Book Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Continues to push the boundaries between horror, weird, and literary.”

Though still in the early stages of his writing career, Joe Hill has already carved out an impressive body of work. With four novels (including the exemplary Horns) a collection of short stories (20th Century Ghosts) and an award winning and wonderful graphic novel series (Locke & Key) to his name, Hill’s output is inspiring. His work runs from outright horror to more subtle—and often literary—dark and weird fiction. His latest release, Strange Weather, is a collection of four novellas, and continues to push the boundaries between horror, weird, and literary.

The first story in the book is ‘Snapshot’, which is narrated by its author, Michael Figlione, reminiscing of when he was a lonely thirteen-year-old boy in the late eighties. It takes place mostly on one hot day in summer, beginning when Michael sees his elderly neighbour—and one-time babysitter—Mrs Beukes, wandering lost in the street. Her bizarre dress and state of confusion lead him to think she is suffering from some form of dementia, even when she whispers of the ‘Polaroid Man’, whom she believes is stealing her memories. Considering it his sad duty to help her, Michael soon comes to think there’s more to her fears than a terrible, debilitating disease. A chance encounter confirms this, forcing the shy and anxious Michael to take action in the midst of a strange lightning storm and deluge. The central concept of ‘Snapshot’—that of a strange camera which can steal memories—is a wonderful one, but it almost plays second fiddle to a very moving and human story of loneliness, an awful illness, and—yes—quiet love. This humanity is what drives the story, and it would work just as well without the supernatural weirdness. However, that side of the tale is hugely inventive, and it’s almost a shame when the bittersweet ending is reached; indeed, it’s one of two stories in this collection which could easily have worked as a much longer tale, such is the richness of it.

The next piece is ‘Loaded’, and it is, for this reviewer, the most powerful and affecting work within. Eschewing any hint of the fantastic, it is a very real and stark examination of the consequences and potential for violence that ease of access to firearms can create. Told primarily from two points of view—Randall Kellaway, a pro-gun owner and historically violent man, and Aisha Lanternglass, a reporter who witnessed a tragic shooting when just a child—it explodes against the backdrop of a raging forest fire in an awful act of violence in which Kellaway emerges a hero to the media. From there, we follow the gradually disintegrating, paranoid mind of Kellaway, and the investigatory efforts of Lanternglass who suspects his story isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. Tackling an extremely sensitive and difficult subject, Hill pulls absolutely no punches with this, forcing the reader to confront and witness the awful consequences of violent actions. It is powerful, upsetting, and very, very relevant, and whether it makes you angry or sad, it is the sign of great writing that it elicits a strong emotional response.

Following on from this is ‘Aloft’, and any story would suffer having to take the stage after the receding work. ‘Aloft’ doubly struggles with its lighter tone—no doubt intentionally placed due to that—and its initially unlikeable and whiny protagonist. Taking part in a skydive in honour of his late friend, the very apprehensive Aubrey Griffin decides he wants to back out. Even the presence of Harriet, his unrequited love, cannot sway him. But as he is strapped to an instructor, he is forced out. Unfortunately, both he and his unlucky co-diver (who is injured and subsequently falls off) land on a bizarre cloud. This cloud is rather solid, and soon responds to the wishes and desires of Aubrey. But it is also hiding something else, something it doesn’t want him to find… Initially, this story feels a little random; it’s hard to get into as we are thrust into the middle of the action with little preamble or orientation. Coupled with the slightly irritating Aubrey, it makes the first few pages a bit of a chore; and though the central concept is intriguing enough, the initial descriptions feel a touch drawn out. It’s not until the flashbacks are introduced, giving context to why Aubrey and his friends are in the air, and to his feelings regarding Harriet. As this back-story progresses in tandem with the main narrative, we become sympathetic towards him, invested in his plight and his situation. It’s a interesting feat, to turn an initially unsympathetic character into one which we are invested in; one hopes this was intentional on the part of Hill, though one suspects the preceding story—‘Loaded’—would have disadvantaged anything which followed it. Still, ‘Aloft’ manages to pull the reader in eventually, and neatly dovetails its emotive flashbacks with its protagonist’s present day plight.

Finally we have ‘Rain’, an apocalyptic tale where instead of water, the skies unleash a deadly barrage of crystal needles from thunderclouds. Narrated by Honeysuckle Speck (you have to love Hill’s inventive character names), it details the first ‘rainfall’ where her girlfriend Yolanda, and Yolanda’s mother are among the first victims. From there we join her on a small quest through ravaged America where she attempts to reach Yolanda’s father to tell him of the tragic news. On the way she sees the extent of the violence from this phenomenon, is harried by a end-of-the-world-cult, and comes to think she may know more about what caused the rains than she realises; all while the American government promises terrible retribution on suspected foreign powers from the safety of its bunker and Twitter account. This is the second story which, while hugely entertaining in a grim way, would absolutely benefit from a bigger, deeper story. There is more than enough here to fill a good-sized novel, which touches on extreme fringe obsessions and the darker underbelly of society. However, that is not to say this novella doesn’t work; it does, and in spades. The protagonist is sympathetic and human, flawed yet decent. Though the setting is horrendous and tragic, there is a vein of black humour running through which stops the story becoming overly morose; perhaps a little inappropriate, but it works.

In all of these stories, Hill’s writing is crisp and clear, his descriptions at once both detailed and spare, a true reader’s writer; his scene-setting is immediate and immersive, his occasional similes and metaphors relatable. His characterisation is spot-on and inventive, and he pulls the difficult trick of writing in a variety of voices which feel distinct, yet still retains his own ‘sound’. The best example of this is ‘Rain’, which is written from the point of view of a female, yet at no point does the reader get confused; it comes across as authentic without being overblown. Despite a couple of reservations as pointed out, the collection is a hugely entertaining one. Each story has something to offer, and the range of tones and subject matter is impressive.

 

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Gollancz (Orion Publishing Group).
Hardback: (448 pps)
Release Date: 7 November 2017

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