In fiction and film, horror can be cautionary (Don't go in the basement!) and even oddly comforting (Bad as things are, they're even worse on Elm Street). But in times like these, when real-world terrors outstrip our night terrors, how can a novelist possibly compete?
Joe Hill, the author of several terrifying bestsellers, rises to this challenge in "Strange Weather," a striking if sometimes uneven collection of four short novels.
In "Snapshot," Michael Figlione is a smart 13-year-old Californian who spends his free time inventing items such as a party gun that shoots confetti. "I was fat, and I was lonely," he says. "If you were the former, the latter was a given." Michael's mother is MIA; his well-meaning father encourages his son's interests by taking him to a local club of older, like-minded geeks, which doesn't really help. "When I dropped in on this crew, I wasn't just learning about circuit boards. I believed I was looking at my future: depressing late-night arguments about Star Trek and a life of celibacy."
But then an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Beukes, shows up at Michael's door and warns him about someone she calls the Polaroid Man: "Don't let him take a picture of you. Don't let him start taking things away." Michael dismisses her ravings as the early stages of dementia, but a run-in with the Polaroid Man at a convenience store convinces him that something far creepier is going on. Hill's artful blend of 1980s nostalgia and supernatural unease is enhanced by his touching depiction of Michael's encounters with Mrs. Beukes and her husband, an aging bodybuilder distraught over his wife's abrupt, inexplicable decline.
"Loaded," the most disturbing story here, recounts a decade-long history of gun violence, racism and domestic abuse in a Florida town. Hill deftly cuts back and forth between seemingly unrelated characters — a philandering lowlife and his teenage lover; an African American journalist and her young daughter; a former military cop now employed at a fetid shopping mall; a dark-skinned young woman in a headscarf — building to a gut-clenching resolution as horrific and familiar as this morning's news.
After all this darkness, the whimsical "Aloft" provides a welcome break in the clouds. Aubrey Griffin is crammed into a single-engine Cessna with other first-time skydivers preparing to honor a friend who recently died. The appearance of a vast, UFO-shaped cloud and the subsequent failure of the plane's engines cause everyone to make an emergency jump. The next thing he knows, Aubrey has fallen only 39 feet, not 12,000, and landed on the mysterious cloud. "He patted the mist ahead of him, stroked it like a cat. It firmed up into a lumpy, pliant mass at the first touch." A dreamlike, affecting tale unfolds, as Aubrey's memories and desires begin to come to life in ephemeral form. Anyone who's gazed out a plane window at cloud mountains, or dozed in a field on a summer afternoon and imagined castles (and perhaps aliens) in the sky, will be enchanted.
In the final story, "Rain," whimsy and horror form a more uneasy alliance. A young woman named Honeysuckle observes an ominous thunderhead over Denver. "I could smell rain in that wind — or something like rain anyway," she says. "It was the fragrance of a quarry, the odor of pulverized rock." A short time later, the storm hits:
"I took one step into the driveway, and something stung my arm. . . . I looked at my bare shoulder and saw a bright red drop of blood and something sticking out of the skin: a thorn of gold."
The ensuing downpour of crystalline needles kills Honeysuckle's girlfriend and thousands of others and destroys the area's infrastructure. An increasingly apocalyptic scenario unfolds as the spikes fall across the world. Hill's scenes of glass rain are surrealistically beautiful and frightening; those of looters, mounds of corpses and emergency responders evoke other post-apocalypse books and movies and, sadly, recent events. Like our own national reports, "Strange Weather" leaves readers with a scant chance of hope on the horizon.
Elizabeth Hand's most recent book is "Fire," a collection of essays and stories.
By Joe Hill
William Morrow. 432 pp. $27.99