(In the Tall Grass)
This story is neither a book, nor a collection of shorter fiction, nor the first short e-story of King’s to appear online. It’s just a Kindle Single, with one important distinction — it’s an example of something that we’ll see again, a collaboration between King and one of his sons.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, and I think it’s common knowledge now anyway, but if you don’t happen to know, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s oldest son. His birth name is Joe (or Joseph, probably?) and the last name he uses professionally comes from his birth middle name, which is Hillström. All three of King’s children do some writing — his daughter Naomi is a pastor, not a writer, but the job of pastor comes with some important writing duties. I believe she’s also an activist of sorts, which generally involves having some understanding of how to string words together in a compelling way, either in writing or verbally. His youngest son, Owen King, is a writer, though his genres tend more toward comedy and literary fiction from what I understand. He did collaborate with his father on a book that’s more in the Stephen King vein, though (we’ll get to it). He also married an author (Kelly Braffet) who writes horror books (they’re good) which is interesting. Then there’s Joe. ‘
My first Joe Hill book was Heart-Shaped Box, and at the time, I didn’t know who he was, other than “new horror author”. I liked the book quite a bit, but I remember thinking “wow, this guy was heavily influenced by Stephen King, almost to the point of aping him at times. It’s like if a younger guy with newer references wrote in almost the exact style of Stephen King.” Well. I wasn’t wrong or anything. I just didn’t realize that this author was heavily influenced by Stephen King reading his bedtime stories.
I believe the story is that Hill wanted to make it on his own in horror without using the famous King name and being known as just a King mini-me – a problem that I guess Owen didn’t have as much of working in his own genres. That was probably smart. I want to be clear — I think Joe Hill is an excellent author. I love his books, and he also seems to have a similar skill level with short fiction as his father. I very much hope he writes more — he doesn’t seem to be as prolific as his father, but really, not that many authors are. I do think he has his own voice, too, but he writes more like an author influenced by Stephen King than a lot of other authors who are also influenced by Stephen King. Which is fair! How could he not? But I think it’s possible that under his own name, the similarities would have been noted and his actual voice would have been dismissed, which would have been a shame. He also looks like a Stephen King mini-me — the familiarity of his author photos to some of King’s similar-aged author photos is really striking.
Anyway, by the time of “In The Tall Grass”, I guess Joe was out as a King son, and they collaborated on this story. Now, I’ve read King collaborations before — The Talisman and Black House with Peter Straub, the Richard Chizmar collabs that are coming down the line, and with those, I could at least guess at who wrote what. I would probably be wrong some of the time, but I would probably be right sometimes too. But this? I can’t even guess. It doesn’t read like a collaboration to me, even a really good one. I read somewhere that Stephen King was asked who could handle it if he passed away and left unfinished work, and his response was that Joe could finish it. And if I didn’t believe it before, I believe it after reading this. Either one of them could have written it alone. The idea that they both did? All I can say is that the seams don’t show. It’s not an astounding plot, I guess, but it’s deliciously creepy and unexpected in a lot of ways. I would have been happy for it to go on longer. I also kind of liked main characters Cal and Becky and their unusually close sibling relationship.
“In The Tall Grass” spawned a film, too. Netflix has it, I think. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t seen it. It seems to have middling reviews, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that were at least partially because there’s really not enough source material for a full-length film.