Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review of Full Throttle by Joe Hill

Confession time: Joe Hill has entered my ranks of authors whose books are able to be bought sight unseen. It’s thus I went into Full Throttle (2019) thinking: “Great title for a novel. Can’t wait to get into it.” Lo and behold, however, upon the first few pages, it was quickly apparent Full Throttle is not a novel, rather a collection. “Oh well,” my brain said, “has a chance of being just as good.

After one of the most heartfelt introductions to any book or collection I’ve read in a long time, Full Throttle settles into itself, opening on the story from which the title was taken: “Throttle”, written with Stephen King. A full-on biker story, it tells of a troubled father-son relationship, and the test it undergoes one day after a drug deal goes sour. The punchiest story in the collection to kick things off, there is a classic King tractor trailer truck involved, but character presentation and an extended chase sequence are what make it a success. But for as striking as “Throttle” is, the second story in the collection, “Dark Carousel”, falls into ruts all too familiar in horror. About high schoolers and a haunted fair ground, Hill is able to push the story with good characterization, but in the end, the reader is better off just reading Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Seemingly written in response to the Stand on Wall Street movement (if youths standing around holding signs and smoking cigarettes can be called a movement), “Wolverton Station” tells of a particularly heartless executive in London, there to open the first international branch of his firm’s franchise coffee shop. Having fellow train passengers a degree beyond human puts him in a different mood, however, than just greed. If only the sentiment of this story could be true more often… Not quite fantasy, and not quite reality, “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” tells of a group of children who discover a dinosaur washed up on the shores of a lake. Interestingly domestic given the fantastical premise, Hill seems to have had a scene that wouldn’t let go until he put it in writing.

A story that takes an amazing left turn, “Faun” tells of a group of rich hunters looking for more than the game they kill on the plains of Africa. Getting what they pay for in an unassuming Maine cabin, this is a story that has the reader thinking one way, then throws a wrench in the works in positive fashion. Paean to books and reading, and a story that tugs at the heart strings, “Late Returns” tells about a man whose parents recently died, and who now must attend to their estate. Coming across a library book his mother forgot to return many years prior, he decides to do the right thing, and in doing so has a new gig that just might be the cure for his blues—a simple idea lovingly crafted. Written as a (long) series of tweets, “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” ends up becoming more literal than is perhaps good for it—like a Night of the Living Dead relayed by a teenage journalist.

Ostensibly science fiction—a rarity for Hill, “All I Care About Is You” tells of a young girl who finds herself in need of manual labor, and gets it in the form of an old, coin-charged robot. The two having a wonderful adventure on her birthday, it’s charming in non-saccharine fashion—something the father’s former job tries to dissolve with incongruence. An undeclared tribute to Lucius Shepard, “Thumbprint” tells of a veteran of the War in Iraq and the troubles she drags home with her once the fighting is done. Like Shepard, Hill captures the edge of sanity that warfare brings upon the person, and can never fully let go. Then there is the excellent “The Devil on the Staircase”. Experimental in form (the text takes the shape of a staircase), it’s an almost mythological tale of the choice one man faces in the slopes of Italian mountains, and the unexpected after effects.

Children of the Corn without the corn, “In the Tall Grass”, written with Stephen King, tells of a brother and sister who get lost, you guess it, in the tall grass while on a cross-country trip. The scene only becoming more horrific (natch), the father-son writer duo squeeze every ounce of substance from the setting—as cheaply Hollywood as it may be. Technically a post-apocalyptic story, “You Are Released” nevertheless occurs entirely within an airplane flying above the US as nuclear war breaks out on the world. Rotating among the passengers and crew, the story presents multiple perspectives on war and cultural differences, all from scenes and interaction that feel human—a complement, that.

In the end, Full Throttle is a solid collection of short fiction. The stories varied and surprising, there are only a couple blasé pieces. But with “Throttle”, “Faun”, “The Devil on the Staircase”, and others, Hill creates unique slices of fiction that twist and turn through the lives of real people. Overall, the author remains one of the strong, (mostly) original voices writing fiction today.

Published between 2007 and 2019, the following are the thirteen stories collected in Full Throttle:

Throttle (with Stephen King)
Dark Carousel
Wolverton Station
By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain
Late Returns
All I Care About Is You
The Devil on the Staircase
Twittering from the Circus of the Dead
In the Tall Grass (with Stephen King)
You Are Released

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