Earlier this year, people began calling 2017 “The Year of King.” The “King” in question is Stephen King, who’s had a busy year even for, well, Stephen King: new television series based on his novella The Mist and Mr. Mercedes; a milestone birthday (his 70th) in September; a critical and box office smash hit in IT; two more critically acclaimed adaptations for Netflix in Gerald’s Game and 1922; and a brand new novel, Sleeping Beauties, co-written with his son Owen.
Now, as the year is winding down, it’s King’s other son, Joe Hill, who has stepped up to claim his place in “The Year of King” with Strange Weather, a collection of four short novels and one of the strongest overall works in Hill’s already illustrious career.
Hill kicks the book off with the supernatural Snapshot (which originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #74/74 as Snapshot, 1988). It’s the story of a young boy named Mike; his former housekeeper/nanny, Shelly, a woman lost in the high weeds of encroaching dementia; and a man named the Phoenician who is stalking Shelly with a strange Polaroid-style camera that takes much more than simple photographs. Hill uses a small cast and a contained setting to explore the terror of loss—specifically, the loss of the memories that go so far in defining who we are.
Next up is Loaded, the most grounded story in the quartet—and the most powerful. It’s centered around two things we in America are all too familiar with: an unjustified police shooting, and a mass shooting. Hill manages the tricky act of writing honestly about a hot-button topic without coming across as preachy or judgemental. Some may call out a few story elements as being indicative of a “liberal agenda,” but these are uncomfortable truths that Hill is writing about—people are often killed in this country based on what they look like, and it’s far too easy for unstable people to obtain guns. In Loaded, Hill uses his shorter-than-usual page count to create remarkably realistic characters, and displays his cleanest, leanest, most engaging writing style to date.
Aloft, the third novella in Strange Weather, represents an abrupt shift in tone to a more fanciful story. In it, a group of bereaved friends are taking a skydiving trip to honor a member of their group who recently passed away. Among them is Aubrey, who has decided that he’s going to have to back out of this madness, and never mind that the plane just reached jumping altitude. His hand is forced, however, as the plan begins to experience engine trouble, meaning they all have to go, whether they want to or not. It’s turning out to be a bad day for Aubrey, and things only get worse when, rather than passing through that strange-looking cloud they noticed right before jumping, he and his jumping partner land on it. (Hard.) That’s just the beginning of the strangeness Hill has in store. While it’s a complete 180 from the reality of Loaded, Aloft has power; there are passages that left me, someone with a serious fear of heights, feeling anxious and even nauseous with dread.
Hill’s last entry, Rain, is the one I connected with the least, and the one story in Strange Weather that I feel could have benefited from being longer. It’s a compelling premise: one day a rain cloud rolls across Colorado, only instead of dropping rain it showers the city with needles and nails of sharp crystal. People die in droves, and Hill doesn’t shy away from painting their deaths as painful and grotesque. By the next day, similar storms are popping up and raining death all over the world. It’s a fresh new approach to ending the world, and Hill uses it as a setup for a classic post-apocalyptic road trip story. We have a young woman who needs to travel many miles to accomplish a goal; chaos and uncertainty are ruling the land; and mankind’s fragility in the face of disaster is beginning to show, as survivors begin to fracture into bands of thieves, murderers and worse.
It’s great stuff, but the compressed page count makes it feel a bit rushed. This is a world I would like to spend some time in, and Honeysuckle, a character I wasn’t crazy about to being with, gradually won me over as I followed her quest. A lot is packed into a short amount of time, and I think Rain would have won me over completely if it had a little more room to breathe.
Joe Hill has already established himself as an incredibly versatile writer, and Strange Weather reinforces that. Despite his lineage, Hill won’t be pegged to one genre—or one medium, for that matter (see Locke & Key for verification). Hill is a storyteller first, and he brings that strength to the table no matter what kind of tale he’s telling. It’s a strong parting shot for the King family, and an exciting sign of so many wonderful things to come.