Episode 213: People Know The Combination

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
arrow through apples
Jammahito2 via Pixabay

Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein talks about the band’s evolution. Also, author Joe Hill shares what it’s like collaborating with his father, novelist Stephen King. And, writer Casey Rae measures William Burrough’s impact on rock ‘n’ roll history.

Featured in this Show

  • Writer Joe Hill On Storytelling, Film Adaptations Of His Work And Collaborating With Father Stephen King

    Writer Joe Hill knows something about storytelling. In many ways, he received an up-close and personal view of it during his upbringing and that left a profound affect.

    Today, Hill is the New York Times best-selling author of “The Fireman” and “NOS4A2” and the comic book series, “Locke and Key.” He also has the same knack as his famous father, novelist Stephen King, for having his works adapted for television or film. AMC has turned “NOS4A2” into a series and “Locke and Key” will be featured on Netflix.

    Hill’s short-story collection, “Full Throttle,” is no exception. Two of the stories were co-written with King and one, “In the Tall Grass,” is already a Netflix horror movie.

    The works of others have always been an important inspiration for Hill.

    He said that one of his earliest movie memories is watching the 1971 made-for-TV movie, “Duel.” It’s about Charles Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) who is driving on a business trip. At a certain point, he encounters a Peterbilt 281 truck. The mysterious truck driver terrorizes Mann, repeatedly trying to destroy him and his car. The noted fantasy and science-fiction author Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay based on his short story of the same name. The film version was directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

    “I loved it,” Hill told WPR’s “BETA.” “You know, it inserted itself into my fantasy life. My dad and I would go for drives and when we were out for drives, we’d pretend the truck was after us. We’d talk it through, you know, about what we’d do and where we’d go. And, you know, imagine the truck rearing up to slam the back end of our car. And I did a lot of screaming and stuff, you know, acting my part.”

    The opening story in Hill’s new book is called “Throttle.” And it’s one of the stories he wrote with King.

    “It is a kind of reinvention of Matheson’s ‘Duel,’” Hill said. “It’s a story about an outlaw motorcycle gang on the run from a faceless trucker who wants revenge on them for unknown reasons. And in some ways, it was like we started writing that story when I was 8 years old, you know. We started writing that story playing ‘truck’ in the car.”

    Hill said he agrees with the idea that while in “Duel,” the audience never learns why the truck driver is trying to destroy Mann and his car. In “Throttle,” he and King have included some motivation for the truck driver’s homicidal tendencies.

    “Yeah, ultimately, there is a revelation. There is a reveal. We find out why the trucker is after them. That sort of goes back a little bit to (legendary horror writer) H.P. Lovecraft. He had this idea that it was important to keep the horror offscreen. You know, that what we didn’t see was scarier than anything the artist could show. And I think there is some truth to that. I mean, like, certainly Spielberg in ‘Jaws.’ His happy discovery in the making of ‘Jaws’ was that the longer we went without seeing the shark, the more frightened of it we were.”

    “But I do think — and this is something I sort of picked up from my dad — I do think at a certain point, it’s worth risking it,” he said. “That the reader does deserve some revelation, some understanding of what it was all about and that maybe the monster does have to come out from under the bed. You do have to shine a light into the back of the closet to see what’s hiding there.

    Hill explained what it was like to collaborate with his father, sometimes hailed as “king of horror.”

    “You ever see any of those ‘Roadrunner’ cartoons? So, basically, imagine Wile E. Coyote getting a box that says ‘Acme’ on the side. And then he pulls apart the crate and inside, there’s a rocket. And he lights the fuse and climbs on top. And the rocket blasts off after the roadrunner. And Wile E. Coyote is hanging on top, barely clinging on for dear life. I’ve written with my dad on two short stories and both times, I felt like Wile E. Coyote hanging on to the rocket,” he said.

    Since a book of short stories can’t have the same kind of flow as a novel, many might be curious as to how Hill decided the running order of the stories.

    “I don’t how much strategy went into it, but you do look for some kind of coherent flow. You know, in a way, it’s sort of like trying to put together an LP. You want one song to flow naturally into the next. I know that the first story in the book is ‘Throttle’ and that the second story in the book is called ‘Dark Carousel.’ It’s set in the early 1990s. And it’s about four teenagers who deface a carousel, a big, 19th century carousel. And then there are supernatural consequences. ‘Dark Carousel’ is almost like a cover of a Stephen King story. It’s like the most Stephen King thing I’ve ever written.

    The second story that Hill co-wrote with King is called “In the Tall Grass.” This story might strike many readers as Lovecraftian cosmic horror crossed with a bit of a “Children of the Corn” vibe in terms of setting.

    “I don’t know what we were going for exactly. We were both in Florida. He had just finished working on something and I had just finished working on something. And we went out to the Colonial House of Pancakes at like 10 p.m. in the evening. And we’re eating flapjacks or something and we both agreed we should write a story. And so we came up with something on the spot and wrote the whole thing in about six, seven days. You know, here we are a few years later and it’s going to be this big Netflix film. I think the drop date is Oct. 4. And it’s really scary, you know. I mean, what a great film. It was directed by Vincenzo Natali. This is horror for horror fans. It has a kind of relentlessly scary feel like ‘Hereditary’ or ‘It Follows.’ So it’ll be interesting to see what people make of it.”

    Hill describes the story’s plot as one that should be chilling.

    “‘In the Tall Grass’ is about a brother and sister, two people traveling across country from New England to California — Becky and Cal DeMuth. They’re somewhere in the heartland and they pull over at the side of the road because Becky isn’t feeling too well. She’s nine months pregnant. They get out and there’s this giant field at the side of the road. You know, the grass is like eight feet high. It’s up over their heads. And they hear a child screaming in the field. He’s screaming that he’s lost and he can’t find his way out. And so they both step into the grass to try to find him. And once they enter the field, they can’t find their way out either,” he said.

    Hill said that while the movie draws from the short story, there are important differences.

    “In some ways, the movie is actually a little bit more hopeful. It finds some hopeful notes that are unique to the film. And I think that that’s a good thing,” he said.

    He added that he keeps his readers in mind when crafting his stories.

    “Not every short story can deliver hope, though. I always feel like with a novel, you know, a novel takes anywhere between 12 and 24 hours to read a whole novel. And I kind of feel like anyone who slogs along that long, deserves something at the end, some kind of uplift, some reason to feel like the world is not all terrible,” he said. “I mean, they stuck with me that long, I want them to have something good at the ending. The short story works by different rules. That only takes one sitting to read. And a lot of the best short stories end with a final twist of the knife. And I do like that, I do like the ugly jolt of that final twist.”

  • William S. Burroughs And The Tragic Event That Changed Rock 'N' Roll

    On the night of Sept. 6, 1951, in an upstairs Mexico City apartment, 37-year-old William S. Burroughs and his wife, Joan Vollmer, also 37, were drinking hard and talking with friends about going to South America in search of a hallucinogenic drug called yage.

    Vollmer dismissed the idea after having endured several of Burroughs previous misadventures. He then said, “I think it’s time for our William Tell routine.”

    Vollmer placed a shot glass on her head, Burroughs took aim and fired a single shot from a handgun. Vollmer died from a gunshot wound to the forehead. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter in Vollmer’s death. He received a two-year suspended sentence.

    The tragedy prompted him to become a writer.

    In the novel “Queer,” he wrote: “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never become a writer but for Joan’s death … the death brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

    In his book, “William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock and Roll,” Casey Rae details the shooting and its impact on Burroughs’ future.

    Rae told WPR’s “BETA,” “William S. Burroughs didn’t let himself off the hook for that ever, and I don’t either in the book, but I do use it as an opportunity to explore what that type of psychic trauma can reveal in somebody’s creative expression and their world view. What I’ve found is there is no William S. Burroughs apart from that horrible incident, and in part, this is what drove him to exorcise not just that incident, but many of his other personal demons.

    Eventually, Burroughs influence found its way into the world of rock ‘n’ roll where artists like Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Beatles, David Bowie and many others fell under the spell of Burroughs’ writings.

    “Different artists took different aspects of his work, lifestyle, or world view in their own creative journey,” Rae said.

    “For example, somebody like Lou Reed would draw from earlier Burroughs books like ‘Junkie’ which at the time was kind of an unusual matter of fact reporting on the truely seedy underbelly of the 1940’s and ’50s and narcotics addiction. Lou Reed would channel that reportorial prose in his own efforts with the Velvet Underground and beyond. Somebody like David Bowie, on the other hand, might draw from Burroughs’ creative methods like the cut-up method,” said Rae.

    Patti Smith had a deep friendship with Burroughs going so far as to say he was on par with the Pope. Rae explained, “Patti Smith identified with Burroughs in a lot of different ways, even though he was not moved by rock music, he understood the medium’s shamanic potency. Burroughs saw Patti Smith as being an amazing, incredible vessel for that. He was at her earliest readings at St. Marks in New York. He understood what she was trying to get across.”

    Burroughs’ influence grew, eventually drawing the attention of Paul McCartney. McCartney set him up in Ringo Starr’s London flat, outfitting it with a small recording studio where Burroughs could experiment with audio production. Also, he appears on the cover of The Beatles, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album next to Marilyn Monroe and just above Johnny Weissmuller.

    Screenshot of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover showing William S. Burroughs. Screenshot of album cover

    Burroughs appears in many different musicians work just at a time when they are having a major creative breakthrough, Rae said.

    “Burroughs seems to show up at all of the key junctures of these artists’ creative development,” said Rae, “He was there in a basement flat provided to him by Paul McCartney when McCartney wrote Elenor Rigby. Then you have Bob Dylan who practically hunted him down and begged Allen Ginsberg for an introduction to Burroughs at a time when Dylan was chaffing at the ‘voice of a generation folk hero’ cloister that he found himself in. After his meeting with Burroughs around 1965, he commits the ultimate heresy of going electric. So you see this sort of seeding happening over and over again with key artists. Some of the artists that didn’t have a direct personal relationship with Burroughs may have encountered him at key junctures in their lives that may have inspired them to take their own creative pursuits in another direction. Kurt Cobain would be a great example of that.”

    Cobain met with Burroughs once at his home in Lawrence, Kansas shortly before his death by suicide. They collaborated on one project long-distance, an avant-garde piece titled, “The Priest They Called Him.” Cobain asked Burrough to appear in a video for the song, “Heart Shaped Box” from the album “In Utero” but Burroughs refused because the scene called for his crusifiction and he didn’t want to be seen dying on camera.

    Burroughs was very fond of the “cut-up method” for creating some of his text, a system invented by artist Brion Gysin. It’s a technique that takes any written text page cut into four quadrants and rearranges it to create a new narrative. One artist who took advantage of the cut-up method was David Bowie, who used the method to help inspire lyrics for some of his songs.

    Rae contends that the book “Naked Lunch” was the gateway for many musicians to discover Burroughs work.

    “It launched a thousand weirdo ships,” Rae said. “That book was a kind of permission slip to radicalism in whatever kind of creative medium.”

    Burroughs legacy continued through the 1990s including a collaboration with the Disposable Heros of Hiphoprisy’s album “Spare Ass Annie and Other Tales,” into the 21st century with the likes of Radiohead using the cut-up method to create lyrics and sound loops.

    Burroughs never forgave himself for causing the death of Vollmer. Five days before his death he wrote in his journal, “Why, who, where, when can I say — tears are worthless unless genuine, tears from the soul and the guts, tears that ache and wrench and hurt and tear. Tears for what was.”

    Without that tragic event that launched a long and vibrant artistic career and influenced so many artists in such deep and creative ways, rock ‘n’ roll as we know it may never have happened.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Maureen McCollum Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Maureen McCollum Interviewer
  • Carrie Brownstein Guest
  • Joe Hill Guest
  • Casey Rae Guest

Related Stories