5 stars
Powerful tales that don't hold back

After the somewhat underwhelming Heart-Shaped Box (review), I wasn’t sure what to expect of Joe Hill’s Strange Weather. It’s a collection of four novellas published in 2017, coming in at 432 pages total (paperback). It’s fair to call it a set of horror stories, but each one is very different:

  • Snapshot is a classic “haunted artifact” story that could easily have been written by Joe Hill’s father, Stephen King. The artifact in question is an instant camera which not only preserves memories, it also takes them away.

    The protagonist, an overweight and very clever kid, has a close encounter with the device’s owner. Just when you think the story is pretty much over, it goes to some very interesting places. 5/5.

  • Loaded is about the intersecting stories of several people whose lives are impacted, and in some cases erased, by guns.

    It’s the longest of the four pieces, but it moves at such a rapid clip that you’re unlikely to notice. This is a gut-wrenching, punishing, very American tale. 5/5.

  • Aloft is the story of Aubrey Griffin, a neurotic musician who is reluctantly participating in a skydiving trip to honor a deceased loved one. But instead of safe and sound on planet Earth, Aubrey finds himself in a strange place that seems to never want to let him go.

    It’s an imaginative, not especially scary adventure that offers some reprieve between the two violent tales that precede and follow it. It invests us in its colorful characters, but that investment never quite pays off. Aloft might have worked better as a full-length novel. 3.5/5.

  • Rain is a return to blood-splattering horror, in this case inflicted by the weather itself, in a scenario reminiscent of Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. Our protagonist, a young lesbian woman with the unlikely name Honeysuckle Speck, barely escapes the first wave of carnage.

    As she makes her way through a Colorado hellscape on a personal quest, she faces a wannabe vampire, members of a religious cult, a mad Russian, an MMA fighter, a bigoted neighbor, and other witnesses to the apocalypse. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is president, and he provides the deranged all-caps tweets you would expect from him.

    It’s horror, but it’s also tongue-in-cheek, and it works on both levels. 5/5.

For three of the four stories, I felt that the length was just about perfect, showing a remarkable mastery of the novella form. Hill also uses his talent for creating memorable characters, which was already evident in Heart-Shaped Box, to its fullest.

I recommend Strange Weather without reservations, but know what you’re signing up for. Loaded is the centerpiece novella, and it’s a brutal story about a very real subject (gun violence). This not a book you’ll want to pick up unless you’re in the right headspace for it.

4 stars
A short but immersive casual adventure

The world as we know it has ended long ago, and the ruins of San Francisco are crawling with orcs and goblins. Your are a novice necromancer, in pursuit of your brother, who has abandoned you and your family in search of fame and fortune. Perhaps you will find him somewhere in the Transamerica Pyramid, one of the few tall buildings that are still standing.

Knights of San Francisco is a choice-based adventure game for Android and iOS made by a single developer, Filip Hracek, and a single illustrator, Alec Webb. It is mostly text-based, and the gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of Choice of Games titles, but Knights also severs to showcase the game’s own engine, Egamebook.

You move through the game’s world by selecting destinations on a map. As you do so, you encounter allies, enemies, and items that may help you on your quest. During turn-based combat, you control only your own actions (your allies attack independently). You are given a surprisingly large set of choices, from feinting, to casting a spell, to kicking a weapon out of the way.

The game is mostly text-based, but the illustrations by Alec Webb help to establish the setting. (Credit: Raindead Games / Alec Webb. Fair use.)

After each choice, a dice roll determines success or failure; if you fail, you can drain your stamina or sanity points to re-roll. The game generates text that describes the result of each combatant’s actions.

There are no hitpoints or levels, and death can come quickly. Still, thanks to your allies, the necromancy skill, restorative items, and the re-roll option, most battles will not present much of a challenge. Just in case, the game lets you rewind bad decisions (I only had to do so once).

The story is told in short paragraphs, much of it through dialog with friendly characters which you can skip if you prefer to focus on combat. The writing is solid, and you do get to make a choices that will shape the story and its ending.

If you’re looking for a game that will give you hours of replay value, this isn’t it—a playthrough takes about 60-90 minutes, and there’s not much that changes on a second run. But it’s immersive, novel, and fun, and only costs $3. Whether or not you pick this one up, Raindead Games is worth keeping an eye on.

3 stars
A fast and violent story that won't scare you out of your wits

I read my first Stephen King book when I was a teenager, and I remain one of his constant readers decades later. He’s incredibly prolific, but he won’t live forever (unless he’s made some kind of special arrangement). Who will I turn to then in order to fill the King-shaped void in my life? Perhaps Joe Hill, AKA Joseph Hillström King.

King shortened his middle name to create his nom de plume so people wouldn’t do what I’m doing: pay attention to his work because of his father’s. By now that ship has sailed, and comparisons are inevitable the moment you look at Hill’s photo on a book jacket. Joe Hill has followed in his father’s footsteps as a horror author, but he’s also explored new territory as the writer of Locke & Key, a graphic novel adapted into a TV series.

Heart-Shaped Box (2007) was Hill’s debut novel. Named after the Nirvana song, it’s about the haunting of a washed-up rock star named Judas Coyne by a ghost he buys on the Internet. The book wastes little time with questions or preliminaries. Soon, Coyne and his hot, young goth girlfriend (the latest of many) are on the run for their lives, from an entity that seems capable of anything and impossible to defeat.

Each chapter is named after a famous rock song, and Hill’s story is loud, fast, violent, engaging and—not especially scary. Coyne is not a likable main character, nor is he easily scared; the stakes are mostly limited to the survival of him and the people around him; the ghost is creepy but all too familiar and human in its evil.

That doesn’t make Heart-Shaped Box a bad story; I enjoyed my time with it, and finished it in a few days. But as far as horror goes, it lacks the menacing quality of the best works of the genre; it never plants an idea in your head that comes back when you’re alone in the house and it’s after midnight. 3.5 stars, rounded down because I’m hoping Hill’s later works will pack more of a punch.

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