“Extraordinarily uneven” – Strange Weather by Joe Hill

‘I loved The Fireman. Joe Hill’s apocalyptic novel was one of the best books of last year. A brilliant exploration of social media cliques amidst a plague of spontaneous combustion, it was the next step in the evolution of a new master of the genre. So it’s sad to see the author take a massive step backwards with his latest book.

Strange Weather is a collection of four novellas. ‘Snapshot’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Adrift’, and ‘Rain’. Each story has odd weather events either at the forefront (‘Rain’), or as a thematic backdrop (‘Loaded’), though that’s as far as links across the collection get. In ‘Snapshot’, a young teenager discovers a camera that can steal people’s memories, ‘Loaded’ tells the story of a mall security guard who stops a mass shooting, ‘Adrift’ is about a man who crash-lands on a solid cloud during a skydive, and ‘Rain’ is an apocalyptic story in which the sky rains sharp nails.

As a whole, Strange Weather is extraordinarily uneven, showing Hill as a writer testing the waters rather than the confident storyteller we saw just twelve months ago. It’s telling that the afterword by Hill tells us that these were mostly written between novels, or on tour. They are throwaway stories, put together absent-mindedly and hastily published.

Of the four, ‘Snapshot’ is perhaps the most interesting. The Stephen King-esque traits that Hill has shown before are out in force (one of the characters has a rather cringeworthy phonetic South African accent, and the soul-stealing camera at the centre of the tale has some handy branding on ‘Solarid’ to explain exactly what it does), but the story wrong foots the reader in the best possible way, winding down the horror halfway to give way to a story about a young boy watching someone he cares for slowly die. It’s a heartbreaking story that really works.

The same can’t really be said for the other books in the collection. ‘Loaded’, in which a gut loving nut working as a security guard in a mall, accidentally murders an innocent bystander when he tries to stop a shooting, and covers it up by placing the blame on the other shooter, wants to be a serious piece of literature. In the end though, it doesn’t really go anywhere and doesn’t have much to say except, ‘guns are bad’. This is Hill preaching to the choir, and though the sentiment chimed with me, the execution (so to speak) failed.

Finally, both ‘Adrift’ and ‘Rain’ are just dull. Both have interesting concepts at the centre of them, but neither concept is executed particularly well, and neither warrant the length that the stories are. In the afterword Hill says that ‘Rain’ is intended to be a spoof of his own work, a claim that came as a huge surprise to me. Though at least ‘Rain’ has the most interesting character in the book.

It’s a shame that Strange Weather is as uninteresting as it is. Hill is clearly a great writer, and The Fireman suggested that he was going from strength to strength. Hopefully this is a misfire and the best is yet to come.

Any Cop?: ‘Snapshot’ just about makes this worth reading, but in the end, Strange Weather is less a tornado, more just a slight breeze. You’ll barely even notice it was there.

 

Daniel Carpenter

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