It's been nearly three months since Strange Weather came out, and it's really rather unforgivable that I waited that long to read it.
Finally, though, I can cross it off my list. And, having thus crossed it, I figured I'd give you folks a brief non-spoilery review.
It consists of four novellas -- or "short novels," as Hill has designated them (in a clear case of six versus half-a-dozen) -- that are varied in content and tone. They are as follows:
Previously released in an issue of Cemetery Dance under the title "Snapshot, 1988," this is the story of Mike, a 13-year-old kid who is thrust into the role of watching out for an Alzheimer's-stricken lady who lives up the street. There's more to it than that, though: she doesn't so much have Alzheimer's as something that seems like Alzheimer's but isn't. Might be that something has been done to her by the story's bad guy, whom Mike thinks of as "the Phoenician."
This is a good novella that did not impress me as much on reread as it did the first time through. The story is both overlong and underdeveloped; it feels a bit as if it's never going to end, and yet Hill resolutely refuses to allow Mike -- or us (since Mike is the story's narrator) -- to have any real understanding of why any of this is happening. It feels as if his primary interest was in telling a story that could serve as an angry metaphor for the sad decline of people who lose their memories. An admirable goal, and in some aspects, I think Hill pulled it off. But the story wrapped around that goal is perhaps not one of his more memorable.
I knew from seeing a few interviews Hill gave that this novella was about gun violence in America, and I've seen more than a few reactions to it along the lines of "Another lib fucktard who wants to take our rights away." Now, for all I know Joe Hill really does want to delete the second amendment and then hit empty on the recycle-bin icon; it seems unlikely, but try telling that to the people who believe it and see how well it works.
I won't say much about the story, because I find I'm not terribly interested in saying anything without diving into the spoiler end of the pool. I'll settle for saying this: the novella began in a fashion that made me think it might be less a novella than a series of similarly-themed vignettes. And I got onboard with that notion real quick. But pretty soon, it's revealed to be a single story, and finding out how they connect is part of the fun. (If "fun" is the right word to use in a story like this one.)
Anyways, I'm sure a lot of people will be put off by one aspect of this or another, but personally, I thought it was pretty great. The characters are sharp, if occasionally a bit on the stereotypical side; the bad guys are all racist white men, which will infuriate some readers. I thought Hill gave them moments of genuine humanity and refused to allow them to only be caricatures; your mileage may vary in terms of the degree to which you think I'm right about that.
In the end, I think Hill IS trying to make a political point, but I'm not sure it's as one-sided as many of its detractors are likely to claim. I think he's proceeding under the assumption that it is a massively complex issue that is inextricably tied to other massively complex issues, and I think his primary goal is to get people to recognize that. In the hopes of provoking some sort of meaningful dialogue?
Debatable. I think he probably just wants everyone who reads this to hurt, and in that goal, I think he will likely succeed.
The trick is to make it a useful sort of hurt; and for my money, he succeeded admirably.
This one is about a skydiver who gets all the way up and decides he doesn't much want to make the jump. Alas, his plane loses power, and his jumpmaster doesn't leave him much choice: they bail the fuck out of there.
They land on a solid cloud, which is where things gets weird.
But that's not really what "Aloft" is about.
To find out what it IS about, you will have to read it. All I will say here is that I found it to be painful, evocative, marvelous stuff. Also, deeply strange.
All of those are virtues in my opinion, so this one is highly recommended.
Probably the second-weakest novella in the collection ("Snapshot" being the standard-bearer in that regard, I think), "Rain" nevertheless has a lot of strong moments in it.
The setup is this: one fine day in Boulder, Colorado, it begins raining. Problem is, the rain is composed of nail-like shards of crystalline material. This is not the sort of storm you want to get caught outside in, and naturally, thousands of people are killed more or less instantaneously.
Our narrator is not: Honeysuckle Speck, a butch lesbian who makes for a thoroughly pleasant point of view character in Hill's hands. She's one of the best characters Hill has created so far.
About the story, I'll say no more, except to note that it lost me almost entirely at a certain key point and never quite managed to get me back.
In his afterword, Hill implies that "Rain" represents him goofing on his own novel The Fireman a bit, and in retrospect, I can totally see that. As I read it, I definitely thought of that novel a few times; and I also thought a few of the more outlandish elements were maybe a bit TOO outlandish. But viewing the piece as a semi-self-parody takes most of the sting out of that.
There's plenty of sting left to be had, though. "Rain" approaches being just as angry a piece as "Loaded" is, and while the tone is bit more optimistic in terms of the long-run, it's a novella that helps bring the entire collection's theme into focus: things might work out alright eventually, but for now, rough times seem to be on the horizon.
So what's the bottom line on Strange Weather? I'd say "Loaded" is a bit of a classic, and "Aloft" comes very close to being as good. "Snapshot" and "Rain" are more problematic, but are entertaining and, at times, moving.
In other words, this is a strong collection. If I were ranking it on the King scale of novella collections, I'd say it's better than Four Past Midnight, perhaps a bit above or below Full Dark, No Stars, and not even in contention with Different Seasons (which is one of King's best books).
For the record: that's pretty damn good.