We might as well get it out in the open right now, in case you are late to the party: Author Joe Hill is actually Joseph King—son of (prolific American horror heavyweight) Stephen King. Variety broke the pseudonym story four novels ago, but Joe kept the pen name all the same.
It's understandable how when he struck out to take a stab at a writing career of his own that he didn't want to ride Dad's coattails, and for ten years, not even his own agent knew the truth.
What's harder to grasp is why Hill's new book about a population-changing event, The Fireman, is in so many ways a riff on one of Dad's darlings. Yet there's never anything truly new under the sun, and as Hill says, "You've got to go back to go forward." He does this well.
My copy of The Stand is the massive "complete and uncut" version, published two decades after the book's release in 1978; Stephen King apparently wasn't happy with a hardback you could barely heft with one hand. The epic on good and evil set after an apocalyptic disease has a cast of characters who seem so real that they feel like your cousins or high school buddies, with the magic of dialog that made King, well, king. Plus the social commentaries of group dynamics are horrific all on their own.
Hill's version is a more pop-fiction approach to the same sort of big think, yet its creative streak and high-tension sequences within a setting that's firmly current take it in a divergent direction. Its superhero and almost rom/com elements also lead readers of The Fireman through richly different territory, making me laugh out loud a few times and jot down witty parallels ("Maine is like Mordor")—even if Donald Trump and Coca-Cola make appearances that sometimes feel like product placement.
"I was about two-thirds of the way through the first draft when it came to me that the book was full of echoes of The Stand, which I love and I've read half a dozen times," Hill tells SFR. "Then I had to make a decision: Do I run from this, do I try to disguise the similarities or do I acknowledge those echoes? It just seemed to me that it would be much more fun to acknowledge those echoes, and I actually chose to amplify some of the similarities."
One of the main characters in The Fireman, for example, is a kid named Nick, who is deaf. It's a name and auditory status shared by one of the core plot drivers in The Stand. Hill's heroine, Harper, a nurse with a penchant for Disney songs, mirrors Frannie in his father's book in an obvious aspect—both are in the family way when the world is going to pot.
"But then in other places," Hill says, "I looked for ways to reverse or invert what my dad did."
Take the appearance of the hand of God, which incites laughter from Hill when I ask about it.
"That is one of those reversals where in The Stand, the hand of God appears, and it's the final crash of the cannons, it's the annihilating final moment, and in my book, the hand of God turns up, and it's a serious moment, but there is something just a tiny little bit funny about it," he says. "I have to say I did get my yucks playing around with some of the stuff from The Stand. And more seriously, all my books throughout my career have been conversations with my influences. They have been ways for me to reflect upon the stories that amp me up."
Unlike The Stand's Captain Trips, the spore-borne killer in The Fireman is kind of sexy. Its first symptoms are black marks that look like tattoos, even taking on different artistic renditions for each victim. The gold-flecked marks of Dragonscale have a downside, though—it does lead to a pandemic event. When you panic, you smoke and smolder; if you can't keep calm, you burst into fatal flames.
But it turns out that the 'scale can make you look cool in other ways. It feeds on oxytocin, the hormone the human body produces in response to group approval. It can send you into a fanatic state. And we know fanatics, especially in groups, can be good and bad. OK, mostly bad.
"Without someone higher to answer to," Hill writes, "the law is just whoever is holding the nightstick."
Books were the original binge entertainment, after all, and it's an engrossing treat to digest the entire 746-page text over a weekend. Or stretch it out and ponder the connections between father and son, good and evil, life and death. And wait to see who wins.
Joe Hill Reads with GEORGE RR MARTIN
7 pm Monday, May 23. Free.
Jean Cocteau Cinema
418 Montezuma Ave.,