Strange Weather by Joe Hill (Short Horror Novel Collection, 2017).
As per the title, each of the four long stories/short novels here make reference, to one degree or another, to abberant weather conditions. All are, of course, horrific in nature and treatment. But there’s nothing repetitive about them. Each tale has a different setting, tone and individual personality. So I’ll examine each on its own merits before reflecting on the overall effect.
First up is “Snapshot,” an earlier version of which appeared in a double-issue of the respected horror magazine Cemetery Dance in 2016. The first-person narrator is a teenager in California’s Silicon Valley area in the late 1980s. His family life has been less than ideal, yet he never fully appreciated the aging neighbor lady who often provided the love and attention he seldom received from his mostly-absent mother and work-focused father. He again encounters this aging woman, who is slipping rapidly into dementia. But her descent into apparent senility may not be an entirely natural (if tragic) condition. Soon after, a strange and arrogant, tattooed tough-guy enters the picture with a variation on the then-cutting edge technology of the instant camera. No mere Polaroid, the sinister device alters reality in a novel and destructive way I won’t spoil for readers.
Suffice it to say that the young protagonist must fight back against this evil figure and his diabolical camera. Depriving the villainous character of his unique weapon will require extreme actions. And once accomplished, will there be a way ot reverse the machine’s dreadful effects? Again, I’m not telling. But the tale is rich in pathos and powerful emotion. A number of supporting characters are fairly memorable, and there’s plenty of realistic family conflict and wistful pain as the young narrator grows up to face and understand himself and others. Meanwhile, the odd weather aspect ties in with old legends of whole flocks of dead birds inexplicably raining from the sky.
The remaining short novels are previously unpublished.
“Loaded” is a chiller about the American obsession with guns. A thuggish mall security guard is hailed a hero after violently reacting to a shooting incident in one of the mall’s stores. Only trouble is: He panicked and caused more carnage than he prevented. His attempts to cover his tracks lead to progressively more grotesque and brutal violence. A local reporter with past experience in witnessing out-of-control excessive force is caught up in the savagery, with ends in an extremely brutal last chapter in which a looming, climate change/drought-fueled wildfire proves less a threat than the actions of one gun-totting madman. This chiller is a spinetingling work of psychological (rather than supernatural) horror.
Like “Loaded,” “Aloft” is told in the third-person. But otherwise, the two tales have little in common.
For one thing, unnatural weather (of an ultimately science fictional origin) takes centerstage in “Aloft.” A panicked rookie skydiver is the main character here. He wants to chicken out from the jump that was intended to honor a late friend’s memory, but which he agreed to simply to impress her dead woman’s sister (that he’s had the obsessive hots for longterm). But when the plane’s engine conks out, he’s forced to parachute, after-all. Only the very weird looking cloud below turns out to be–something else. It’s semi-solid and of extraterrestial origins–and it’s lonely?
This one has little-to-no physical violence, but packs emotional substance as the man reflects on his past and plots his escape from this odd cloud-machine. Lots of internal conflict here as he comes to terms with past failures and emerges a changed (mostly for the better) person. “Aloft” has its disturbing elements, but works more as a somewhat wistful rather than a terrifying piece.
Finally in “Rain,” the world faces absolute, end-of-the-world ruin when something (or someone?) causes normal rain drops to be replaced by sharp and deadly pieces of gleaming crystal. The first-person viewpoint character here is a Colorado woman whose best chance of happiness is stolen away by the first such outbreak. Her about-to-move-in lover is killed in the first outbreak: Slaughtered before her eyes by countless needle-like objects pouring from the sky.
This sets the stage for plenty of rough doomsday action as she struggles to survive in a rapidly collapsing civilization, deals with oddball cultists who welcome the propect of the appocalpse and finally learns what (and who) triggered the bizarre events (and why). Hill ends the story (and the book) on an ambiguous note–there may be a way to reverse things, but the scientists who produced it are uncertain if it will work.
Overall, this is an effective book and while the tone and treatment of each story is different, one consistent feature is Hill’s insightful characterization. Additionally, I found the accompanying illustrations and Hill’s brief afterword (revealing how each story came about) welcome extras.