Reviews: Pedigree evident in Stephen King's sons Owen King, Joe Hill

Published April 26, 2013

If nothing else, you'd have to give Joe Hill and Owen King credit for nerve.

For the two sons of Stephen King, continuing the family business means writing in the gigantic shadow of one of the planet's bestselling and best loved authors, a man who has frightened and delighted millions of readers. Even if his novels don't scare them — ever wonder what bedtime stories were like in the King household? — Dad's reputation might.

But fiction writing does seem to be the family business. Tabitha King, Stephen's wife and Joe's and Owen's mother, is a novelist as well. (Both sons include her in their new books' dedications, and Hill lends her first name to one of his characters.) The only member of the clan who isn't an author is the oldest child, Naomi King. A Unitarian Universalist minister, she has said in interviews that she saves her storytelling for her sermons.

But her brothers are busy forging writing careers. Before his new novel, NOS4A2, Joe Hill (full name Joseph Hillstrom King), 40, published a short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts (2005); two novels, Heart-Shaped Box (2007) and Horns (2010); and the graphic novel series Locke & Key. Owen King, 36, published We're All in This Together: A Novella and Stories in 2005; his new book, Double Feature, is his first novel.

Owen King's fiction is realistic and often comic, without the supernatural elements that are his father's trademark. Hill's horror-fantasy fiction falls much closer to the parental tree, although he has his own voice. Both brothers share their father's often scatological sense of humor — and both are impressive writers.

Stories told in the dark

Owen King's Double Feature is all about the relationship between a father and son in the same creative business, in this case movies. But readers looking for dishy revelations about King's relationship with his own famous father won't find much — for one thing, this father is no success story. But they will find a smart and entertaining debut novel.

The novel's narrator, Sam Dolan, is a young, aspiring director and the only son of Booth Dolan, a B-movie actor whose reputation doesn't quite rise to the level of cult hero — and whose parenting leaves even more to be desired than his acting skills.

An enormous man with a stentorian voice and a sense of joy that infuses every cheesy role he has ever played, Booth reads like a mashup of Orson Welles and Bruce Campbell.

He's also a philanderer who deserted Sam and his mother during the boy's adolescence and has been only a peripatetic presence since then, and an embarrassment to his serious-minded son when he does show up: "Booth had been in the business of cheap entertainment so long that he had gone native."

Sam's aims are much more highfalutin. His senior thesis for film school is Who We Are, a semi-autobiographical movie about a group of college students, "an essentially lyric piece that Sam felt spoke to the mad, arrested quality of those four years and, in general, of what a desperate thing it was to be young and free and American."

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If that sounds a little pretentious, you and Booth are on the same page. But Sam refuses his father's advice. Besides writing and directing the movie, he raises the money to produce it, selling shares to friends and family, leveraging credit cards and, in his worst mistake, hiring another student to be assistant director just because the kid has lots of money. Brooks Hartwig Jr. is manic and odd, but Sam has no idea how odd until he completes Who We Are — and Brooks gets his hands on it.

The results plunge Sam into years of deeply depressed half-life, working first in a dreary video store and then as a "weddingographer," adding arty auteur touches to the wedding videos of oblivious couples. Who We Are has a much stranger fate, one I don't want to give away because King does such a skillful job of revealing it — it's one of those jaw-dropping surprises that instantly seems inevitable.

The novel's plot moves back and forth in time, ranging from 1967 (a sweet sequence recounting how Booth and Sam's mother, Allie, met and married) to 2011, when Sam finally realizes his life is one enormous rut and tries to find a way out of it. He's not always an easy narrator to like — he does some truly awful things, and some truly stupid ones — but he's always interesting.

Double Feature also boasts a number of colorful supporting characters, notably cult actor Rick Savini, the only pro in Who We Are (playing a drug dealer whose scenes all take place in a bathroom stall). The fact that I kept picturing Savini as Steve Buscemi was one clue that Double Feature isn't just about movies but likely was written with a film version in mind. Owen King has done some screenwriting, and this novel has the kind of movie-ready comic plot that builds by piling one outrageous scene upon another — and ends in one final, tartly delicious surprise.

Lost in the inscape

Starting with the vanity license plate that forms its title, Joe Hill's NOS4A2 is one of the creepiest books I've read in a long time — and I mean that in a good way.

Its premise is that, as a librarian named Maggie Leigh says, "Everyone lives in two worlds." One is the real world, the other is what she calls the inscape, "the world inside their own head." A few people, those with extraordinary imaginations, "can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together."

That object isn't literally a knife; for Maggie, it's a bag of Scrabble tiles that spell out secrets. And for a very, very old and evil man named Charles Manx, it's a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith with otherworldly powers that bears that vanity plate (nosferatu can mean vampire or devil) and carries many little children off to a place called Christmasland, the worst theme park ever.

Victoria McQueen, the book's main character, finds her knife when she's 9 years old: her beloved bike, a Raleigh Tuff Burner that lets her ride through a covered bridge near her home called the Shorter Way Bridge. At least it was called that, before it fell in the river. But for Vic, it reappears, and when something important is lost — her mother's favorite bracelet, her father's only photo of her grandmother — the bridge takes her right to where it is, then safely home.

Those trips have a mental and emotional cost, though, and Vic takes them only rarely. By the time she's 17, she's convinced herself her forays across the bridge were delusions — until the day she has a fight with her mother and goes looking for something new: trouble.

The bike and the bridge, always obedient, take her straight from Massachusetts to a house in Colorado belonging to Manx, and she barely escapes with her life.

One of her rescuers is a mountainous motorcycle mechanic named Lou Carmody, who's as gentle and devoted as a golden retriever. Vic falls into a relationship with him mainly because he makes her feel safe; a few years later they have a son, heroically named Bruce Wayne Carmody, whose playpen is a monster truck tire.

Vic adores the boy, but she struggles with motherhood and sanity. For a while she does well enough to build a career as a children's book author, illustrating tales about a doughty robot named Search Engine. Other times she gets vicious phone calls from the lost children in Christmasland, burns her own house down and spends time in a mental hospital.

In the meantime, Charles Manx languishes in a coma in a supermax prison, convicted in the deaths of numerous children. He dies, he's autopsied, his heart is removed — and then he gets up off the table and goes on the run. He wants to hurt Vic the way she hurt him, and he knows just how to do it: take her son to Christmasland.

The whole latter half of NOS4A2 is a breathless battle to find the boy and rescue him from Manx. Hill does a splendid job of screwing the tension tighter and tighter, of both creating the eerie world of the inscape and keeping Vic's sanity ever in question.

He paces the story skillfully with humor, including literary jokes, some of them familial — Maggie's paperweight is a prop pistol marked "Property of A. Chekhov," and an eerie map includes the Pennywise Circus in Maine.

And don't think he's done when he gets to the acknowledgements. That boring last page many books have called "A Note on the Type"? In NOS4A2, it's a chiller.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.