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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
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
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
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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