Fiction Reviews

Full Throttle

(2019) Joe Hill, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 482pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21989-2


Stories from a master of horror, including two collaborations with Stephen King. Eleven short stories from award-winning author Joe Hill, building on the success of his blockbuster novels including: Heart-Shaped Box (2007), Horns (2010) and The Fireman (2016).  Some are new, some previously published, all terrifying.  This collection includes ‘Full Throttle’ and ‘In the Tall Grass’, both are collaborations with Stephen King and both are being filmed at the time of writing, the latter on Netflix.

I first met Joe Hill years ago when he turned up at a Fantasycon for the launch of his first book 20th Century Ghosts (2005), being published by PS Publishing.  I bought a copy, and he signed it for me.  No one knew who he was, but when I saw him again it was the following year after the awards banquet for the British Fantasy Awards and he was sitting with one in each hand. I warned him not to let them mate.  Years later we have the novels, the comics, the collection of novellas and brushes with film and television: his novel Horns being made into a film starring Daniel Radcliffe, his other novel NOS4A2 turned into a TV series, and his comic book series, British Fantasy Award-wining Locke and Key is currently showing on Netflix, along with a film called In the Tall Grass, based on the story that he wrote with his father, Stephen King.  “In the Tall Grass” appears in Full Throttle, as does the story Throttle, which was also written with his father, and is also being filmed.  One thing to say very quickly is that in both stories there is no sign of a join between each other’s writing styles, they are told pretty seamlessly.

So let’s start with “Throttle” the first story in the collection and one I had previously read.  It was written as a tribute to the late great, Richard Matheson and when you read Hill’s introduction to the collection and some of the antics he got up to as a boy when out driving with his father, they could only really write a tribute story inspired by Matheson’s story (and screenplay for the TV movie directed by Steven Spielberg), Duel. But it is in this case a biker gang are heading across country after their attempt to collect some money owing to them turned into a blood bath, and more blood is to be spilled as a faceless truck driver is out to stop them reaching their next destination.

Bradbury’s influence is certainly to the fore in “Dark Carousel,” where four teenagers go on a double date and get on the wrong side of a fairground worker when they accuse him of stealing in a tense tale that conjures up Bradbury, Dean Koontz and also the film The Funhouse.

“Wolverton Station” was inspired by Hill’s misreading of a train station sign.  Here we accompany a real wolf of wall street who delights in closing local, family run coffee shops down to allow his chain to take over, but on this train ride he is going to encounter bigger wolves than him.  Maybe it’s because I read Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train” that I’ve always been slightly uneasy about something happening on a train journey and Hill’s story would have made a great little addition to one of those Amicus portmanteau films of the 1960s and 1970s, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up on a small screen in the future.

After the stories, Hill treats us to some story notes and we learn that he was obsessed with the Loch Ness Monster, so much so, that when the King family briefly lived in the UK he managed to persuade his mum to take him north to visit Scotland to try and see Nessie.  He didn’t make it, but that obsession becomes the basis for “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” where some children find the remains of a dinosaur in a story that is being adapted for television and has a nice Bradbury-ish feel to it.

“Faun” concerns a Narnia-like land accessed by a big-game hunter, looking exploit his discovery and charge others to hunt the strange creatures in this land, but everything isn’t as it seems as they find out.

“Late Returns” is probably the best story in the collection, and one of two that have not appeared elsewhere, about a trucker who gets a job delivering books to those who have “the inconvenience of being dead”. Being dead has its perks, including reading books that have still to be written, including one chilling one by Donald Trump concerning his third term as President!

“All I Care About is You” is actually a story I didn’t particularly care about concerning robots who grant wishes and came across as a whimsical story reminiscent of Ray Bradbury on an off day.

But there is no such whimsy in “Thumbprints”, a story I had read previously in an all-horror issue of “Postscripts” from PS Publishing as a woman who served in the military at that infamous Abu Ghraib prison returns home but finds something has followed her as thumbprints start to be left for her to find.

Two of the stories are experiments with form. In “The Devil on the Staircase” the majority of the story is told in triangles of prose resembling a staircase, almost looking like a long concrete poem as a young man who is obsessed with his cousin finds a staircase that supposedly leads to hell, and as his obsession turns to murder he finds he must descend those stairs and make a bargain if his luck is going to change and he is to survive.

“Twittering From the Circus of the Dead” follows the tweets of a bored young girl on a long drive with her family, a journey which takes a dark turn as they encounter a circus and one of her family ends up participating in the mayhem, taking part in the ring.  Are the dark events that unfold for real?  Can we trust the tweeter?  Only the reader can decide.

“Mums” concerns a mum trying to save her son from his abusive, paranoid, armed father, the only problem is that she’s dead.

As the blurb on the front cover reveals this collection also contains the story “In The Tall Grass”, written by Hill and his father Stephen King, and turned into a film by Netflix, concerning a brother and sister who hear someone in trouble and decide to help - big mistake.  Like “Throttle” this one piles on the tension and the horror and again, it’s difficult to see the joins between the two writers.

The collection ends with “You Are Released”, a story about flying which actually appeared in an anthology called Flight or Fright co-edited by Stephen King and Bev Vincent.  It was well known for years that King was a reluctant flyer and in this story, Hill draws on a childhood memory of looking out of a plane window and imagining he could see missiles flying as he gives us a multi-viewpoint tale involving crew and passengers as something terrible unfolds on the ground.  It reminded me a lot of On the Beach by Nevil Shute, and the ambiguous, possibly slightly hopeful ending, seems the perfect way to end this collection.

Short story collections are notorious things, not every story is going to be a hit, and some will be stronger than others, and so it is here, with horror triumphing over fantasy and science fiction, but regardless of the story or the genre, Hill is never less than entertaining, and Full Throttle is full of deliciously, dark treats.

Ian Hunter


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