Joe Hill On ‘NOS4A2,’ Writing Female Characters, And Stephen King’s Secret Addiction To English Muffins

Joe Hill knows that you know that he’s the son of Stephen King. He’s most certainly his father’s son, given that they both crank out horror novels and short stories (and participate in adaptations) like there’s no apocalypse in sight. They also join forces on occasion, like they recently did with Netflix’s In The Tall Grass, and it’s worth noting that two of their most powerful heroines have fiercely sprung to life on the small screen of late. This year, HBO’s The Outsider nailed a fresh Holly Gibney incarnation, and AMC’s NOS4A2 pushed Hill’s Vic McQueen into full-fledged badass form.

The AMC series, created and executive produced by Hill, adapts his 2013 novel of the same name. This season, the horror grew more personal as psychic vampire Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto) attempted to convince the audience that he’s simply a good guy with a magic car. Never mind that he’s set his sights upon the family of his ultimate Strong Creative foe, Vic (Ashleigh Cummings), who won’t take his homicidal attitude while sitting down. Nor does she accept that Charlie’s ragingly misogynistic ways will prevail, and Hill was happy to discuss his feminist heroine with us and how, fittingly, Charlie didn’t make it out alive for the season finale. Joe was also cool with chatting about his dad’s strangest writing habit, the wildness of The Stand during a pandemic, and whether we’ll see any NOS4A2 offshoots in the future.

So, I was wondering if you felt a little predisposed to fretting over our current situation, since you’re in the horror realm.

Yeah! You know, I talk about this with my dad sometimes, and he says, “The thing about this particular scenario is that imagination is this incredibly vital tool that’s used to make a living, but it can also turn against you.” And it’s very easy to get carried away into a paranoid story, like, what bad thing’s gonna happen to you next? That’s something that I’ve wrestled with for like a decade. That tendency to drift off into a paranoid fixation, which isn’t super healthy.

Well, I wasn’t gonna bring up your dad right away, but in light of The Stand, people are making references to his work.

Instead of Captain Trips, this is Captain Trump. You know, it’s important to remember that if you wear a mask and practice good social distancing, this thing is not the superflu. In my plague-focused novel, The Fireman, it was a gasoline-soaked version of The Stand, but this is an illness that many people can survive, and you don’t have to catch it at all if you take the right precautions. That’s worth keeping it in mind. We’ve been living through the world’s dumbest horror movie in 2020.

It’s the worst movie with plotting that’s absolutely dreadful.

This period of anxiety and isolation and sickness and political attention. The thing that is frustrating is that we could be done with COVID in this country in six weeks if this willpower and the national unity could do it, but it would mean hard lockdown, not the kind of light lockdown that we had earlier in the year, and wearing masks and not going out to bars and college football games. When you’ve got 20% of the population that thinks the whole thing is a “plandemic,” a hoax, and somehow for some reason wearing a mask interferes with their liberty, it’s not gonna happen.

Can we talk about something slightly more lighthearted, like psychic vampires?

Yes, let’s talk about something more cheerful!

When I talked to Zachary Quinto, about two months ago… actually, I don’t know when that happened because time means nothing anymore.

[Laughs] It wasn’t two months, it was yesterday. It only feels like it was two months ago because that’s how 2020 works.

Well, he was very upfront about this Charlie Manx role being the end of what he called his “villain track.” And after the season finale, Charlie’s pretty dead.

You know, I love these two seasons of NOS4A2, and I’m so proud of the work that [showrunner Jami O’Brien] did with her phenomenal writers room, and just a cast that acted their hearts out with Zach up at the lead and Ashleigh Cummings, who bared her soul. She was vulnerable, she was tough, she was heartwrenching. Jahkara Smith was so great, Jonathan Langdon amazing, heartfelt and funny, just beautiful performances. And a story that I thought was moving and had a lot of narrative energy and was scary and funny and did inventive things. So I’m really happy with these two seasons, and it would be great to have more, if AMC has an appetite for it. It’s clear that there are more Strong Creatives out there. Some of them are good people. A lot of them are like Charlie, but Vic and Maggie are unusually suited to helping the good guys and dealing with the more wicked Strong Creatives.

You’ve talked a little bit about Maggie and future potential for her.

There’s two things to say here: (1) In the first season, Maggie is this person who feels isolated and abandoned by her family and is searching for emotional connection and is clearly addicted to drugs and alcohol. By Season 2, she’s cleaned up, but she’s still an addict, to using her powers and finding more people like her and diving deeper into this world of folks who can twist reality. And it’s not hard to imagine that leading to trouble. If Maggie uncovers a new threat, she’s going to count on Vic to stand on her side; (2) I’d like to note that I’ve seen a few stories about how I’ve been planning for a Maggie spinoff. That’s not exactly correct. Someone asked if I planned on doing more stories set in the world of NOS4A2, and I mentioned that I’ve had the idea for a novella called The Crooked Alley about Maggie. That’s a novella, not a TV show.

With Maggie and Vic, it’s clear that you dig strong women. I’ve seen your tweets about feminism. There’s a real doozy from a few years ago: “I’ve genuinely never met a man who was secure in his masculinity who wasn’t also a feminist.”

Did I say that? What a nice line.

Your feminism shows when you write women. Going back to the Heart-Shaped Box novel, you wrote Georgia as more than a stereotypical rock groupie. Then you wrote Vic as strong as hell but with realistic flaws.

Well, I’m the son of Tabitha King, and a lot of my ideas about women in society were shaped by my mom, who’s a terrific writer, and you know, has opinions and is not afraid to share them and sort-of insists upon respect. I hope that I can be a good ally and that I keep my ears open and learn, and if I ever say anything dumb about it, then we’d all go on. As far as the female characters I’ve written, I write a lot of stuff in horror fiction, and horror fiction tends to choose outsiders as its protagonists — people who do not have a lot of power in society. And that’s one of the reasons why the slasher films of the 1980s or any period, we so often see the female lead. So there’s that, but I will say that it’s kind of interesting to me, [as opposed to] if you had a male hero who was the heavy drinker and had a strained, difficult relationship with his spouse.

Oh yes. Dude-heroes can get away with that sort of thing.

But he’s tough as nails and wisecracking?

Yep, that’s the one. Even Keanu Reeves has sort-of played that guy.

If that character was male, it wins widespread approval. It’s like every character that Bruce Willis has ever played. The moment that character is female, people become very judgmental. So you can take all those same flaws and attach them to a female, and suddenly, she is the target of criticism. You can see this on Twitter with Vic when we see a damaged woman trying to get her shit together to protect her family to finish a job that she only got to start in Season 1, and if Vic was Victor instead of Victoria, I think a lot of criticisms on social media, you would not have seen.

People would not be saying, “Oh my god, a father has left his family to go fight an evil child-kidnapper.”

Yeah, totally. Totally! When that character’s played by Sly Stallone, it somehow works for people.

Rambo got weird and Western last time around. Do you ever think about maybe writing a Western novel one day?

I have to a degree. With Strange Weather, the second story, “Loaded,” was an Elmore Leonard-esque crime story about gun violence in America, and that was fun to write, and with Full Throttle… now I’m blanking on the title of my own story…

…and that’s what you get for writing so much.

[Laughs] Oh, there’s a science-fiction story called “All I Care About Is You,” which Ashleigh Cummings read on the audiobook, and that’s actually almost a teen romcom about the budding relationship between a teenage girl and a clockwork boy, so that was outside of my usual genre, but I am kind-of a horror guy, and I think that’s because I’m insecure.

Tell me more. This feels therapeutic.

You know, we live in very distracted times. Everyone’s got a smartphone in their pocket with three streaming services on it, and YouTube is just a click away, and I’m always afraid of losing the reader. And the one way I know that I can keep the reader reading is with the big engine of suspense. When a character is in a position of peril — physical peril, moral peril, psychological peril — people tend to keep reading because they wanna know if everything’s gonna be okay. And horror is the genre which most directly deals with people in peril.

People always want to know about your dad, so what’s the weirdest thing that anyone’s ever asked about him?

I don’t know what the weirdest thing that anyone’s ever asked, but I’ll tell you a weird bit of trivia that people don’t know… I don’t think people have any idea how much Thomas English Muffins have contributed to the world of horror fiction.

This has taken an unexpected turn.

My dad goes though a six-pack of English muffins every week. And he has for, like, 20 years. That is the fuel of much of modern horror fiction.

Before we go, do you think Heart-Shaped Box will ever come to life onscreen?

I’d love if it did, and there have been conversations about it. Recently, about a limited series instead of a film, which could be really exciting and give us a chance to dive deeper into the novel than you could manage with a two-hour film. It would be terrific if it happened, but all I can say about it is that it has been in development since 2007, and after about a decade, I think it’s fair to take away some latitude.

I imagine there’d be quite a soundtrack. Maybe Nine Inch Nails and Slipknot.

When I wrote it, I was always thinking of it as a John Carpenter film, made in about 1986 and starring Kurt Russell. And maybe we could have had music from Danzig.

Or Rob Zombie. Marilyn Manson! Rock on.

Hell yeah!

AMC’s ‘NOS4A2’ Season 2 finale can be streamed on AMC Premiere.