I have a new favorite author. Oddly enough, he’s the son of my former favorite author. Joe Hill, son of Stephen King, has surpassed his father in the brilliant writer department. Make no mistake, Hill’s genre is also horror/thriller/suspense. He attacks his stories with fresh eyes and contemporary views, drawing on the present-day world to engage his readers.
Strange Weather: Four Short Novels, his latest offering displays his skill as a shorter story author. These are not short stories, not because of their word count, but, because of their substance. It’s interesting that he chose four short weather-related stories; after all, there are four seasons.
In the first story in this collection, Snapshot, Hill creates characters that evoke sympathy as well as terror. Told in the first person by thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione, Hill captures the tone and curiosity of a soon-to-be high schooler who is a little nerdy and something of a loner. It’s with great insight that Hill utilizes the theme of the isolated outsider to move Michael forward in the tale. When the boy is confronted by the sight of his barefoot former babysitter, elderly Shelly Beukes, standing at the end of his driveway he is less horrified by the sight of her shoeless feet than curious and concerned for her well-being. What ensues is creepy, from the Polaroid Man, to his Polaroid knock-off Solarid camera. What follows is every elderly person’s worst nightmare; a nightmare Michael is quick to understand. His fear is palpable when he finally comes face to face with his moment of destiny. Tied up neatly with a line said far in Michael’s future, “I don’t want to forget the magic”, Hill leaves the reader with a ray of hope and more than a few questions.
Hill’s second story, Loaded, is so spot on when writing a story that in many ways epitomizes the world we live in. Spanning twenty years, the characters are linked by today’s controversial object, a gun. Not a single weapon but a series of guns and the damage they do in hands that are neither competent or in some cases, sane. At first, I was puzzled, trying to figure out what the connection was between little ten-year-old Aisha and her cousin had to do with a mall shooting nineteen years later. What begins as a slow, deliberate character development becomes a fast-paced nightmare walking in marked out days at the end of the story. Americans either love their guns or hate them, often depending on their personal experiences with weapons. Hill examines these relationships from the point of view of an omniscient viewer. You know immediately he’s going somewhere dark and you aren’t sure you want to travel along. However, the compulsion to see what happens, to possibly encounter a happy ending, keeps you reading. Even at the end of the story the reader is left wondering what Hill’s feelings about guns are; does he love them, or does he hate them? You figure it out because I couldn’t.
After reading Aloft, I may never lay in the grass and gaze up at clouds, imagining creatures or people in those innocent, puffy, moisture filled shapes. This story is a science-fiction nod at the expression, “be careful what you wish for”. Once again, Hill takes on the loneliness of both the subject of the story, the nerdy, unfortunately named Aubrey; a man in love with a co-worker. When he, the subject of his adoration Harriet, and the two brothers of a deceased friend/work associate, decide to commemorate her life with a tandem parachute dive, things go more than a little wonky. From the beginning, the reader gets the idea Aubrey is going to have a problem. He’s terrified. He only agreed to go on the adventure because he wants to impress Harriet. The tension builds as time for the jump draws closer. Just about the time Aubrey confesses his fear and decides not to step out into the wild blue yonder, even while strapped to a practiced skydiver, things go badly wrong. What happens next is a “Twilight Zone”- like experience that would challenge even the toughest soul. There isn’t a “bad guy” in this story; just a couple of mismatched lonely beings who connect in a bizarre way. While one is quite satisfied with the arrangement, the other is desperate to find a way out. It’s amusing, disturbing, and weird. I suspected things might work out in the end, although not the way they did. All I can say is, take a second look at those clouds the next time you fly. You never know who or what is out there.
The last story is my favorite in this quartet. The aptly titled Rain takes shots at Trump, cults and their followers, terrorists, and Russia, to name a few. The creatively named Honeysuckle Speck is a lesbian with a big heart. Waiting for her girlfriend, Yolanda, to arrive from Denver, accompanied by her mother, Honeysuckle is hanging out with her nine-year-old neighbor, Templeton Blake, she is eager and excited at the prospect of her girlfriend’s arrival. Templeton has been housebound because according to his widow mother, Ursula, he is on an anti-biotic which precludes him being out in sunlight. The little boy “plays” vampire and Honeysuckle plays along with his fantasy. Next door to the mother and son is a “comet cult” who eagerly await the end of the world as we know it. Led by Elder Bent they wear silver gowns and wear “ceremonial hubcaps “on their heads. Living in the same rooming house as Honeysuckle is a Russian couple, a stripper named Martina and her boyfriend Andropov. This odd cast of characters is soon embroiled in an unforgettable rainfall. Not long after Yolanda and her mother arrive, all hell breaks loose. A loud clap of thunder and the rain begins to fall. This rain is not like any the earth has ever seen. Needles, sharp crystals of silver and gold, begin raining down. Almost ten minutes later, bloody bodies and layers of pointy, unbreakable crystals line the streets of Boulder, Colorado. Honeysuckle survives only because Templeton has a death grip on her and won’t let her out of the garage where he shelters from the sun. Soon the rainstorms are traveling across the country, around the world, the crystals growing larger and sharper with each new deluge. Speculation about the cause of these events ranges from scientists and politicians blaming terrorists and the religious believing it is the end times sent by whatever God they follow. Honeysuckle is devastated by her loss. When she can’t reach Yolanda’s father on the telephone, she sets out on foot to Denver to inform him of the loss of his wife and daughter. Her experiences along the way and in Denver again reflect the turmoil in America. Increased by the freakish weather, the behaviors of people are intensified by the situation. This is a fascinating story, a microcosm of how the world might behave during such a disaster. There is an identifiable cause of the mysterious, deadly rain, but I leave it to the reader to discover it on his own.
As I said at the beginning of this review, Joe Hill is my new favorite writer. He has a way with words that is reminiscent of Stephen King’s. His stories are tight, his characters well developed, and his imagination is breathtaking. If you love King be prepared to love Joe Hill as well.