Thursday, January 11, 2018

A Brief Review of Joe Hill's "Strange Weather"


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:



"Snapshot"

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.

"Loaded"

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.

"Aloft"

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.
   
"Rain"
 
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.

13 comments:

  1. Finally! I've been dying to talk to you about these, and I look forward to the (eventual) more in-depth review.

    My list would go:

    1) "Aloft"
    2) "Snapshot"
    3) "Rain"

    "Loaded" is phenomenal, but affected me so fiercely that I can't really put it on that list somewhere. As of right now, it would be dishonest to say I "liked" it, and I don't know if I'll ever read it again.

    ...although I do kind of want to read the entire book again, because I really did dig these stories. Each one kind of feels like a potential episode of an anthology show. (Boy howdy, would I watch the shit out of THAT if it was well-produced.)

    If I do read them again, "Rain" might move up, because Honeysuckle's perspective really is a blast to read. It seems like I enjoyed "Snapshot" more / in a different way, although I will readily admit - without spoilers - that its connection to another Joe Hill work might be giving it a rosier tint.

    Overall, though, if I could write short fiction even two-thirds this good, I'd never want to do anything else.

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    1. I'd love to say there will be an in-depth review at some point soon, but ... there will not be. Not soon, at least. I really want to spend as much of this year as possible reading instead of blogging. I may put a few in-depth things out, but tentatively, I'm leaning toward focusing more-or-less exclusively on brief pieces like this.

      Regarding "Loaded," I have a lot of thoughts about that one. I get where you're coming from. My feeling, though, is that Hill went into that one with the attitude that art NEEDS to provoke sometimes. Having only read it once, I'm not currently sure if my strong positive feeling toward the novella is due to it actually being a strong novella, or due to Hill having successfully provoked me. I think it's probably both; but only a reread will clarify that, and I think it makes sense to let it sit for a while.

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    2. By the way, if you want an in-depth review of "Strange Weather," I recommend the most recent episode of the Stephen King Cast. He points out aspects of "Snapshot" and "Rain" -- and the book as an overall unit -- that I had not considered, and may have taken me from liking the book to loving it.

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  2. Still haven't got around to this one yet. Thanks for the basic rundown, though.

    ChrisC.

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    1. Welcome! I hope you enjoy it when you do read it.

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  3. For me, Aloft and Loaded were also the strongest of the collection, but for me Aloft was the leader of the pack. Felt very Ray Bradbury.

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  4. I was trying to engage people in a conversation about Loaded on DT.org since I am really confused about the purpose of it.
    Aloft was incredible and I really think only Joe could write that story. It is completely original in the way it blends the outlandish and the normal. It reminded me of Pop Art in it's uniqueness.
    -mikeC

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    1. Yeah, you know ... "Aloft" and "Pop Art" really do seem to come from the same side of Hill, don't they?

      Regarding "Loaded," I think the purpose is to get people talking. A spur toward serious conversation, methinks. I hate to think what they're saying about it at thedarktower.org. But, then, I hate to think about thedarktower.org in general.

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  5. Ha, yea there are some jerks on there for sure but not all are bad.
    -mikeC

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    1. I'm sure you say true, but -- and this is true of the boards at the Stephen King website, too -- I was immediately happier the day I stopped going there.

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  6. You have much better content and discussions.
    -mikeC

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