Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Catching Up with the Kings, Part 3: Joe Hill in prose

In blogging about my efforts to get current with the King family of writers, I hadn't intended to segregate the King brothers; it just happened that way as a result of when their respective books and stories were released.  But so it goes, and we now turn our attention toward big brother Joe Hill, and his novel The Fireman.

The Fireman is Joe Hill's fourth novel.  If you said it was his best, I'd not argue with you, and if you said it was his worst, I'd not argue with you.  My favorite is Heart Shaped Box, but not by a wide margin, and I'd need more time with all of them before I undertook a really-for-real ranking of them.

This most recent one is demonstrably the lengthiest, clocking in at nearly 750 pages.  Too long?  It's debatable.  I'd have kept right on reading it, though, probably for about another few hundred pages.  It may be that that is the only review that really matters.

I had a hard time getting into the novel initially.  I didn't really begin to engage with it for maybe 150 pages or so, but once that engagement began occurring, it never let up.  And in retrospect, a great deal of what happens in those first couple-hundredish pages -- none of which is bad, by the way -- seems greatly more important than it seemed to me upon first encounter.  This leads me to believe that when I reread the novel at some point in the future, I will get more out of it from the outset.

I am likely to not say much of substance about the novel here.  I don't know that I get be substantive without getting into serious spoiler territory, and I don't want to do that; there is too much here that ought to be discovered by reading the novel, as opposed to a review.  That's not to say you find out the equivalent of Bruce Willis being dead the entire time; it's not that kind of novel.  No, there are just lots of twists and turns of the standard variety, none of which should be spoiled, or really even hinted at.

So let's restrict discussion of the plot almost entirely to setup.  The story is about a plague that ravages the world, and a band of survivors who are left trying to cope with their new style of existence.  If that makes you think of The Stand, well, you ain't wrong.  The Fireman is a very conscious full-length evocation of The Stand, so much so that if it had been written by somebody NOT related by blood to Stephen King, you'd accuse them of ripping King off.

Which means that I guess you could accuse Hill of the same thing.  I don't see it that way; but if you do, you might have a leg to stand upon.

Here's the thing.  It might not matter.  I've spoken a bit about how we are living in mashup culture, where artists -- or, more often, would-be artists (which is really just another way of saying "shitty artists") -- feel free to take elements that are disparate to one degree or another and mold them into a new shape.  This shape is sometimes anything but "new," but hey, aren't we all just retelling stories written thousands of years ago, anyways?

I'm not here to launch into a thesis statement about the merits/demerits of mashup culture, but it does bear mentioning that when the method is applies well, it puts the focus on the differences that are created, and not on the mere celebration of the similarities.  I believe The Fireman to be an example of a well-applied mashup method, so to whatever extent it works with the template of The Stand, I find it to be meaningful rather than shallow.

The plague in this case is not a government-designed, accidentally-released form of flu, but a naturally-occurring spore (called "Dragonscale") that grows on and in a human host and causes spontaneous combustion.  The apparent thing that sets the spore into active mode is stress on the part of the host, so you can imagine that as a plague of spontaneous human combustion spreads (yes, like wildfire), stress is somewhat difficult to avoid.  And yet, some people do avoid it, for a greater or lesser amount of time.

So right here, you have a setup that is very similar to The Stand but also fundamentally different.  The stories then proceed along somewhat similar tracks, but the differences in the setup cause the tracks to diverge significantly.  A very interesting compare-and-contrast essay could be written on the two, but let's be clear: there are just as many differences as there are similarities, and ultimately Hill's novel does stand on its two legs, stable and confident.  His use of The Stand is as a touchstone, and the result is that while Hill is proudly declaring his heritage, he is also strongly staking claim to his individuality.

The Fireman, for example, has nothing remotely resembling the sheer scope of The Stand.  King's novel has something like a gajillion point-of-view characters.  Hill's has one: Harper Grayson, a school nurse whose positivity and goodness seem a little bit forced at times.  Well, for good reason!  She's forcing herself, and it is that drive -- somewhat artificial, but nevertheless genuine -- that helps keep her alive as the Dragonscale ravages the world.  I suspect that your reaction to Harper will govern your reaction to the novel as a whole: if you see her as unbelievably artificial and shallow, then you will likely see the novel in the same light.  If, on the other hand, she seems fundamentally realistic to you despite the artificiality, then guess what?

You may have decided you can live in Mashup Culture.  Welcome!  I'd kind of prefer that this plague hadn't ravaged the world, too, but it has, and maybe we can get through it.

There is great deal of stuff in the text dealing with pop culture.  You'll get blatant references to J.K. Rowling and Mary Poppins and Dire Straits and Doctor Who and Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games and Captain America.  You'll get oodles more evocations of Stephen King stuff (much of it from The Stand, but by no means all of it), and probably other stuff as well that I either don't remember or didn't pick up on.  Former MTV veejay Martha Quinn is a major deal in the novel.  Glenn Beck burns alive at some point early on.

Let's dwell on this last point for a moment.

Like Stephen King (and Owen King, for that matter), Joe Hill is a very publicly liberal person, politically.  This is fine by me, because so am I (although I don't tend to express that publicly very often so as to avoid drowning in filth).  But I recognize that what works for me does not necessarily work for everyone, and I realize that when I type something like "Glenn Beck burns alive at some point early on," the tendency for most people of either persuasion would be to assume that Hill does that as a sort of liberal fuck-you to a prominent conservative.  And maybe he did, but I don't think the novel actually reflects that.  It's matter-of-fact and straightforward, and Hill makes it pretty clear that Dragonscale has no political leanings.  It's just a pleasure for it to burn.

But as the novel progresses -- and this is giving away a little too much, but only a little -- an interesting thing happens, in that a great portion of the novel begins to focus on the idea of what happens when people begin to think alike as the result of coping with outside pressure.  What happens when your ideology prevents you from engaging with people with whom you disagree?

Sound familiar?

Hill comes at this topic in a way that I found to be highly relevant to the way the world is fracturing currently.  I don't want to say that, in a political sense, he's entirely even-handed in his exploration of the topic.  Instead, I think he's taken a bit of a step back from the entire process and found it all to be wanting.  His conclusions might seem a bit hippy-dippyish to some, but I can't find much fault in the idea that in order to connect with others, you must first connect with yourself.

I found these aspects of the novel -- about which I am being deliberately cagey -- to be profound and terrifying, and they serve as its backbone in my opinion.  This is another aspect that The Fireman shares with The Stand, but the former has its own personality and is a product of its own era, just as is the latter.  So, again: fundamentally different, fundamentally the same.


My feeling after a single reading is that Hill is simply a natural.  I do believe that I would currently say The Fireman is his worst novel, but it's a pretty damn great novel, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.  So "worst" is kind of a meaningless designation in this case.  [UPDATE:  A few days later, I'm not even sure I'd say it's his "worst" novel.  It's gaining mystique as my brain replays it.]

As with all of Hill's other books, I'll eventually need to return to it and give it a multipart, spoilers-included consideration.  It's just as worth of it as any Stephen King novel, and more than some.

Hill did a good bit of press for the novel, including podcasts, and I really enjoyed the one produced as a sort of pilot episode for a podcast called Point Mystic.  It's about twenty minutes long, and includes conversations with (among others) a Dragonscale survivor named "Joe Hill."  He's being interviewed at a secluded camp by an NPR-style radio program.  It's pretty great.  You can check it out here, and there's a bonus episode that includes fuller version of the interviews.  I've not listened to any additional episodes of Point Mystic, mainly on account of seemingly having forgotten to bookmark the page.  I've now remembered, it, though, and intend to catch up.

About five months after The Fireman hit shelves and went to #1 on the bestseller lists, Cemetery Dance issued a special Hill-focused double issue of the magazine.

The main attraction here for me, of course, was the new Hill novella, "Snapshot, 1988."  It will be included in his upcoming novella collection, Strange Weather.  It's the story of a kid who has a friendship with an old married couple who live nearby, especially the woman, Shelly, who has almost been like a second mother to him.  She's developed what seems to be Alzheimer's, and the boy, Michael, discovers that her symptoms are actually due to a man he calls "the Phoenician" (due to a scrawl of tattoos in that language that cover his arms) and a Polaroid-like camera that steals memories.  For some reason, the Phoenician has begun preying upon Shelly, and Michael gets wrapped up in this bizarre relationship.

The the best of my knowledge, "Snapshot, 1988" is the first novella Hill has published.  We already had copious evidence that he is great at writing novels, short stories, and comics, and now we've also got evidence that he's great at writing novellas.  What can this guy not do?

It's not merely vintage Joe Hill, but Stephen King fans will likely feel this is one of the King-iest things he's ever written.  It might be the setting and/or the novella classification talking, but "Snapshot, 1988" feels almost as if it is a deleted chapter of Four Past Midnight, not merely in terms of tone but also in terms of quality.  I'd say it's better than at least two of that collection's novellas, in fact (one of which is also a tale about a spooky Polaroid, although that's where the similarities end between "Snapshot, 1988" and "The Sun Dog").

The novella is illustrated by several pieces of art by Jihane Mossalim.  I wanted to put some examples here, but the spine of the issue is really resistant to scanning -- and makes the book more resistant to reading than I'd like (it's a pain to hold, literally) -- and so I went online to try and find clean copies.  I didn't have much luck, but I did find Mossalim's website, as well as an interview with her that is well worth reading.  I like her work quite a bit; the pieces for "Snapshot, 1988" are fine, but they don't seem to be especially strong examples of what she does best.

This issue also contains a great interview with Hill conducted by Bev Vincent.  Here are a few tidbits from Hill, some of which are anecdotes and explanations he gave in interviews and on podcasts during the marketing for the novel.  It's nice to have some of those in prose form.

  • "All my books are conversations with the stories and the art that inspires me."  [Bryant's note: this caused me to raise both eyebrows in delight.  It made me think that mashup culture as a whole can be said to be an extended version of that conversation.  I don't want to overreach here, but does this suggest the possibility that what's happening is the process of our culture -- cultures, even -- trying to figure itself/themselves out?  If so, then perhaps some of the chaos that has resulted makes sense.  And if that's the case, then it suggests to me that there is going to be a great deal of strife until these culture wars are concluded.]
  • "When I started the book, I wasn't thinking about The StandThe Stand never crossed my mind.  When I started the book, I was thinking about Harry Potter."  [Hill goes on to explain this, and I'll omit the specifics so as to stay on the right side of not being spoilery.  I will say that while what Hill says makes sense, and I can absolutely see where he's coming from, I personally do not find there to be much here that is Pottery.  Which is fine: it need not be in order for Hill to have used it in the manner he describes.]
  • "At some point , when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book, I realized it had a lot of echoes to The Stand.  There were similarities there that I had not detected."  "I looked at the story and when I started to see echoes of The Stand, I felt I had two choices: I could run from it, or I could embrace it.  I thought it would be more fun to embrace it."  [This led Hill to change certain character names so as to amplify the "conversation" between the novels.  In some cases the changes were actually designed to purposefully undercut the similarities.  Will this blog eventually write an entire post about this topic?  You better believe it.  You won't see it anytime soon, but yes, that'll absolutely happen.]
  • "There's nothing wrong with acknowledging your influences as long as your love of them is honest and the way you use them is inventive and fresh and new instead of falling back on what's already been done."  [Hill cites The Force Awakens as an example of that done right, and in that, we are in complete agreement.]
  • On the subject of taking a bit of a step back from social media: "For the most part I do think that it's healthy for writers to not be so reactive.  Good short stories, good essays, and good books develop over time, with time to reflect.  They are not knee-jerk responses to things, but they are deeply felt and deeply thought, and that takes time.  I've always been someone who needs time to know how he feels about things."  [Here again, the double-eyebrow-raise of delight.  I recognize some of my own tendencies in what Hill is saying here, not only as an amateur writer, but also as a person.  I wonder to what extent my enjoyment of Hill's work has been determined by the fact that that aspect of his writing obviously appeals to that side of my own personality.  Fascinating!]

Plenty more goodness in this lengthy interview, too; I didn't even scratch the surface of the tip

Elsewhere, we get reviews of both The Fireman and End of Watch that are more plot synopsis than critical insight, or even opinion.  Emblematic of the publishing schedule on which Cemetery Dance operates, there are also reviews of The Martian and Jurassic World, both of which were over a year old by the time the issue came out.  The reviews were written by Michael Marano, whose work I will avoid in the future.

Better is a one-two punch about Hill by publishers up front, beginning with a page by Cemetery Dance editor Richard Chizmar.  He recalls reading submissions one day "many years ago," and getting to one called "You Will Hear the Locust Sing."  The author's name was Joe Hill, which rang a bell somewhere in the back of his head.  He read the story, loved it, and then tried to figure out where he'd heard the name.  He came up with what he thought was the answer, and then had it confirmed by Brian James Freeman, who took a copy of The Shining down from a shelf and showed Chizmar the dedication to Joe Hill King.  Chizmar called Hill, who fessed up, but also withdrew the story from consideration for publication by the magazine, because he was determined to make it on his own.

Chizmar respected this then and now, and sent several Hill stories to Pete Crowther of PS Publishing in England.  Crowther was extremely enthused by the work, and made the decision to publish a collection of Hill short stories.  He tells that story in his own piece within this issue.

One cool thing about Stephen King's career is that the story of how it came together is, at times, as interesting as a novel in its own right.  Such is the foundation of myth and legend.  Hill's own myths and legends are beginning to form, as well, which is satisfying to note.
I've got more Hill to cover, and I'd initially intended to put it all in a single post.  But instead, I think I'll defer his recent comic-book work to a separate post, and turn this trilogy into a quartet.
See you again soon!


  1. That plot for "Snapshot, 1988" sounds pretty intteresting. You brought up "Four Past Midnight" before I could - seems like it'd be at home in there.

    I really need to catch up with all this stuff. I took a long look at 20th Century Ghosts on the shelf the other day. It's the only Hill I know, but I haven't read it in 6 or 7 years and I don't remember most of it, just that I greatly enjoyed the audiobook from the library and so bought the paperback.

    Maybe, tho, I'll just dive in with Strange Weather and work backwards through his stuff.

    1. You've got some good reading ahead of you whenever you decide to get current with him. I think I might recommend beginning with "Locke & Key," which is great. I really want to reread it all and blog it up, but given my approach to comics blogging, it'd take forever! Time well spent, though.

  2. Mr. Burnette,
    I feel that Heart Shaped Box is better than The Fireman as well. Despite the fact that I relish a long book, I felt this could have been trimmed to bump up the pace in the early going.

    1. Yeah, I had a hard time engaging with it for a while; basically until they were settled in at Camp Wyndham. I'd be curious to know how I felt about that stuff on a second read, though; I have a feeling I might like it better.

    2. I also felt that her husband was almost too much of a parody of a typical bad guy. A bit over the top.

    3. I didn't have too much of a problem with him being villainous; strange times make strange people stranger. Maybe a few too many scenes of him driving a plow (or whatever it was) like a maniac, though, so I agree with you in general.

  3. My favourite will always be NOS4A2 (the audiobook version was incredible). I didn't like The fireman much so for me it is definitely the worst of the bunch.
    p.s, waiting for your thoughts on The dark tower trailer!


    1. I'll give 'em to you here: I think it looks good. There was nothing in it that bothered me, so I'd give it a B+.

    2. Oh, and by the way: I've heard other people say that about "The Fireman," so it's not just you. I dug it, but I might still have it ranked at the bottom of his books.

    3. Not enough western but I love the actors so I am still moderately excited

    4. A very sensible way of looking at it. My feeling is, if I'd never read the books and saw that those two guys were in a sci-fi/action movie, I'd be stoked.

  4. Man, I didn't like Fireman at all, too long, the love story was silly, they knew each for like 3 months!, the bad guy was so dumb, he came back! dehn dehn dehnnnn why? it could have been a different bad guy w/o it being so unbelievable, there was a lot of times listening where I just said 'who cares, move it along.
    Espcially following Nos4ra2 which I thought was completely original and filled with likable well drawn out charecters this book was the complete opposite.
    But hey, if he writes one mediocre to bad book every 4 that's ok by me.

    1. Probably a better batting average than most writers achieve, for sure.

      I agree with you on the subject of the romantic subplot. I spent most of the book thinking I was going to complain about that in my review. However, I like the way Hill resolved it, so I give it a pass overall.

  5. I found "The Fireman" to be enjoyable from its sizzle of an opening (Strunk and White would probably have me shot for that line) all the way to the close.

    I also don't recall thinking Harper was forced in any way, though that sentiment could be the thoughts of a hopeless romantic.

    As for the mashup culture deal, I kind of do and don't understand in the same measure. For instance I mentioned once how I somehow wound up with a funny fan idea re: "Frozen", even though I was, and continue to be underwhelmed by that movie.

    The funny thing is, I had a similar idea for one of the Disney films I actually remain a big fan of to this day. I got to thinking about Lucky, he's side character from "101 Dalmatians", notable for the fact that he essentially reaches death's door at one point, and then somehow steps back.

    I remember thinking how would such an event, technically the very first event of a person's life, would shape that person mentally? It just made sense that having such a mind-freak placed on a youngster right out of the starting gate would leave him perhaps a little warped. There would be something about a kid like that, in terms of behavior and relationships, that would set him part. It also jibes with the fact that Lucky is the one child character who is always singled out in the Disney film, and then in an always, almost isolated way. You keep expecting him to be the one to go it alone, and find a way out of the predicament.

    To be continued.


    1. Strunk and White wouldn't shoot you, but they would definitely insult you a bit; "a sick burn," I believe is what that's called nowadays.

      If Lucky were a real person -- and this is a trait he likely shares with many Disney characters -- he probably WOULD have grown up with a complex or two. Disney films exist more or less outside the scope of that sort of thing, though, so he probably grew into a fine fellow. Dog. You know what I mean.

      That's part of what's interesting about Disney's best animated movies, though, isn't it? There really IS meat on those bones, intellectually. Not exactly Kafka or whatever, but plenty enough so that kids returning to the movies as adults can have those "Heyyyyyyyyy" moments of recognition.

  6. Continued from above.

    Anyway, and this might bear some relation to the mash-up art question, this idea of Lucky from "101" as this kind of canine pup rebel just sort of floated around until two other pieces came together. One was a Pete Townshend song, "We Close Tonight". The songs lyrics amount to: guy tries to impress girl and wins her, despite making an idiot of himself. The funny thing is how eventually, I began to see the image of Lucky in a record shop making the same spiel to a girl of his species.

    The final part came from an interview I heard from a Southern Gothic novelist called Walker Percy. As I recall, he outlined this idea for an "Apocalyptic Rom-Com" (not his actual words, but a good translation of basic idea). The set up went something like: Boy meets Girl, Boy dates Girl, Boy and Girl fall out of love, Boy mistakenly hears false misinformation about nuclear bombs falling and searches for girl all over city, Boy and Girl make up, Boy and Girl live happily ever after when truth is learned.

    The result is all those elements came together, and while I've never written a single word down, I did sort of create a fan concept album around it. The track list went something like:

    Roger Daltrey: Move Better in the Night.
    Clapton: Pretending.
    Townshend: We Close Tonight.
    Don Henley: Who owns this Place?
    The Who: Slip Kid
    Who: Had Enough (not a Quadrophenia track).
    Daltrey: Breaking Down Paradise.
    Townshend: Relay (live 90s version).
    The Cult: Rain.
    Daltrey: After the Fire.
    Daltrey: The Price of Love.

    To be continued.


    1. I can immediately see how creating a playlist could help to sort of lock an idea in place like that. I've been known to do similar things.

  7. Concluded from above.

    It sounds kind of fun, and it is in sort of time killer way. Here's the problem though. What if such thinking is part of the nature of this whole mash-up culture deal?

    If it is, then I can see a lot of problems. To anticipate a counter-argument, I suppose a case could be made that I'm harping on questions of "Originality". I don't know if I am or not. I mean, James Joyce just told "The Odyssey" in a modern garb for frak's sake. Still, in his case (and maybe even in Hill's case) an effort was made to find their own voice, and it was that distinctness that, to an extent, sets it apart. To give a better example, that "Dalmatians" idea I outlined above is just all mash-up with no real original voice behind it. The result is amusing, but ultimately lifeless. If I'm being honest, I got the same vibe from the Tower trailer. If I'm to like, I think I'm going to have to make an effort to see it as fundamentally not a Tower film, or even an adaptation.

    I don't necessarily mind, however I do wonder if a film that forces any member of the audience to go through these strange mental gymnastics is a sign that its not successful.

    There's still a lot to think about, yet that's where I am right now when it comes to mash-up culture.


    1. Makes sense to me. Mashup culture seems to be enabling more people than ever to dip their toes into SOME sort of for-the-public artistic endeavor, be it illustration or music or short movies or whatever else. 99% of everything is crap, so if a culture begins producing more art, it almost certainly means the uptick in bad art will be considerable. It will lack a voice, it will lack a perspective, it will lack context, it will lack cohesion; all the things that make for good art will be mostly absent in this stuff.

      But maybe that's okay. I suspect there are upsides to the process.