November 09, 2017
Strange Weather: Four Short Novels. By Joe Hill. William Morrow. $27.99.
In this collection, Joe Hill aspires to the horrific but comes up, at best, with the merely strange. The stories are best when self-contained and worst when Hill tries hard to give them some sort of larger significance, some connection with the real world of his readers. The first of them, Snapshot, is about a nasty-looking and nasty-acting character with a weird camera that the narrator thinks is a Polaroid but that turns out to bear the name “Solarid,” and that somehow, when it takes pictures, captures the memories of the people at whom it is pointed. This story being would-be horror rather than would-be science fiction, none of this is ever elucidated: the camera is eventually shown to contain a sort of Lovecraftian touch of evil, and the never-explained name “Solarid” seems entirely arbitrary unless readers conclude perhaps it has to do with getting rid not of memories but of one’s soul. The story’s narrator explains that he met the camera’s wielder when he, the narrator, was an awkward, bumbling adolescent, at a time when he was marginally involved in the quickly deteriorating mental life of a neighbor who had once been extremely close to him, in motherly fashion. The narrator manages to defeat the camera’s ancient and ultra-evil holder far too easily, and eventually learns the camera’s powers and is able to use them to bring a peaceful death to the deeply troubled neighbor. That is a touching moment. But the work’s finale, in which it turns out that the narrator harnessed the camera’s potency – in altered form – for the sake of computer science, in ways that readers are supposed to recognize immediately, is overwrought and uninvolving.
Loaded is an attempt to use the notorious Trayvon Martin case to show the evilness and unquenchable race-based violence of white people in law enforcement and allied fields. It is one of those ugly, racist stories in which every character can be pinpointed as good or bad by skin color and ethnicity: all the whites are evil and dumb, while non-whites and those of minority ethnicities and beliefs (African-American, Latina, Muslim, etc.) are good, honest, forthright and upstanding. The story systematically has white people, especially including a central one who is clearly modeled on George Zimmerman, kill off the good nonwhite characters, both by accident and by design; whites who get in the way, usually out of stupidity and venality, become victims, too. The dumb resentment of white central character Randall Kellaway would be laughable if Hill did not apparently expect readers to take it seriously. Typical Kellaway thinking: “What it came down to, a black guy who talked in ebonics could get hired if he had just managed to graduate high school without murdering someone in a drive-by. A white guy had to have matriculated at Yale and volunteered to work with orphans who had AIDS to even get a foot in the door.” There is as much realistic social commentary in Loaded as there is science fiction in Snapshot, which is to say, none. But the point of the story is perfectly served by simply presenting the cartoon bad guy, having him kill a bunch of people while serving as a mall security guard, then have him come up with a pathetically stupid cover story that soon unravels (thanks to a noble African-American reporter) and leads eventually to an even bigger bloodbath. Oh – the mall killings are set up by a story in which minor soon-to-die characters are enormously turned on sexually by handling guns: “She went off like a pistol. The actual sex was just the recoil.” Very hard-boiled, that – or very would-be hard-boiled, by an author who appears at best to have skimmed his Mickey Spillane.
Loaded is connected to the book title Strange Weather only because it ends when a huge scrub fire is raging through part of Florida and affecting the remaining soon-to-be-slaughtered good guys. The next short novel, Aloft, is weather-connected only because it takes place on a cloud. Yes, on one. This is no ordinary cloud: it is solid and appears to be some kind of disguised alien construction, complete with a rudimentary intelligence. A man named Aubrey Griffin becomes trapped on it, and he is the only character in the story once some minor ones are disposed of in the setup at the start. Aloft is the most successful of the four tales in Strange Weather, because Hill seems fully aware of it as an unbelievable fantasy and enjoys the oddities that this realization makes possible. Thus, the cloud not only creates some creature comforts for Aubrey out of its substance but also produces a passable imitation of Aubrey’s onetime lover, Harriet, making her solid and properly shaped enough so he can indulge himself with her sexually (although not very satisfactorily). “Harriet of the mists,” Aubrey calls her. There is also a glimmer of humor in this story – the only place any appears in this book – when the cloud makes, among other things, a coatrack and a cello. Unfortunately for Aubrey, the cloud cannot make food for him, and when it tries, what he eats makes him violently ill for reasons that are never explained or even hinted at (still nothing like science fiction here; only fantasy). So Aubrey must, must, find a way to get down from it, and thanks to his fortuitous discovery that other people once landed on the cloud in the distant past – a very clunky plot point, but a necessary one structurally – Aubrey eventually escapes. The story’s ending is poorly done: Aubrey ends up on a road after he descends, and a driver sees him and – instead of offering to help or asking what might be wrong – berates him and calls him names. But this is, in the context of Hill’s other work, not really surprising: there is a certain consistent misanthropy in Hill’s writings.
That dislike of the human race is even more apparent in Rain, the last tale in Strange Weather and the most absurd – yes, even more so than a camera containing a horror out of space or somewhere. The premise here is that a single disaffected, unappreciated scientist is so outstandingly brilliant that he invents something that alters the weather of the entire world and causes thousands of deaths, if not millions, to get even with those who did not give him his due for his work; and that his widow not only colludes with him but also uses her evil brilliance to bring down terrible things on anyone who might somehow derail the scientist’s revenge. This is even too silly for a comic book, but Hill plays it straight and with considerable ugly violence. He has the story narrated by “Honeysuckle Speck, the only twenty-three-year-old Joe Strummer lesbian look-alike on my whole block,” to quote her self-description (which defines her as a good guy in Hill’s work). Speck sees but is not out in the rain of this story’s title, and that is a good thing, since if she were out in it, she would be dead: this is a rain of nails (actually nail-like things very vaguely stated to have minimal scientific reality in much-less-deadly form). The nails kill everyone indiscriminately, and each time it rains during the story, they are more and more deadly; this is quite an accomplishment for a single angry scientist. The story also involves a weird hubcap-wearing cult whose members at one point track Speck down and severely injure her; an improbable and highly dangerous journey on foot by Speck from Boulder, Colorado, to Denver, where of course she finds only more death and is herself responsible for some; a darkly comic but very unfunny scene in which corporate bastions of capitalistic society try to help survivors of the rain as they search desperately for food and missing loved ones; a convict who escapes in a vehicle filled with bodies that keep flying out as he drives (again, not funny); and a statement from a chemist to the effect that “for all practical purposes this [deadly rain] might become a permanent part of the global weather cycle…[and] might eventually make every rain cloud on earth into a farm for crystal.” Isn’t that something? The plotting here is so bad and so silly that the hoped-for horror never really emerges, although squeamish readers will squirm at some of the specifics of deaths, human and animal, that Hill describes. Hill’s use of Rain to get in some cheap political shots also does the story no favors.
The short novels feature a few illustrations here and there: Snapshot is illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez, Loaded by Zack Howard, Aloft by Charles Paul Wilson III, and Rain by Renae De Liz. The pictures do not make anything more horrifying or engaging, but they do partake of the overall cinematic quality of Strange Weather, a book that will please Hill’s fans for its mostly frantic, frenetic presentation but that is distinctly lightweight in effect even for a genre work – its genre being that of the would-be horrific.