Joe Hill is concerned about the children. "When I was a kid, I could go out and play in the woods, and I'd come home every day with a story," says the author of the new supernatural thriller "Horns" (William Morrow, $25.99). "I sort of despair of all these overparented kids today having a story."

The kids in Hill's fiction are likely to come home with a story about meeting a ghost in the woods, or how Todd from next door nearly blew his fingers off with a cherry bomb. "Horns" is, in part, an ode to the era when parents told their children to go outside and not to come back in before dinner.

The 37-year-old Hill is sitting in the restaurant of a Manhattan hotel during his recent book tour. Despite having put "Horns" and his first novel, "Heart-Shaped Box," on bestseller lists, Hill is anything but self-important. The father of three talks more easily about writers whose work he admires - pal Christopher Golden, graphic novel writer Warren Ellis and his father, Stephen King - than he does about his own success.

"My problem is, I'm only halfway clever," he says with a smile. "I know a lot of really clever things, but I learned 'em all from, like, 20th century rock songs." Hill says one of his principal inspirations for "Horns," a book about a nice young man who wakes up one morning having turned into Beelzebub, was the cover of David Lee Roth's 1991 album, "A Little Ain't Enough."

"Horns" follows a guy named Ig Perrish who has to figure out why he, of all people, has grown horns and apparently become the Father of Lies. Ig's life is full of secrets, but his surprising new appendages may have something to do with a childhood experience in what might be a treehouse and might be a very old temple.

Hill says he didn't grow up religious and is "personally pretty pagan"; for help with the theological part of "Horns," Hill turned to his sister Naomi, a Unitarian minister. One of the things he discovered was that the devil has a fascinating literary history.

"As Christianity grew," Hill says, "one of the things they would do is discover a pagan religion and say, 'Oh, yeah, that snake god you worship - you know that's the devil, right?' But in the other religions, that devil figure might just be a trickster god who suckers the fertility goddess into bed."

Whoever he is, the devil cuts a fascinating figure in Hill's book - part man, part tempter, part punisher. But Hill thinks Ig's not an irredeemable figure, even though he cuts a deal with some strange forces. Hill tries to remember a quote about churchgoing to make his point, but it doesn't quite come to him. "I think it's 'Men go crazy in congregations; they only get saved one by one.' Who said that? It's either Samuel Johnson or Sting."

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