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Onyx reviews: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/26/2017

A collection of four novellas might seem like Joe Hill is entering territory staked out by Stephen King, and the connection between weather (of the strange variety) and seasons (of the different sort) isn't hard to make. However, any semblance of similarity ends there. The novellas in Strange Weather are not parallel constructs to those in Different Seasons. King (with one exception) was exploring stories with little supernatural influence, whereas Hill is embracing the supernatural and the weird (with one exception) in this collection

These really are short novels. Each has a single-word title, and they can be experienced in a single. albeit prolonged, sitting. They are as different from each other as a snowy day is from a desert. The protagonists are primarily young: a thirteen-year-old and two in their early twenties. They were written over a range of years, occasionally under the influence of a recently finished longer work. The primary settings range from California to Colorado to Ohio to Florida. In keeping with the collection's title, each story features unusual weather of some type: damaging thunderstorms, a firestorm, an unusual cloud formation and lethal rain.

"Snapshot," the only previously published work in this collection, arose from Hill's desire to give dementia a face. By personifying this crippling disease, it gives characters someone to lash out at and blame for an otherwise senseless condition. The story is told from the perspective of a boy named Michael Figlioni, who lives near Cupertino, California. In 1988, Mike is thirteen, on the edge of adulthood. He's overweight and lonely but inventive and creative. He lives with his father, a lineman. His mother has gone off to do research in Africa and only comes home a couple of times a year.

For the most part, Mike was raised by Shelly Beukes, the older woman who babysat for him when he was younger. Now, however, Shelly is exhibiting signs of dementia and has a tendency to wander from home. Her husband is trying to juggle his job as the owner of a chain of exercise clubs with looking after her. "Getting old is no way to stop being young," Shelly's husband says. He enlists Mike's help, offering to pay him to look after her if he gets called away, an interesting reversal on their original relationship. 

Shelly is afraid of the Polaroid Man, warning Mike to not let him take his picture. Mike thinks this is just part of her condition until he meets the man he comes to call the Phoenician. An ugly man with an ugly disposition and a very strange camera that looks like a Polaroid, but isn't. They have an awkward confrontation in a convenience store when something happens that convinces Mike that Shelly isn't completely crazy: that there is something about this guy to be wary of. Although there's no fighting back against Alzheimer's in real life, Mike is given the chance to give the disease a black eye, and his brief encounter with the Phoenician has far-reaching implications for memories and the way people store them.

In "Loaded," Hill explores the prevalence of gun violence in America. The story starts with a young black man gunned down by a police officer who later claimed he thought the stolen CD the victim had in his hand was a knife. Flash forward twenty years and the young girl who witnessed the shooting is now a reporter for the St. Possenti Digest whose series of reports on that long-ago incident was nominated for a Pulitzer, saving her job when many of her colleagues were laid-off during the decline in fortunes of print journalism. Aisha Lanternglass is a single mother who grew up in a neighborhood called the Black and Blue, like a bruise; a black woman whose world view was shaped by the senseless killing and what it meant about ongoing racial struggles.

A mass shooting at a jewelry store in a shopping mall makes a hero out of a security guard. Only four people died that day (five counting the alleged perpetrator, the jilted lover of the store owner). The death toll might have been far higher if Randall Kellaway hadn't interceded, or so the story is framed at first. Hill digs into the reaction to events like these, which have become far too common. The sheriff tries to turn the spotlight onto himself, claiming his wife and kids were in the mall at the time and they could have been victims of the shooter, too (when in fact, his family never made it into the mall that day). Aisha has a nose for violent white men, though, and she keeps digging into Kellaway's background, turning up details about his past that slowly but surely change the narrative and topple him from the hero's pedestal.

While the novella's title could refer to a gun, it is the mall security guard who is loaded, a bullet in a gun ready to go off at any moment. Some might attribute his propensity for violence to PTSD but, as it turns out, Kellaway was unacceptably violent as a soldier, too, and he was bounced from the armed services because of it. He is separated from his wife, who is suing for custody of their young son, and overly fond of guns, even though he is currently banned from owning any. He deflects inquiries into how he happened to have a weapon during the mall shooting by reminding people how much worse things could have been if he weren't armed. He later claims that the gun he wielded that day, with terrible consequences, wanted to be fired. The bullet wanted to lay claim to one of its victims. People don't kill, in other words: the gun did. There's a fire storm bearing down on the town. Kellaway is fired up, too, as the media strips away his mask and exposes him for who he is. There are no happy endings here—not when a man has a small arsenal at his disposal and nothing to lose.

"Aloft" reads like a cross between a Doctor Who story and a classic Star Trek, with a little "Jack and the Beanstalk" thrown in for good measure. The main character, Aubrey Griffin, is an anxiety-ridden young man of twenty-two who has been so obsessed over an unattainable woman named Harriet that he surrendered an opportunity to play with the Cleveland Orchestra (Aubrey is a talented cellist) to play folk tunes with Harriet and her best friend June. 

Harriet and June were amateur, struggling musicians. Aubrey inserted himself into their lives when he rescued them from a bad performance one evening by supplementing them with his cello from the wings. Harriet declared him their savior and he was immediately smitten. Since then he's been hanging around with them, hoping that his time with her will come, even though she has a long-time boyfriend. It's a story that's probably familiar to many young men who fall in love with women who don't love them back. Aubrey thinks he's mastering his neuroses in therapy, but in some regards he's just fooling himself.

Aubrey is nothing like his namesake from the novels of Patrick O'Brian. Among His many fears is acrophobia, which is why agreeing to participate in a sky-diving tribute to June is such a big deal. Harriet has given Aubrey ample chances to beg off, but he's still clinging to hope, and so he finds himself in a little Cessna, strapped to his tandem partner, farting up a storm from anxiety and on the verge of backing out, much to his shame. He's left without a choice when the Cessna's engine suddenly fails: he's forced to jump from the airplane; however, instead of parachuting to safety, he and his partner crash into the UFO-shaped cloud Harriet had observed a few minutes earlier.

This is no frothy wisp of water vapor: it's solid enough that the impact severely injures his skydiving instructor, who, shortly thereafter, is tugged off the edge of the cloud, taking the much-needed parachute with him. Aubrey finds himself alone in this strange terrain where something is attempting to make him feel at home. When he imagines a bed or a chair, the clouds form one that is substantial enough to serve the purpose. 

As his adventure plays out in this weird cloudscape, Aubrey has time to reflect on the past few years in pursuit of a relationship that will never happen. He discovers, though, that his loneliness pales in comparison to that of the entity that will do almost anything to keep him around and keep him happy.

A different kind of cloud is featured in "Rain," the final novella in Strange Weather. This one, inexplicably, delivers a torrent of nails during a "hard rain" storm that strikes a wide swath across Colorado. As it turns out, these nails are actually crystals of fulgurite, a form of quartz generally formed by lightning fusion of sand, although that revelation does little to help determine why Mother Nature has suddenly turned lethal.

The story is told by a twenty-three-year old lesbian with the unlikely name Honeysuckle Speck. The day the first killing rain arrived was supposed to be a happy one for her: her girlfriend Yolanda is about to move in with her; however, Yolanda and her mother are among the storm's first victims, killed before Honeysuckle's eyes in the driveway to her Boulder home.

Honeysuckle has a number of eccentric neighbors, including a flirtatious Russian stripper and her husband, a woman with haphephobia (fear of being touched) and her nine-year-old son, whose medications have made him hypersensitive to sunlight, so she calls him Little Dracula. This stretch of Jackdaw Street is also home to a doomsday cult Honeysuckle refers to as the comet cult. Their leader has been predicting the end of the world for several years now, the end-day a constantly moving target. They feel vindicated by this cataclysm.

The un-named but totally recognizable President of the United States responds to the perceived terrorist threat by taking to Twitter to rain insults upon the supposed villains behind this attack. (The equally recognizable Vice President promises to pray as hard as he could for the survivors.) This storm proves to be more than a one-time event. It has become self-sustaining and threatens to become a permanent feature of the global weather cycle.

A post-apocalyptic story wouldn't be complete without a trek through the landscape, so Honeysuckle heads off on foot toward Denver to tell Yolanda's father about his daughter and wife's fate. En route she has a number of perilous encounters but on the whole the tone of this piece is jauntier than most stories in the genre. In the afterword, Hill admits that in "Rain" he is spoofing his most recent novel, The Fireman, so many of the confrontations have a twisted sense of humor about them, including a meeting with a professional MMA fighter who goes by Marc DeSpot, a scene involving an escaped killer with an affinity for hacksaws, and a surreal scene where employees from McDonald's and Staples manage the aftermath of the apocalypse. (Members of Staples' Rewards Program get personalized service.)

In addition to the obvious take on climate change, the story tackles homophobia. Honeysuckle's parents didn't respond well when she came out, but Yolanda's parents embraced their daughter's announcement, and welcomed her girlfriend into the family with open arms. Yolanda's neighbors aren't as open-minded, though, and some feel they are owed a refund for all the babysitting money they paid Yolanda over the years, now that her "true nature" is known.

Ultimately, though, "Rain" is more of a whodunnit than a post-apocalyptic saga. Hill drops subtle clues throughout the story that come together to provide a surprising revelation toward the end, in the vein of a Midsomer Murders story, a genre favored by Yolanda's mother. As with many post-apocalypse stories, "Rain" does not end with resolution so much as with potential and hope. The world has been permanently altered, but perhaps not irrevocably. Only time will tell.

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