Joe Hill prefaces this collection of four novellas by saying that the novella is a wonderful form. It’s long enough to be really meaty and provide for depth of characterization, but short enough to be lean, and to demand that any extra prose be shaved off. He gives several examples — True Grit and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among others — and he confides that since his own most recent work (The Fireman and NOS4A2) are very long novels, he wanted to write something shorter, just to stay in shape.
These four stories are quite different from each other, and I think they vary in their success. My favorite was Loaded, followed closely by Snapshot. My least favorite by quite a long way was Aloft, leaving Rain somewhere in the middle. But all of them were extremely readable, sometimes compulsively, un-put-downably so, and after I finished, I was dying to talk about them with someone. Joe Hill is quite a writer these days.
I am almost unable to restrain myself from saying that Loaded started off with a bang. The entire story is about guns: America’s inexplicable, lurid, total obsession with them in the year of our Lord 2018, and how that affects our lives, our safety, our choices, our children. Hill begins with an all-too-familiar story: a young, unarmed black man is killed by a police officer who has mistaken him for a criminal and the CD in his hand for a knife. That murder echoes two decades later, when that young man’s sister Ayesha has become a journalist. Her life and training make her suspicious when George Kellaway, a mall security guard, steps in and saves the day during a shooting. It turns out she was right to be suspicious, and things go from bad to much, much worse. Hill deals with many aspects of gun culture: the “good guy with a gun” notion; guns and minorities; police culture; legal loopholes that allow people who shouldn’t have guns to get them; mental health and suicide, and plenty more. His politics are definitely on display here, and as we slowly get to know Kellaway better, it’s both extremely tense (and I mean extremely) and pretty pointed.
The others are more standard horror novellas. Snapshot is told from the point of view of a teenage boy who finds himself tangled up with the Phoenician, who can take away your memories by taking a kind of… magic?… Polaroid photo of you. This is a pretty straightforward premise, but Hill does a startlingly good job of characterization in the story, and I was deeply rooting for all the characters (except the Phoenician, of course.) I really enjoyed this one, and it felt maybe the most complete as a novella. Aloft finds a young man in unrequited love jumping out of a plane onto a cloud that isn’t exactly a cloud. This one was the least successful, in my view: I couldn’t see the point and I didn’t think the character ever saw the point either. I wanted to know what happened, but when it did, I wasn’t convinced. This one could have been a short story, easily. Finally, Rain tells what happens when a terrorist (but who, and where?) seeds the sky with chemicals, and rain comes down as hard, killing, needlelike crystals. This story was part post-apocalypse (and it takes place between Boulder and Denver, so a nice nod to The Stand) and part mystery, as the main character slowly deduces who is responsible for the end of the world. It’s chilling and enjoyable.
A note. There are certain horror authors (and maybe just authors in general) who use “fat” as a shorthand for “evil.” Hill uses “fat” as a descriptor. He has fat characters, but they’re just fat. His teenage narrator in Snapshot is fat, and he’s lonely, but he’s not lonely because he’s fat, he’s just lonely and fat. Later, he gets thin, but he doesn’t get thin because he gets friends or because he learns to love himself: quite the reverse. I just… I appreciate that, even though it’s a small thing.
I think now the only thing I haven’t read of Hill’s (besides his comic series) is Horns, and I have that in my library bag. He’s a talented writer — fun, fast-paced, scary, and excellent at providing tension. And I’ll tell you now, he’s not nearly as predictable about his happy endings as his father is…