Features | Written by Grant Kempster 09/03/2021

Joe Hill | NOS4A2

STARBURST chats to author JOE HILL about the TV adaptation of NOS4A2, which is now available on DVD.

There was a bridge in Bangor, Maine where I grew up. It was this terrifying covered bridge that crossed the Penobscot River,” author Joe Hill recalls from his home in New Hampshire. “It smelled of dog pee and bats and if you rode across it on your bike, you could see the gaps between the board and the river below. We would dare each other to ride across it because there was this real feeling that at any moment the thing could collapse. So it was like a right of passage and courage to ride your bike across it and I guessed I always kind of imagined that when I came out on the other end I would come out in Narnia or something. It kind of had a feel that there was something about this that wasn’t a normal bridge. So I’ve kind of carried that bridge in my head for years and eventually I found the right book to use it in.

That bridge would eventually lead the son of arguably the world’s most acclaimed and prolific living authors to a keyboard on the 4th of July, 2009 as he begun work on his third novel, NOS4A2. Now, over a decade later, the story has made its way to screens in the acclaimed AMC series of the same name and he couldn’t be more delighted. “The show and the story is about this sinister guy, Charlie Manx, who’s over a hundred years old,” Hill explains with enthusiasm. “He drives this car that runs on human souls instead of gasoline. Charlie has been abducting children since the 1930s and he takes them on a long drive, and over the course of this drive he feeds off of their souls. When he’s done with them, they’re little monsters, everything delights them, so they’re filled with happiness. Their mouths are like these fang-lined holes. He takes them to this almost demonic other world called Christmasland where every night is Christmas Eve and every day is Christmas morning and the fun never stops. The kids play on all the amusement rides and are always having fun whether they’re on the rollercoaster or they’re playing a game of ‘Scissors for the Drifter’ where someone gets stabbed to death.

Charlie meets his match when he runs afoul of Vic McQueen who is a young woman who has a supernatural gift of her own. She can get out on her Triumph motorcycle and find her way to a bridge – the Shorter Way Bridge – that really doesn’t exist in our world. She can use her powers to materialise it into existence. While most bridges cover physical distance, her bridge covers the distance between lost and found. So if there’s something she’s looking for it’s always on the other side even if it’s a 1000 miles away. If she’s looking for a lost watch, she can leave the bridge in New Hampshire and arrive on the other side in Rhode Island and get the watch from where it was lost years before. So these two people then clash over the course of 20 years in the book and in the TV show.

The rickety bridge from Hill’s childhood wasn’t the only inspiration that fed into the crafting of this modern day horror classic. “I was thinking about this Lon Chaney quote,” Hill explains.  “He once said; ‘There’s nothing funny about a clown at midnight’ and I totally get that. You know if you woke up at midnight and you looked out the window and a clown was standing under the streetlight with a single black balloon you’d probably fall to your knees and start crying for Momma. And by the same token I was thinking that Christmas music is heart-warming in December, but if it’s the middle of a blazing hot summer and you’re lost in the woods and you’re walking along a path and you come to an old barn with boarded up windows and you hear watery Christmas music playing inside you’re not going to go in to see who’s there! You’re just going to turn around and go in the other direction as fast as your feet can carry you. So that’s a lot of what writing successful horror fiction is about, is finding these juxtapositions. You take something lovely and comforting and then poison it for everyone. That’s me, I’m the poisoner!

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While Hill might be more than happy to contaminate our hearts and minds with abject terror, one thing he has fallen short of is allowing his fans to feel short changed when it comes to adaptations. Hill’s critically acclaimed comic series Locke and Key has recently been picked up for a third season on Netflix and this latest adaptation, NOS4A2 has been widely praised by fans and critics alike. What is perhaps most interesting about the latter’s reception is just how much it differs from his original text. Perhaps even more unique, is Hill’s readiness to embrace these changes. “I didn’t think that there was anything that I loved about the book that didn’t make it into the show,” he admits. “When we first meet Vic in the book she’s 12-years-old and when we meet Vic in the TV show she’s about 18. By starting the story when she was 18, Jami O’Brien put us in a position to be able to use the same actress throughout the series. Ashleigh Cummings, the brilliant Australian actress who played Vic is at the right age, she’s in her early 20s so can convincingly play 18 and a 28-year-old mother of an eight-year-old. So for me that was a sensible, functional decision that I thought played pretty well. I actually think in the second season we do see Vic as a child. I think she made a good rational choice to not want two different actresses to play Vic.

O’Brien also embellished some of the more supernatural aspects of the story, in particular elaborating on the ‘gifts’ that some characters have. “Certain beings can access their inscapes,” Joe enthuses. “They’re like landscapes of the mind, and they can pull these landscapes of the imagination into the real world. There’s some of that in the book but one of the pleasures of the TV show is that the show runner Jami O’Brien expanded on that, sort of looked at the book as a kind of compressed accordion and then pulled it wide open. So you have a lot of different characters who are strong ‘Creatives’ running around. It’s definitely one of the great pleasures of the show.

One of the show’s characters that was most notably expanded was that of Maggie Leigh which, again, was a welcome addition to the author. “Maggie Leigh has a magical Scrabble bag. The bag is sort of bottomless and she can ask the universe a question then reach into the bag, pull out a bunch of letters, put them down and rearrange them and spell the answer to her question. With some limitations. She can’t ask it, for example, ‘Who killed this person?’ because the answer to this question would be a proper noun which is not allowed in Scrabble. So the Scrabble bag has to follow the rules of Scrabble even though it can answer anything else. It was great to see Maggie Leigh brought to life. She was performed by Jahkara Smith in her first screen role and she’s absolutely sizzling, so great in the part and it was great to see Maggie get her own story whereas in the book she’s more of a secondary character. I certainly felt that by the second season of the show it’s almost equally Maggie and Vic’s story, that they are together, Butch and Sundance. Ashleigh and Jahkara had such great energy together. It was Jami O’Brien’s instinct. You learn things as you go along, how to make a TV show and I think it was Jami O’Brien’s realisation as she went into the second season that what people liked best about the show was seeing Ashleigh and Jahkara together. Watching them support each other, challenge each other, be foils for each other. That was exciting, in the way we like seeing Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman spar off one another.

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While the novel of NOS4A2 spans around 20 years, the first season of the show only tackles Vic’s teen years, which would suggest that the show was always envisioned as having a two-season life-span. “I think it was possible to look at it and say, ‘We can do two seasons that tell the book – beginning, middle and end,” Hill concurs. “Give all these characters their due and give the readership what they want. But after that we may hit a point of diminishing returns’. If we go to a third or fourth season we might start to bleed our audience so let’s finish strong instead of finishing weak. Of course that makes sense in the new environment of TV. What you want to have is a show that people will return to the way that people return to favourite books. Whereas in the old days you just rode the horse until it died right underneath you. If you could squeeze another season out of it, you’d squeeze another season out of it. So I think that this is a more thoughtful way of making TV.

In the years since Hill really made a name for himself with his acclaimed first novel Heart Shaped Box in 2007, it was clear to see that he was forging a well-earned path for himself as a credible horror author. “I collected my rejection letters, which is all part of the process, I gradually figured out how to write a short story then started writing some good ones. I kind of developed my own voice,” Hill explains. He would manage around a decade before word spread that his father was none-other than the master of literary horror, Stephen King. “I was a really insecure guy especially in my teens and 20s, which is why I wrote as Joe Hill rather than Joseph King because I didn’t want to get published because I had a famous dad,” Hill admits. “I needed to feel like when I sold a story, I sold it for the right reasons, because an editor was excited by it. By the time it became widely known who my dad was I’d had a book of short stories published by a small press in England, I had locked in the sale of my first novel Heart Shaped Box and I had built up some security and confidence.

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Interestingly, we note that, more so than any other work of Hill’s, his father’s DNA seems more apparent in NOS4A2, which perhaps speaks to Hill’s new found comfort in his own skin. “I had more freedom to celebrate my dad’s work,” Joe agrees. “I’m a big Stephen King fan! Writer’s talk about influence all the time. For me there’s really no influence that could ever come anywhere close to the influence of my father and mother. My ear for a good sentence is based on everything I’ve learned from my Mum and the way she would talk about what made a good sentence pop. My idea of what keeps people turning the pages was completely developed from reading Stephen King novels. So it’s inevitable that the work is going to have echoes in it of where I come from and who I am.

It would seem that the appreciation for his father’s work runs both ways as while NOS4A2, a book about a soul vampire, mentions The True Knot (also soul vampires) in King’s The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, his Dad returned the favour by referencing Charlie Manx in Sleep. “There are two things you can do with that situation,” grins Hill. “You can run from it and try to hide that there’s any similarity – but that’s kind of cowardly, that doesn’t really have nerve. Another thing you can do is embrace it and underline it and make it seem more intentional instead of the totally random accident that it was.

In fact world building is something that King is particularly known for amongst his ‘constant readers’, which is something that Hill seems keen to carry on. While the first true mention of King’s world came in NOS4A2, it would seem that there is an underlying element in his previous book, The Fireman. “There is this idea that in [King’s] Dark Tower stories, that the Tower is the lynchpin of a multiverse,” Hill explains. “That there are all these difference universes on different floors of the Tower. Every floor of the Tower looks into a different narrative universe. In some ways that’s how I thought of my fourth novel, The Fireman [also a pathogen story]. The Fireman narratively very consciously echoes a lot of what happens in The Stand. My idea of The Fireman is that it’s taking place on one level of the Tower one floor up from the events of The Stand. I’ve always kind of been a weak one for trying to Elmer’s Glue my universes to others. I’ve done a lot of work in comics and right now I’m writing a Locke and Key/Sandman crossover. So my comic book world is colliding with Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman universe and that’s been a real delight. And to me, it feels like the two stories were always waiting for each other. They naturally fit together.

While Hill’s novels continue to gather acclaim, it is perhaps his work as a comic book writer that has accelerated his notoriety thanks to Locke and Key and his own imprint at DC entitled Hill House Comics. Yet rather than a conscious move away from novel writing, Hill’s experience in the comic medium was actually intended as somewhat of a pallet-cleans. “I wrote these two really long novels, The Fireman and NOS4A2 back-to-back,” Joe explains. “And after that there was a book of novellas called Strange Weather and another book of short stories called Full Throttle. So I needed a little while to think, ‘What am I going to say now? What do I want to do as a novelist next?’ And I wasn’t really sure, so I wound up taking almost 18 months off to write comic books.

At present, Hill is currently around 500 pages into his latest novel, intriguingly titled King Sorrow. Although that’s as much as we’re likely to find out at this point. “I’m so superstitious I don’t dare say anything about the plot,” Hill apologises. “Hopefully, I’ll finish it this year and it’ll be out next year. You never know. You don’t know until it’s done.” Until then, we get to revel in the world that Hill created, embellished perfectly by showrunner Jami O’Brien as we take an uncomfortable journey in the back Charlie Manx’s Rolls Royce Wraith with that foreboding number plate rattling at the front, NOS4A2.

NOS4A2 - Season One and Two is out now on DVD, read our review here.

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