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Joe Hill puts the pedal to the metal in ‘Full Throttle’

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There aren’t many writers out there who are as thoughtfully scary as Joe Hill.

Hill has long shown a particular knack for telling stories that are, at their hearts, about the fears that we evoke in one another. Sure, there are supernatural or paranormal elements to some of his tales, but in the end, the real fear – the real impact – comes from man’s connection to man … and what happens when that connection is stretched, twisted or severed entirely.

Hill’s latest book is “Full Throttle” (William Morrow, $27.99), a collection of 13 stories aimed at stoking the coals of that fear, seizing hold of your imagination and pulling it into the depths. There are heroes and villains (although sometimes it can be a little tricky to tell the difference). There is justice and vengeance (although again – sometimes they look awfully similar). There are strange fantastic realms and there are places that look just like home, weird beasts and regular folks.

Take the collection’s initial offering, for instance. “Throttle” – a tale Hill co-wrote with father Stephen King – is about a biker gang being relentlessly pursued through the deserts of the American Southwest by a shadowy figure in a semi. The pacing is deliberate even as the characters speed both away from and toward their fear; there are moments that are brutal and jarringly visceral. It is also a story about family, about what it means to be a parent when a child’s life has strayed significantly from the one you had hoped for them.

“Faun” ventures more into the realm of the supernatural, when a wealthy big-game hunter is given the opportunity to venture into a different world and take aim at the beasts that reside within. “Wolverton Station” is a weird tale about a corporate hatchet-man whose impulse decision to take the train has some horrifying ramifications. There are some striking experiments with form in pieces like “The Devil on the Staircase” and “Twittering from the Circus.”

The terrors of stories like “Thumbprint” and “You Are Released” are anchored in the real world; the latter was a close second in terms of my personal favorites, a thoughtful and insular look at what might happen when it all boils over and burns. Something like “Mums,” however, lets you make your own decisions as to what the “real world” even means.

Perhaps the best of the bunch – although of course your mileage will vary – is “Late Returns,” a thoughtful story that is probably the most hopeful in the entire collection. A man returns to his hometown following the passing of his parents and winds up as the new driver of the local library’s Bookmobile. Only this Bookmobile – a relic from the late 1960s – doesn’t just travel from place to place. Occasionally, it will move through time, allowing people from the past – people with books to return – one last great read before their end. It is an absolutely stunning story, smart and just the right degree of sentimental; I’d argue that it’s among the best work that Hill has ever done.

And on and on and on.

The truth is that it would be easy to expound at length upon just about every one of these stories. Hill’s narrative gifts are tremendous, and he unleashes them here to full effect. His ability to construct such sturdily delicate plots, both solid and subtle, is a joy to experience. He creates worlds in which we can’t help but immerse ourselves. It’s impressive enough that he can do that world-realization in his novels; to do that within the relatively limited parameters of short fiction is doubly so. The journey is taut and fraught and emotionally charged; the destination is visceral and surprising and both exquisitely chosen and utterly unexpected. He earns every shocked disbelieving headshake he gets - and there are a few.

What you might not expect from a book of scary tales is how funny they are. Hill’s wicked sense of humor isn’t omnipresent, but when it pokes its s—t-stirring little head up, it makes a big impression. He’s clever, but not overly so; there’s none of the performative neediness you sometimes get when a writer tries to show off. There’s nothing needy or show-offy about Hill’s work; it’s more than strong enough to exist on its own terms.

Really, it comes back to those human connections. Fear burns brightest when there’s something to lose, and what greater loss could there be than those who are close to us? Hill understands that as well as anybody, and that thread runs to some degree through almost everything he writes.

“Full Throttle” is an outstanding collection of work from the pen of an outstanding writer. Joe Hill began his career trying to step out of his father’s shadow, but that time has long passed. He’s not standing in the long shade anymore, if he ever was. Instead, he’s casting a shadow of his own, one that grows longer with every exceptional offering.

Last modified on Tuesday, 01 October 2019 17:54

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