(2017) Joe Hill, Gollancz, £14.99, hrdbk, 433pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22117-8
The cover says that this book contains four short novels; I have not done a word count but I suspect that novellas would be more accurate. The author has said: ‘I'm a fan of the slim, heart-punch novel that can be read in a single sitting’ and that certainly sums up these stories - once started they were hard to put down.
We start with ‘Snapshot’, a recollection from an older Michael Figlione as he looks back on an event that, when he was thirteen and living near Cupertino, CA, was to change his life. He noticed Shelly Beukes, who used to clean for them, wandering past the house in a dazed sort of way; approaching her, he realised she was confused and was, she told him, hiding from the Polaroid Man. Being a kindly lad, Mike walked her back home, arriving just as a frantic Lawrence Beukes returned having been out searching for her. She was an elderly lady and this was Michael’s first experience of Alzheimer’s. He was mystified by her advice to avoid the Polaroid Man and especially to not let him take his photo as he ‘took things away’.
He heads down to the local gas station and store and comes across a most unpleasant man filling his tank; covered in tattoos, Mike names him the Phoenician. Looking in the back of the car he notices a Polaroid-type camera and a whole load of photo albums - this must be the Polaroid Man of whom he has been warned - he is not just the ramblings of a senile old woman. A few moments later an unfortunate accident leads to an altercation in the store as Mike spills a large drink everywhere - including on the Phoenician and the camera he has brought in with him. Whilst trying to clear up the mess, Mike picks up the camera and accidentally takes a shot of Mat, the owner’s son; to his surprise the Polaroid print shows not Mat, behind the counter, but himself, sitting in a corner reading a magazine - it is Mat’s memory from a couple of weeks ago. Furthermore, Mat has now forgotten who he is.
That night Lawrence Beukes has to go out on an emergency and asks Mike if he can keep an eye on his wife. He has not been there long when the Phoenician breaks in, determined to steal the last of Shelly’s memories. He might only be thirteen, but a large, ungainly lad can put up a surprising fight and the Phoenician comes out the worse - to his cost and Mike’s long-term gain…
Next comes ‘Loaded’, unsurprisingly a story with guns. Randall Kellaway is the chief security officer at the Miracle Falls Mall, in the Florida town of St. Possenti, and he comes out of a shooting incident not only as the sole survivor but also as the hero of the day. As police chief Jay Rickles explains to all and sundry (especially the media), without Kellaway’s actions, the shooter would have left the premises and continued her killing spree.
But we the readers already know differently. Middle-aged Roger Lewis has been enjoying an affair with his employee, twenty-year-old Becki Kolbert, but with his wife getting suspicious he unceremoniously both dumps and fires Becki. Returning to her car in tears, Becki notices in the glove compartment the gun which Roger had given her not long before and returns to the shop; distraught and following more hurt and a total lack of compassion from Roger, she snaps and shoots him. And it would have ended there where it not for Kellaway.
Although hailed as the hero, Kellaway is anything but. He had served as an MP (military policeman) in Iraq but had been discharged without honour due to his nasty tendency of taking out his weapon and threatening people for no justifiable reason (and he had once beaten a handcuffed prisoner). After that, moving on to a job in law enforcement proved impossible; the feds, for example, refused him when he failed their psych test. Very recently, his wife had sued for divorce citing his behaviour - during an argument he had threatened both her and their son with a gun - and he was now under a court order to keep away from them both, to surrender all his firearms, and to not obtain any others. Having the ‘right’ to bear arms, he had, of course, promptly gone out and bought an unrecorded gun from his old army buddy and gun enthusiast Jim Hirst.
When the shooting started in Devotion Diamonds, Kellaway responded, with his illegal gun firmly in his hand, and got everything wrong. First he mistakenly killed a customer and her infant son, then he shot Becki who was distraught but was no threat, and finally he murdered a witness who had seen the mess he had made of things. He quickly falsified evidence to cover up his errors and came out of it apparently a hero. Local journalist Aisha Lanternglass soon realises that the evidence does not add up, furthermore, she is not the only one. Even the police chief is wondering where Kellaway – who he now knows was forbidden from owning or even handling a gun – had got his weapon from, especially given that the security company do not arm their staff. As Kellaway’s story comes under suspicion he starts to loose it; he accepts no responsibility for his own actions, blames everybody else for everything, and takes to shooting his way out of all his problems. He helps himself to Jim’s arsenal and goes out to settle his scores and ‘punish’ those who have ‘wronged’ him.
Although not a horror story in the classic sense, there is a lot of horror in this as we get further into Kellaway’s mind and rationale. We are in the mind of a mass killer - and it is not a nice place to be. Whilst this story does not openly preach a gun control message, it most certainly adds ‘ammunition’ to the argument; especially as, even as I type this, there has been yet another mass shooting in a school - in Florida as it happens!
The third story is ‘Aloft’; well titled as it set in the clouds. Aubrey Griffin is one of a small party ascending into the sky for a parachute jump in memory of their friend June. Nearing their intended jump altitude, they spot an unusual cloud - it looks like a classic UFO, round and with a dome in the centre, and furthermore it is moving in the opposite direction to all the other clouds. As they pass over it, the plane’s engine cuts and its electrics die; their only options are for the parachutists to jump right now and the pilot to hope he can glide back to a safe landing.
Being a rookie, Aubrey is set up for a tandem jump. Whilst the others descend without problem, Aubrey and his instructor catch the edge of the cloud; they do not go through it - they hit it hard. The instructor is badly hurt but manages to release Aubrey from his tandem straps before the wind catches his parachute and he is dragged over the edge. And so Aubrey finds himself alone on a cloud, a rather solid one. Somehow it senses his needs because a cloudy coat stand appears, strong enough to hold the uncomfortable harness he has just taken off. Being tired and somewhat scared, a bed appears from nowhere, complete with a cloudy (and warm) duvet. Whilst the cloud appears to be helping him, he cannot stay there forever; there is no food or water. Somehow he must make his way safely to the ground, but the cloud wants his company.
We finish with ‘Rain’, though it is not rain as we would understand it. The story opens in Boulder, CO, where Honeysuckle is all excited as today is the day her girlfriend Yolanda is moving in with her. Although it has been a hot, cloudless day, a thunderhead is moving rapidly towards them even as Yolanda and her mother arrive. Wanting to unstrap an easy chair from the car’s roof before it get soaked by the rain, they are still out there when it strikes. But the rain proves not to be water, it is tiny, dagger-sharp crystals. As the first few ‘drops’ hit her and she jumps back undercover from the stabbing pain, Honeysuckle watches helplessly as Yolanda and her mother are cut to shreds in seconds. They are not the only ones; of all those outside, the only survivors are those who could reach shelter in the first few seconds. The ‘rain’ continues on to Denver where it is equally deadly.
Even as the authorities start to clear the bodies and sweep the all-pervasive crystals off the roads and pavements, scientists announce that they appear to be a form of fulgarite that has spontaneously formed in the clouds and, furthermore, it looks likely that the process is self-perpetuating - there will be many more crystal rains. The president declares it to be a terrorist attack on America.
With power out everywhere and unable to contact Yolanda’s father to tell him the terrible news, Honeysuckle decides the only option is to walk to their home in Denver (driving being out of the question due to the crystals slashing the tyres). And so she starts on a series of adventures both going and returning. By the time she gets back, the attack has been blamed on terrorists in Georgia (the country near Russia, not the American state) and the president has launched a nuclear retaliation. By now the crystals are reaching the troposphere and affecting the entire world; soon there will be no more water from the sky, only death: life on Earth is in for a rough time.
As one problem after another assails Honeysuckle, she starts to notice a few anomalies and stumbles upon the truth - but will it be enough to save the world?
In his Afterword the author says that, although he has enjoyed writing very long novels, he also enjoys the shorter form (the novella or short novel) as it allows him to get on with telling a simple story, flesh out the characters sufficiently, but not get bogged down in adding filler for the sake of the page count. However, I felt that even so they were still longer than they needed to be. In particular ‘Snapshot’ and ‘Aloft’ could have been shorter, they felt to me like they told insufficient story for their lengths, whilst ‘Loaded’ and ‘Rain’ had more story to tell and the length worked better.
I found all four stories to be very inventive and difficult to put down. All told, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the first I have read by Joe Hill, and thought it an impressive piece of work.
See also David's take on Strange Weather.
Editors' Note: Strange Weather has won the 2018 Bram Stoker Award for 'Best Collection'.
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