As much as I’m sure both men would have us play down the familial connection, there’s no way getting around the grand comparisons between writers Joe Hill and his famous father, Stephen King, in a few areas. Apart from the obvious (they’re both writers, duh), both love short stories and the short-form novel affectionately called the novella. This is especially true for the elder King, who has dominated the genre to such a degree that comparisons with any other writer are inevitable, let alone his own son.
It helps that Hill isn’t a stranger when it comes to short story collections (20th Century Ghosts), but Strange Weather: Four Short Novels is his first attempt in delivering self-contained mini-novels in one package. There’s four included here: Snapshot, Loaded, Aloft, and Rain, each demonstrating Hill’s strong sense of genre and unique style. Not all are successful, however, and the result in a collection that feels less than the sum of its parts.
I could just have easily given a quick summary of each story, a trend constituting an actual ‘review’ in a shocking number of outlets these days, but you deserve better than such laziness. Instead, let’s take a brief look at each.
The first story in Strange Weather is also the best, unintentionally raising the bar too high for what’s to follow. Set in 1980s California, 13-year old Michael Figlione is your prototypical future-nerd who would go on to rule Silicon Valley: fat, awkward, and blessed with a gift for gadgets. He’s also a kind soul, showing true affection for his old housekeeper/nanny, Shelly Beukes, whose mind is being erased by the crippling affects of Alzheimer’s.
Young Michael finds a confused Shelly far from home, lost once again and in quite a panic. Terrified, she tells Michael to avoid someone she calls The Polaroid Man: Don’t let him take a picture of you, she warns. Don’t let him start taking things away. While this may sound like the ramblings of a sick woman, it turns out – surprise! – that not only is The Polaroid Man real, he’s kind of a prick.
Covered in tats written in a strange language (“It’s Phoenician,” says the camera touting stranger, giving him a new identify), the camera he’s carrying isn’t actually a Polaroid, but a brand Michael hasn’t seen before: a Solarid. It also turns out this mysterious camera has the power to steal memories from those it takes snaps of. What follows is equal parts coming-of-age and violent revenge tale, a strange hybrid of genres that (mostly) delivers.
Snapshot works better as a macabre metaphor for the crippling effects of Alzheimer’s disease and those it affects most, and slightly less so as commentary on brain-robbing technology. When everyone already has a fancy camera at the ready from a company “named after a crisp and juicy fruit”, who needs memory anyway?
Of the four short novels in Strange Weather, Loaded has the ironic problem of not being short enough, overlong when brevity would have been a virtue. It’s the longest, messiest, and least satisfying of the lot, though I’m sure that some readers will praise its ‘timely’ message and Hill’s brave stance at telling it like it is. They’d have you believe his crass mishmash of gun violence, heightened racial tensions, and (yes) white supremacy is “ripped from the headlines”, Law and Order-style. I suppose this might be true, but there’s a huge difference between disturbing and overwrought.
Among its overlong cast of characters, none loom larger than Randall Kellaway, a cartoonish caricature more assembled than fleshed out, symbolic of everything wrong with modern America. A dishonorably discharged vet (check), Kellaway doesn’t like people that don’t look like him (check), your typical macho gun-nut aggressive (check) who’s been slapped with a restraining order for abusing his wife and possibly threatening to murder his son (check), yet still finds ways to circumvent laughable laws to pack firearms illegally (check). Did I mention he hates blacks and Muslims (check and check)?
An unlikely series of events and misunderstandings results in a mass shooting, bodies pile up, and a hero emerges through it all. Though nothing is as it seems. In this way Loaded isn’t unlike Bobcat Goldthwait’s awful and nuance-free film God Bless America. I’m fairly certain Hill is attempting to make some point – or points – here, I’m just not sure what they are. Actually, scratch that; I’m not sure he is, either, which makes this overly long punishment saga all the more troubling.
All of this may have at least been entertaining had Hill crafted more than a paper thin veneer of generic stereotypes and trite metaphors, none of which hit with the kind of ferocity such material demands. Sex doubling as violence and diminution of white male privilege are presented as symptoms of a souring and rotted culture, inevitable realities given the path we’ve collectively taken. Worse, Hill saddles his black female protagonist, Aisha Lanternglass, with the same cliched perfect imperfections all-too-common in the genre. See works by Owen Laukkanen for how badly this misjudged attempt at flavorless diversity can be applied
Unfortunately, Loaded’s attempt at circular poignancy never fully connects like a better-constructed tale of hysteria and satire might have. If the ending feels manipulative and overly shocking, that’s because it’s desperate to be both. Once can’t help but feel Hill is reacting to a zeitgeist that isn’t quite there, or one that exists only in the secluded world of internet ignorance.
If Loaded is the messiest of the four stories, Aloft is the most allegorical; a man with a fear of heights attempts a skydive to honor his late friend and ex-bandmate, only to find himself in the most bizarre of circumstances. Aubrey Griffin, a 20-something harboring an unrequited crush on Harriet, the girl of his dreams, who also happens to be part of the jump team. Perhaps this literal leap of faith will blossom into the real thing and unite these star crossed lovers as destiny intended. The only problem with dreams though, is they end when you wake up.
Only the jump doesn’t go as planned. Moments after being forcibly evicted from the plane, Aubrey lands – painfully – onto a mysterious UFO-shaped cloud that isn’t a cloud at all, but a floating island of billowing manifestations of missed opportunities and chances not taken. Alone and with little chance of surviving this strange new world, he’s left with little else but memories – and what appears to be a sentient force capable of making them real. Or what passes for real on a floating cloud island.
Sadly, Hill lards what might’ve been a more introspective look at misguided romanticism and obsession with mundane anecdotes that are fairly transparent appeals for our suffering hero to get his head ‘out of the clouds’ and to move on with his life. The late emergence of a possible extraterrestrial component to Aubrey’s situation feels every bit the deux ex machina it is, robbing what little hazy sentimentalism that a braver leap into more interpretive Kafkaesque surrealism might’ve had.
The final ‘short novel’ of Hill’s anthology almost redeems its missteps – if only he’d reversed its length with that of Loaded both stories would’ve benefited considerably. Throughout, there are whispers of Ray Bradbury’s The Long Rain, where loneliness and feelings of dread manifest themselves in a world without hope. Do we succumb to them, allowing circumstances to – literally – rain upon us? Or do we press on, against all reason?
The world is sent into a tailspin of fear and desperation as hailstorms of razor sharp needles begin to rain down from the sky, killing thousands and upsetting a delicate global balance. The US President (you know who) quickly takes to Twitter in a storm of his own – a Twitterstorm – promising vengeance with all the expected #hashtags and bombast. The world may be coming to an end, but not without one last nudge towards the abyss, good and hard.
Many think the needles are fulgurite – sharp masses of debris formed instantly in the sky when shocked by the electrical charges of lightning. Many feel they’re the result of something more anthropogenic. As in climate change. While the world bickers, we’ve got other things to worry about. Honeysuckle Speck, “the only twenty-three-year-old Joe Strummer lesbian look-alike” on her block, is madly in love with her new girlfriend, Yolanda. Her neighborhood in Boulder is filled with crazed Russians and cultists, all of whom interpret the deadly shards as portending the End of Days.
What follows is prime territory from the man who wrote The Fireman, one that may disturb and even make some readers look away in disgust, especially ailurophiles. There are moments in Rain that felt genuinely terrifying, reminders of how good Hill can be when not dicking around with botched attempts at social nuance. While every bit as political as the misguided Loaded, Hill more skillfully balances fears of a man-made ecological crisis against the needs of speculative fiction, where the unanswerable is the most frightening thing of all.