What is it Like Having Stephen King as a Father?

Imagine being raised by the master of horror.  Joe Hill, an excellent horror writer in his own right, is the son of the great Stephen King.  Many of Joe Hill’s stories focus on father-son relationships.  I want to analyze a few of these relationships to speculate what Stephen King was like as a father.  Please note, this is all for entertainment.  I have never met Stephen King or Joe Hill (fingers crossed I would be so fortunate in the future).  Spoilers to follow.

In Joe Hill’s short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts the story Better than Home features a young boy who struggles with what seems like OCD.  Many people, including family members, have trouble understanding and being patient with the boy.  However, the father is beautifully supportive in caring for his son.  The father is a baseball coach.  As any serious Stephen King fan knows, King is an avid baseball fan.  He has even written a nonfiction book Faithful, detailing the historic 2004 season when the Boston Red Sox won the world series, and a novella Blockade Billy, which also focuses on baseball.  Clearly the father in Better than Home is inspired by Stephen King.  While staying at a hotel before a Chicago White Sox game, the AC in the room makes the boy anxious and prevents him from sleeping.  “My father pops open the jar of cotton balls and crams one into each ear.  I giggle at the sight of him—the sight of him standing there with a loose fluff of cotton hanging out of his big sunburned ears”, narrates the boy (p. 122).  The father’s humorous actions help the boy relax and he successfully has a restful night of sleep.  The father knows his son well enough to help him cope with his anxieties.  At the end of the story, while attending a baseball practice together, they play the “Secret Things Game” together.  The game is essentially a scavenger hunt around the baseball park.  “This is a good game,” the boy says.  “I bet we could play at home…How come we never do that?  How come we never play the game where we look for secret things at home?”  “Because it’s just better here,” his father says (p. 132).  From this story I infer that Joe Hill and Stephen King were really close during Joe’s childhood.  Their shared passion for baseball strengthened their bond.  In his childhood Joe Hill felt seen and understood by his father.  However, once Joe Hill reaches adolescence his relationship with his dad becomes strained.  This teenage angst is at the heart of Hill’s excellent comic Locke and Key.

In Locke and Key Tyler Locke and his father, Rendell have a strained relationship.  His father is highly involved in Tyler’s life because he is a guidance counselor at the high school.  One day they get into an argument that is familiar to many teenagers and their parents.  Tyler pleads: “Christ, Dad, will you lay off my ass for once?”  His dad replies: “Nope.  Not my job…Where do you think you’re going?  I’m not done…”.  “I am.  I’ve had enough”, retorts Tyler (p. 88).  At first, I thought this conflict was inspired by typical teenage angst.  But maybe instead this stems from resentment, originating in the Kings’ past.  It is no secret that Stephen King abused drugs, including cocaine, alcohol, too many cigarettes, and Valium, to name a few.  King believed the substances were essential for his writing.  He has since achieved sobriety and continues to write amazing novels, without the aid of drugs.  For a stretch of time Stephen selfishly chose to abuse these substances, which may have interfered with his parenting ability.  I believe this is the source of the angst Joe used as inspiration for Tyler’s character.  In Locke and Key Joe Hill explores what happens when this angst is unleased, resulting in tragic consequences.  Tyler has a conversation with Sam Lesser, another student outside of his dad’s office.  Tyler is frustrated after just having a disagreement with his father.  Sam who also is upset at his father, who is horribly abusive, says he wants to kill his Dad.  Tyler, complaining about his dad, says “he’s an overbearing asshole and I can never just make a mistake.  Every fuck-up is a damn…moral lesson…Well, you ever decide to kill your Dad, do me a favor and kill mine while you’re at it (p. 97).  Tyler is just speaking dramatically in the moment.  He has no idea that Sam will complete his request.  After murdering his dad, Sam travels to the Locke home and murders Randell Locke.  The murder not only leaves the Locke family fatherless, but also traumatized.  The three Locke children proceed to have a wild adventure involving magical keys with different powers.  After surviving the final epic, supernatural battle, Tyler is able to speak with his dad’s spirit through the power of the keys.  His father apologizes, saying “I hurt you sometimes Tyler.  I said cruel things.  Was too hard…because I was scared, you’d be like me.  But you aren’t anything like me.  You’re so much better.  You’re the kind of man I always wanted to be.  I guess my life wasn’t a complete waste of time.  Whatever damage I did—all those lives I wrecked because of my selfishness—my cowardice (p. 188).  These words are exactly what Tyler needs to hear from his dad and they reconcile their relationship.  But what does this say about Joe Hill and Stephen King?  Joe and Stephen possibly had a conversation, like Tyler and Randell’s, where Stephen apologized for the damage he caused during his days of substance abuse.  Or maybe these are the words Joe still wishes to hear from his father.  Part of Randell’s apology to Tyler includes the phrase: “You’re so much better than me”.  Does Joe Hill aspire to surpass his dad in being the king of contemporary horror?  His short story Abraham’s Boys suggests that he does.

I believe the story Abraham’s Boys represents Joe Hill’s ambitions to top his father in the world of horror.  The story is about two brothers living with their father, Abraham Van Helsing (yes, from Dracula), who has a mysterious past.  Their father warns them to not go out past dark and hides secrets in his office, which is off limits to the boys.  The older brother reflects that “saying his father was superstitious was an understatement of grotesquely funny proportions” (p. 92).  Immediately I recognized some parallels between these characters and the Kings.  Joe has a younger brother named Owen, and Stephen, an expert creator of spooky stories, must hold some superstitions.  The boys explore their father’s office while he is away and they their father’s secret profession.  Abraham is a vampire hunter.  I believe monster hunting and horror writing are arguably similar professions.  Many monsters are fought and defeated in the pages of Stephen King’s novels.  Instead of Stephen’s office being filled with stakes and crucifixes like Abraham’s it is filled with his horrifying drafts.  Towards the end of the story, Abraham decides to train his boys in the art of vampire killing.  Abraham orders Joe and Owen to stake and decapitate a vampire.  Young Owen is frightened and unable to complete the slaying.  Joe does not believe that vampires are real and thinks the “vampire” in the basement is just a human corpse.  Protecting his brother Joe murders his father in a twist ending.  “He put the tip of the stake where his father showed him and struck the hilt with the mallet.  It turned out it was true what the old man had told him in the basement.  There was wailing and profanity and a frantic struggle to get away, but it was over soon enough” (p.  111).  There are a few ways to interpret this ending.  My preferred explanation is Joe is writing about how he intends to best his father and become the superior writer i.e., the better vampire slayer.  I believe Joe is well on his way in achieving this goal.  In my opinion he is the better horror writer today.  His stories are more innovative, and he maintains a higher level of quality across his novels.  (However, Stephen King will always have a special place on my shelf.  He is the first writer of adult fiction I was exposed to.  I devoured his books in high school.)

I believe all fiction stems from truth.  Joe Hill often focuses on father-son relationships in his writing because his relationship with his dad holds great significance. There is added complexity in their relationship because they share the same profession.   Perhaps my use of Joe Hill’s stories to interpret the dynamics of the King family veers too far into speculative fiction.  What do you think?

20th Century Ghosts

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill
Published by Harper Collins on February 3, 2009
Genres: Fiction, Ghost, Horror, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Supernatural, Thrillers
Pages: 316

20th Century Ghosts has been sitting unread on my bookshelf for over a year and I wish I had read it sooner! How could I neglect such a varied and well written short story collection? Joe Hill’s anthology is the perfect read for the spooky, Halloween season. The book contains 15 short stories, primarily in the horror and science fiction genres. In this collection you’ll find a haunted movie theatre, a deadbeat alcoholic with superpowers, a kid that transforms into a giant locust, and my favorite, an inflatable boy. There were plenty traditional scary stories, but also some that were just plain weird, which I loved.

One theme that is present across the collection is family, particularly father-son relationships. I find this especially interesting to track because Hill’s father is the master of horror, Stephen King. In Abraham’s Boys, two young brothers are intrigued by the mysterious past of their father, Abraham Van Helsing (yes from Dracula). Abraham’s office holds his secrets and is off limits to the boys. It is later revealed that their father is a vampire hunter. I see parallels between this fictional family and the Kings. I can picture Joe Hill and his brother Owen growing up with their dad, Stephen King, who would go to his office to create and battle monsters through his writing. I explore the meaning of the story’s twist ending and analyze other fathers present in Joe Hill’s writing in this week’s musing: “What is it Like Having Stephen King as a Father?”

In Pop Art (I love a title that doubles as a pun) the narrator is friends with an inflatable boy, named Arthur. This story is just as absurd as it sounds, but it features one of my favorite fictional friendships. The narrator constantly worries for the safety of his fragile friend, who is susceptible to popping or deflating while around sharp objects. The story also features the contrast between the narrator’s unstable home and Arthur’s caring and supportive parents.

Another favorite of mine is The Cape. As someone who is burnt out from the superhero genre, I was pleasantly surprised by this story. Eric, a young boy, discovers he can fly when he wears an old towel. But the towel is lost, and he doesn’t come across it until years later when he is an unemployed alcoholic living in his mom’s basement. What made this story compelling was the complex relationship between Eric and his brother.

There are too many great stories to dig into in this review, so here are brief snippets about other standouts in the collection:

Best New Horror: This story had one of my favorite literary tropes, a writer protagonist. This one gave me Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibes

You Will Hear the Locust Sing: A boy transforms into a locust one day while in his bedroom after eating too many bugs. Another awesomely weird and absurd story

Better than Home: Another father-son story, this one more heartwarming. This focuses on baseball, which is Stephen King’s favorite sport.

My Father’s Mask: This one was creepy and unsettling, can’t say I completely understood what was happening. Please let me know if you have any theories!

The Black Phone: There is a film adaptation in the works for The Black Phone, by Blumhouse Productions. I wonder why they chose to adapt this story, I found it to be one of the least interesting in the anthology.

20th Century Ghosts will be the first thing I recommend to anyone looking for a spooky book to read this Halloween. The collection has the perfect balance of scares and absurdity. I hope you enjoy!

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