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‘Strange Weather’ smart, scary … and sublime

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It takes a special kind of creative self-awareness to allow a story to be exactly as long as it needs to be. The temptation to either heavily inflate or drastically cut a word count in order to fit within certain generally accepted literary parameters is significant, so it’s impressive when a writer is capable of staying utterly true to the tale.

Joe Hill has embraced that notion with his latest book “Strange Weather” (William Morrow, $27.99), a collection of four short novels. Rather than force these narratives to be more than what they are, Hill simply tells the stories as they wish to be told. They’re lean and sharp, with nary an ounce of prosaic fat on any of their bones.

And oh yeah – they’re all excellent.

In “Snapshot,” we meet Michael Figlione, a 13-year-old kid living in Silicon Valley in 1988. He’s overweight and awkward, spending much of his time tinkering with assorted electronics in the garage. His parents are distant – his mom literally so, a far-flung anthropologist. And one of the older ladies in the neighborhood – the one who used to care for him in his youth – is starting to show the effects of dementia.

But when a heavily tattooed thug shows up, sporting elaborate ink in an ancient tongue that leads Michael to dub him “The Phoenician,” something sinister is set into motion. The Phoenician carries with him a mysterious Polaroid Instant Camera that takes far more than just pictures with each flash and whir. And it’s up to fat, weird Mike to somehow save the day.

“Snapshot” is a brisk creeper of a story, the perfect way to kick off a collection like this. There’s something that feels autobiographical about Mike, as though Hill has distilled some specific aspects of his own adolescence. There are moments of sweetness interspersed throughout – a wonderful thematic journey with regards to the importance and transience of memory.

I found myself thinking of “The Sun Dog,” a story that was part of Stephen King’s “Four Past Midnight” – a similar collection to this one – even though the tales bear relatively few surface similarities. Tonally, they feel like kin of a sort. “Snapshot” is a strong opening, a well-built horror story.

“Loaded” – the longest of the bunch – is the most grounded in what we’d consider “the real world,” with no paranormal or supernatural elements. It is also the bleakest and most gutwrenching, with a sense of genuine possibility that makes it all the more terrifying.

Randall Kellaway is a mall security guard with a checkered past and plenty of unchecked rage. He winds up stopping a potential mass shooting and becoming the darling of the media. But the truth of what happened that day is something much darker and Kellaway’s story begins to fall apart. At the same time, wildfires that threaten the town cause him to leap into armed action once more – action that might have even more tragic results.

“Loaded” mesmerizes even as it repulses. Bearing witness to the steady unraveling of a man like Kellaway is tough to stomach; even the flashes of sympathetic feeling are buried beneath his paranoia and persecution complex. We alternately creep and careen toward a conclusion that seems both shocking and foregone and are left wrung out by the journey.

Hill has captured something here, rendering forth our culture’s uneasy relationships with firearms and race in a manner that is both narratively compelling and thought-provoking. That’s an exceedingly fine line to walk in the current climate, but he does so with a deft touch and one of the more hauntingly vivid characterizations you’re likely to encounter.

“Aloft” is almost whimsical by comparison – though no less engaging. Aubrey is a lovesick young man with a fear of heights who nevertheless agrees to go skydiving in an effort to stay close to his dream girl. His fears prove founded for an unexpected reason when, after he jumps, he finds himself stranded on a cloud. An inexplicably solid cloud that can read his mind in a crude fashion.

Aubrey is a castaway in the sky, left to his own devices and an increasing certainty that he is forever trapped on his vaporous island. The cloud attempts to provide, but only on its own terms; it clearly wants certain of its mysteries to remain unexplored. Awash in loneliness and memories, Aubrey pushes forward, but his ultimate discovery may prove to be far more than he could have bargained for.

This story is almost a palate cleanser after the unrelenting “Loaded” – Aubrey is a likable and sympathetic character trapped in a situation not of his own making. There’s a snarkiness to his voice that is particularly engaging. And the use of flashback only serves to enhance that empathy – we can’t help but root for the guy.

There’s a lovely sense of magical realism at work here, that “something weird happens to ordinary person” vibe that can serve as the foundation for some dynamite storytelling when done right – and Hill does it right. Call “Aloft” something like “Cast Away” meets “The Tempest” in the clouds and you’re not far off. There are unsettling elements at work here, to be sure, but this story - more than the rest - is imbued with a real sense of wonder.

Last but not least is “Rain,” another example of Hill really having a handle on this whole apocalypse thing. An ordinary day in Colorado is marked by the first of what will prove to be many deadly “rainstorms” – the skies open up and let forth not water, but needle-sharp shards of crystal that rain down agony and death from on high.

The story follows a young woman as she journeys through the devastated landscape in an effort to protect her remaining loved ones even as she tries to avoid the suspicious Russian former chemist in the apartment downstairs and the Doomsday-spouting “comet cult” living across the street. As the storms increase in frequency and intensity, it rapidly becomes clear that if it doesn’t stop soon, civilization will be doomed – one way or another.

Hill showed his post-apocalyptic skills in his excellent “The Fireman,” and this story offers up an interesting riff on them. He captures the combination of resignation and barely-there hope that makes narratives like this so compelling. He’s also wonderful at building the context of worlds like these, showing us not just individual, but societal reactions to earthshattering events.

We watch as flawed, broken people pick their way through the remains of a world that will not – cannot – ever be the same. At the same time, Hill makes sure to give us plenty of glimpses at the edges of the story, the details that surround the horrifying central premise. It’s an agonizing trip at times, but one worth taking.

These four novellas that make up “Strange Weather” wouldn’t appear to have a lot in common upon initial examination. But after reading them, it seems that Hill is really talking about the power of loneliness, and by channeling that power through some vastly different conduits, he’s able to tell four unique and powerful stories that, while different, share a spirit that unites them.

Joe Hill is a writer of incredible gifts and immense storytelling acumen; “Strange Weather” puts those gifts on full display. 

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