By: Xach Fromson
Joe Hill is no stranger to short fiction. His short story credits go back twenty years and includes the 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts. After last year’s incendiary success with The Fireman, Hill returns to the form with Strange Weather, a collection of four short novels offering a panoramic view of humanity in scenarios that range from the fantastical to the all too real. Across all four stories, Hill excels at immersing readers in a full sensory experience that takes readers on unique journeys. The tightly written prose wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension, foregoing any trappings of the slow-build, existential horror in favor of rapid-fire pacing that never lets up.
The first of the short novels is the only one previously published. Originally titled Snapshot 1988, the title-shortened Snapshot offers a complicated look at how memories change over time, and how much they play a part in determining who we are, as well as who we become. Right away, the narrative drops the reader in on a retrospective from the present, of a particularly notable August 15, 1988.
Hill introduces Shelly’s husband Lawrence by writing his dialogue in a South African accent. It’s a stylistic choice that can help deepen the aural quality of a story, but to me, it seems a little stilted. Writing the dialogue in accents is something that appears several times across the four short novels, and it’s done with both consistency and skill, but it’s something that reminds me I’m reading a story instead of immersing myself in it. Your mileage may vary.
Another thing that Hill does very well with Snapshot is he creates and maintains the sense of retrospect. Michael tells the story from some point closer to the present, looking back on these events with no fourth wall, occasionally acknowledging the reader and making us complicit in the results of the story. Chapter two opens with Michael including the reader in a “we” statement as he explains to us that, at age thirteen, he was fat. “Not ‘big boned.’ Not ‘sturdy,’” he says to us. He’s fat, and by including the reader in that passage, he absolves us of having to feel shame or guilt. After all, we as readers didn’t call him fat, he did as a character, and he brought us along on that decision. It’s a neat trick to pull off. But neither Michael nor the story wastes time on talking about his weight; there are strange things afoot in this suburb of Cupertino, California. Michael encounters The Polaroid Man and immediately thinks of him as The Phoenician. This man has a camera that looks almost like a Polaroid, but not quite, and the photo it takes somehow seems to rob its subject of a memory. As Michael is coming to grips with this, he’s delving into his own memories and realizing that Shelly Beukes was more a mother to him than his own mother was, creating a tight parallel narrative of Michael replaying more of his own memories as Shelly suffers from losing more of hers. That reversal plays out in the story, as Michael assumes the adult responsibility of protecting Shelly against The Phoenician. After the final confrontation, Michael takes the reader through the intervening years between 1988 and the present, filling us in on the details of his journey through MIT and into Silicon Valley, where his experiences with memory play a critical role in the adult he turned into. It’s a cunning horror story paired with a coming of age narrative, growing beyond the confines of both.
The longest of the four short novels is the second one, Loaded. This time, Hill takes us from a single, first-person narrative, to an ensemble story told over two decades in Florida. It begins with a 1993 killing of a Black teenager by a police officer, long before the Black Lives Matter movement drew a constant national spotlight on that kind of event. The story then jumps to 2013, where twenty-year-old Becki shoots her boss-turned-lover when he won’t leave his wife for her. At this point, the title of this short novel becomes self-explanatory, though if you’re looking for the supernatural here, you won’t find it. Loaded isn’t about a possessed gun, and you won’t find the disembodied spirit of a serial killer floating from one person to another. Instead, the story focuses mainly on two characters. Randall Kellaway is a security guard going through hard times, nearing the end of his rope, and more than a little on edge. Alicia Lanternglass is a reporter who, twenty years earlier, witnessed the police shooting of her cousin Colton. When Becki shoots her boss, Kellaway responds, and the narrative shows just how easily a bad situation can get worse when he discovers that he not only killed Becki, but also a Muslim woman holding her baby. Once he’s committed that one act, things quickly spiral out of control for Kellaway. Hill does an excellent job of withholding moral judgment on his characters, never painting them as villains in their own heads. Loaded works as a meditation on American society and our relationship with guns, mental illness, and perpetuating cycles of violence. While Lanternglass is portrayed as the closest to morally pure, Hill deftly pivots back to Kellaway’s point of view, showing him as a dark, flawed man who sees only the best in himself and is willing to protect and defend that self-image through an escalating series of dire circumstances. Yet even he is not without sympathy, in the form of his relationship with Jim, an old Marine buddy. The two of them share a comradery rooted in their shared experiences, and Kellaway is the only person who sticks by Jim’s side after he’s paralyzed. This side of Kellaway, the devotion and loyalty, humanizes him as he descends into the story’s ultimate conclusion, which is left open to the reader’s interpretation as to the nature of gun ownership and gun violence.
Hill then returns to the fantastic with Aloft, which stands apart from the other three because it’s almost not a horror story at all. There are moments of horror, but this reads as an adult fantasy story tucked neatly between darker tales. The main character, Aubrey, is more afraid at the beginning of the story, before he jumps out of the skydiving plane, than he is when he lands on the impossible semi-sentient cloud that he spends the bulk of the narrative inhabiting. Frequent use of flashbacks keeps the story from going into I Am Legend territory, giving the reader healthy doses of dialogue and character interaction. The flashbacks trace Aubrey’s journey of self-realization, each episode replaying in his brain while he’s stranded atop a cloud that conjures up white puffy versions of whatever he imagines. He’s never really terrified of the cloud or of the possibility of dying on it, so the reader never feels the life or death stakes of Aubrey’s predicament. Instead, we get to explore this bleak, monochrome skyscape with something hidden in the center. Aubrey’s journey inward to the center of the cloud mirrors his inward journey into himself. His enlightenment, rather than hoisting him aloft, is what brings him back to earth.
With Rain, Hill brings back the feeling of a classic horror/science fiction story, creating a world where the skies over Boulder, Colorado begin to rain nails. This story is also told as a retrospective, but not from some indeterminate point in the future like in Snapshot. This is more immediate, and the perspective serves to bring the reader “up to speed” on the narrator’s back story. We learn about how Honeysuckle lost her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother in the first squall of lethal nails (and I will note here that I won’t make a claim as to how well he captured the voice of a lesbian woman—I’ll leave that to more qualified reviewers). As the phenomenon spreads, the world rapidly unravels around her. Rather than place this in an alternate reality, Hill brings the politics and social ethos of Donald Trump into the story, tackling issues of homophobia, racism, bigotry, and globalization head on. Honeysuckle’s mourning of her girlfriend Yolanda is complicated by the rain of nails spreading globally, gaining strength as it spreads. Word comes in that the nails are now the size of spikes and are going through sheet metal. Trump blames terrorists in Georgia (the country, not the state) and threatens a nuclear strike. More locally, Honeysuckle finds that the chaos of an apocalyptic event makes people feel free to act on their baser instincts. There is both violence and benevolence in the people she meets, as well as attempts to maintain order in the face of the unknown. Ultimately, her journey from Boulder to Denver and back helps her uncover the source of the mysterious rain of nails. The story ends on an uncertain note of the future, whether this is, in fact, the end of all things.
Hill’s ability to create visceral, immersive worlds transports readers across the four novels seamlessly. There’s no bleed-through from one story to the next. Each set of characters are complete individuals, and each narrative voice is distinct from the others. His tight use of language and steady pacing draw us in, holding our focus and attention through to the end of each story. One could easily read each of the four short novels in a single sitting. And if you’re able to, I recommend it.