Key are in development for film or TV. But Hill keeps his focus on the writing. Six hours a day, more in the evening, two hours a day on weekends.

"You get to play make-believe for a living, then go out and meet some people who seem to be liking the books," he says. "It's a lot better than a real job."

Horns is published by Orion priced €18.50