29 March 2007

The secret horror story of Stephen King Jnr

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

Published: 20 March 2007

For 10 years, Joe Hill was just another struggling, unpublished writer coming up with one book project after another only to have them rejected. Now, though, he has a bestseller on his hands - an efficient horror thriller entitled Heart Shaped Box - and a secret to reveal. He is, in fact, the son of Stephen King, the master of American popular horror fiction.

Were it not for the runaway success of Heart Shaped Box - whose film rights Hill sold six months before the book was even published - his identity might have remained a secret. Hill was so determined to make his own way in the literary world, rather than ride his father's coat-tails, that he successfully concealed his identity from his own literary agent for eight years. Akiva Goldsman, the Hollywood writer and producer who optioned his book, swears he had no idea who he was dealing with until the ink on their contract was already dry.

Two things, though, have changed. One is that Hill has indisputably put his own mark on the literary map, so the need for secrecy has dissipated. And the other is his startling physical resemblance to his own father at the same age.

As several people have noted, the author's photograph on Heart Shaped Box, in which Hill sports a black beard and vaguely unkempt hair, is almost uncannily like the photograph of his father on the jacket of Danse Macabre, published in 1981 when King was the same age as his son is now.

Rumours about the family connection have been buzzing around the internet for two years, since a critically lauded collection of horror-themed short stories by Hill, called 20th Century Ghosts, was published in Britain. He was finally outed last year by Variety, the entertainment industry trade paper.

By then, though, his short story collection had picked up a Bram Stoker award and a couple of British Fantasy awards. His apprenticeship, in other words, was over. "I really wanted to allow myself to rise and fall on my own merits," Hill said in an interview with the Associated Press yesterday. "One of the good things about it was that it let me make my mistakes in private."

One of the main reasons Hill craved that anonymity was because, when he was 12, he had an essay published by a local paper in Maine, where he grew up. In retrospect, he realised the essay was clunky and clichéd and was published only because, as the editor's note pointed out, he was the son of a famous writer.

Picking a pseudonym was easy. His birth name is Joseph Hillston King - a name inspired by an early 20th-century US labour leader called Joe Hill, who ended up being executed for murder.

Heart Shaped Box pays homage to a song of the same name by Nirvana. The story, meanwhile, tells the ghoulish tale of a collector of horror memorabilia who gets his comeuppance from one of his own artefacts. The book, published in the United States last month, has been enthusiastically reviewed and shot straight into the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list.

Hill is far from the only King family member to follow Stephen's path into print. His mother, Tabitha King, has been turning out novels for decades. His younger brother, Owen King, came out in 2005 with a well-received novella and short story collection.

The only sibling who has yet to make it into print is Naomi King, the oldest of the three, who has switched careers from restaurateur to Unitarian minister. But Hill said his sister is working on a non-fiction project: a book-length study of the sermon as literary text and its place in US culture.

As Stephen King said of his offspring at a recent literary forum in New York: "I took them on my knee, read them stories, changed their diapers, and now they're all grown up and they have become writers, of all things. I am really proud of them."

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