Comparisons of Joe Hill to his dad are inescapable. That said, I think Hill has carved out his own voice and legacy to distinguish himself. I finally got to Strange Weather, and I feel it offers a good case study for how Hill compares to Stephen King and how he is completely different.
The collection begins with “Snapshot,” a tale about a guy with a Polaroid-like camera that, instead of taking pictures of people, takes memories from them. While each of these stories features a component of terror, this one is the most traditionally horror of the collection. It’s also the most Kingian. It mixes the King atmosphere with an identifiable voice, and the horror has a cool-factor to it. It’s also about a kid in an era steeped in nostalgia (Hill’s is the 80s whereas King’s is the 50s). Still, “Snapshot” would seem like a typical horror story until it makes itself incredibly (frighteningly) relevant in a metafiction sort of way, especially if you’re reading on an e-device. All told, I felt this one was a solid story but not great.
Hill then transitions to “Loaded,” a story that on the surface is not a horror tale, but I think that’s only because the horror of it is so grounded in reality. This is a realist piece of fiction, and we in the U.S. live with its horror every day. Despite some subtle suggestions that never manifest, there is nothing supernatural going on here. It’s a story about all of the reasons the U.S.’s fascination with guns is unhealthy and harmful. It’s really about more than that, though. It’s about how guns, on their own, are not necessarily bad, but once you mix them with all of the worst parts of American culture, we inevitably get tragedy. From the characters to the form to Hill nailing every turning point, I loved this. Trigger warning for those sensitive to the gun debate (pun 100% intended), but I do think, if you sat down and talked to Hill about this one, he would admit that, while many of the points in this story are all too common, much of it is exceedingly rare or entirely theoretical. What is fiction, though, if not the theory of humankind?
If that one is too grounded for you, “Aloft” puts your head in the clouds. It’s a story about a self-affirmed coward who goes skydiving because he promised a dying friend he would. But like most good stories, it’s not really just about that. Ostensibly, “Aloft” is about the male ego, its blindness and unwillingness to see objectively and its fragility when confronted with reality. In tandem, these themes construct a story about the courage of a man to understand how he has failed and to begin to make amends with himself and those he loves. “Aloft” is bizarre, but it’s also fantastically creative and meaningful. I loved it.
We conclude with “Rain,” a story about a storm that comes to town and brings nails instead of water. Okay, it’s not literally nails. They’re razor-sharp, crystalline shards. Admittedly, I’m still processing this one, but it’s about a woman whose partner and mother were killed in this initial onslaught in Boulder, CO, and her quest to walk to Denver to inform her partner’s father. Thematically, “Rain” is the most loaded of these stories in that it’s broadly about American culture and prejudice as it persists in a time of crisis. In this collection, “Rain” might be Hill’s most courageous attempt to describe homophobia, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, and probably more that I’m still unpacking. As much as I enjoyed reading this one, it does feel to me like the stitched seams of Frankenstein’s monster are visible here, but honestly, I feel like that imperfection is part of what makes this one courageous. Hill wanted a story about all of these things, and he may have done it with a heavy hand, but he did it. It’s alive.
If you’ve made it this far in my review, you’re probably already at the understanding that Strange Weather is somewhat progressive in its sociopolitical stance. For those of you more conservatively minded readers, this collection may land a little in your zone of resistance, but I don’t feel it’s preachy.
That said, this is not a collection about policy or legislation. There is nothing in here about the social foundation and importance of welfare for the lower classes, for example. This is very important: these stories are about morality, ethics, and principles. Hill is writing about issues of right and wrong. The fact that our political dialogue has co-opted these issues (and made them more visible) does not make them inherently political, and I really don’t think Hill thinks of them in those terms. I think what Strange Weather represents is Hill’s attempts to investigate these issues and present them in some new ways, and to that end, I think he largely succeeds.
I don’t think Strange Weather is mandatory reading (if you’ve never read a piece of fiction by Joe Hill, go get Horns right now), but I do think it’s solid and valuable and, for many, inspired and inspiring. For the Joe Hill fan, I think Strange Weather is something different from him, an evolution of sorts, and I think it’s worthwhile.