Book Review: Full Throttle: Stories by Joe Hill (2019)

Tuesday, October 15th, 2019

A bit of a mixed bag, but there are a few unforgettable stories in here.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, domestic violence, and racist, sexist, and homophobic language.)

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

(“Wolverton Station”)

“I can think of worse ways to go than with a good book in my hand. Especially if it was one I had no right to ever read, because it wasn’t going to be published until after I was dead.”

(“Late Returns”)

“If there’s one thing prettier than a sunset,” Iris says, “it’s seeing little shits cry.”

(“All I Care About Is You”)

I am consistently bewitched by Joe Hill’s writing, though I have a strong preference for his long-form fiction: The Fireman is lit, NOS4A2 and its companion graphic novel, The Wraith, are the stuff of deliciously horrifying nightmares, and Horns is probably one of my all-time favorite books. (I say “probably” because there’s some stiff competition out there, and my top ten list is dominated by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, and Philip Pullman. But top twenty-five, maybe? The Treehouse of the Mind still gives me chills.)

His short stories are a little more hit or miss for me – although, even at his “worst,” Hill’s writing is still entertaining enough. Full Throttle is no exception: of the thirteen stories here (some originally released as Kindle Singles, others all-new), a handful are kind of meh, one or two contain some major disappointments, and a few are so impossibly shiny that I’d recommend the book on their merits alone (“Late Returns,” I’m looking at you). Even the intro, which I’m just as likely to skip, is sweet and sentimental and brimming with insight, and you will find yourself devouring the notes and salivating for more.

“Throttle” with Stephen King – 3/5

After a drug deal gone horribly wrong, a motorcycle gang is cornered and run down on Route 6 by a mysterious tanker truck, adding a little extra truth to their motto (“THE TRIBE – LIVE ON THE ROAD, DIE ON THE ROAD”). Perhaps fittingly for this King-Hill collab, father-son drama ensues. This story has a pretty strong King vibe to it, and is enjoyable enough, though not necessarily memorable.

“Dark Carousel” – 4/5

It’s August 1994, and a group of semi-delinquent teens are having one last hurrah at the Cape Maggie Pier in Maine. This being a Joe Hill tale, everything goes sideways when they disrespect an enchanted (cursed?) carousel, the denizens of which come alive at night. Pro tip: keep an eye out for the Charlie Manx/Christmasland reference, which makes this story a little more delightfully macabre and adds to the world building like whoah.

“Wolverton Station” – 3.5/5

I read this story when it was first published as a Kindle Single and enjoyed it just as much the second time around. An evil, bloodsucking corporate type is unperturbed when a wolf steps onto his train; after all, protestors have hounded (hardy har har!) him throughout his London tour to promote the first Jimi Coffee store in the UK. But the massacre in the next car over rather gives him pause (paws!). A fun story, but yet again I found myself craving a bloodier, more definitive ending.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” – 3.5/5

This Nessie-inspired story (with shades of a middle-grade version of “The Body”) also started out as a Kindle Single. I didn’t really love it two years ago, and I don’t think my feelings have changed much since then. A young girl named Gail and her friend Joel discover the body of a dead pliosaur washed up on the shore of Lake Champlain. Given that she’s got a wild imagination, it’s never quite clear if Gail is a trustworthy narrator, which makes for a rather unsatisfying story. I found myself wanting to read more about the malfunctioning but well-meaning robot child Gail from the story’s earliest pages, tbh. But, still: DINOSAURS!

“Faun” – 3/5

This story about one percenters who pay to hunt fantastical creatures in another dimension – accessible via an unassuming little door, located in the attic of a musty farmhouse in Rumford, Maine, but four times a year – showed a ton of animal-friendly promise. Big game hunting, am I right? And while it is indeed fun to watch fauns, whurls, whizzles, orcs, and ogres hunt the hunters (though more gore would have been both nice and well-deserved), the ending is deeply unsatisfying. Fallows’s “breath of kings” quest plays into self-serving, speciesist tropes about how nonhuman animals willingly “sacrifice” themselves for us, whether to be food or trophies or research subjects. Hard pass, bro.

“Late Returns” – 5/5 f’in amazing

If you pick up Full Throttle for just one story, let “Late Returns” be it. Adrift after the loss of his parents and his job as a long-haul trucker in one (very long!) day, John Davies falls into a part-time job driving the local library’s Bookmobile while returning a copy of his late mother’s last loan, Another Marvelous Thing. During his travels, ye ole Bookmobile sometimes slips into other times, giving ghosts the gift of one last good read before their souls pass on to wherever it is that they go. “Late Returns” is a love letter to book nerds, a salve for the grieving heart. Bittersweet, magical, and filled with compassion, it’s a story that’s woven itself into my own cobbled-together atheist approximation of a religion: something warm and comforting to hold onto.

I mean, damned if the bit about Harry Potter doesn’t make you bawl your eyes out.

“All I Care About Is You” – 5/5

Set some time in the 22nd century (maybe), a down-on-her-luck Iris Ballard celebrates her sixteenth birthday on top of the Spoke – not with her friends, but with a Clockwork boy named Chip who she’s rented for the hour. This story is lovely…until it isn’t. I loved the world building – the stuff about Murdergame is fascinating, and the reflections on being a professional victim, astute – but I don’t know how to feel about the twist. It seems appropriate, but bleak AF.

“Thumbprint” – 3.5/5

Another Kindle Single, this one about Abu Ghraib. Mallory Grennan has been home for eight months, staying in her childhood home, hers now that her father has passed. She lives a pretty unassuming life, tending bar and working out. She’s left the war behind…or she had, until the thumbprints start showing up: in her mailbox, under her door, on the windshield of her car. Someone is stalking her, and she’s ready to confess. A not-so-subtle commentary on the inefficacy and inhumanity of torture.

“The Devil on the Staircase” – 3/5

The son of an Italian bricklayer discovers the stairs to hell. Spoiler alert: the devil is him. This is perhaps the most experimental story in the book, and I didn’t really take to the formatting.

“Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” – 4/5

Held captive by her family on the road trip from (literal) hell, a teenager tweets her own demise, at the hands of demented zombie carnival owners. “Twittering” is fun and snarky and crafty and I’d love to see Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone take on it.

“Mums” – 3/5

Jack is thirteen when his mother dies, supposedly in a tragic, alcohol-fueled accident. “Supposedly” because Mrs. McCourt was married to a gun-crazy, conspiracy-theorist Separatist from whom she’d tried to flee just months before. Though Mom was a large part of Jack’s world – whittled down to Mom, Dad, cousin Connor, and his wife Beth, all of which take turns homeschooling him – he swallows his father’s lies and forgets her easily enough. That is, until he buys a package of seeds from a wizened old street vendor, and the resulting Mums resurrect his mother, in a manner of speaking.

This would be a pretty cool revenge story if not for Jack’s paranoia. Also, can we put the brakes on the violent schizophrenic stereotype? It’s tired, played out, and only further marginalizes people with mental health issues.

“In the Tall Grass” with Stephen King – 3/5

There’s something monstrous and alien in the Kansas grass! And…that’s kind of it. The film adaptation is in production, so that should be interesting.

“You Are Released” – 5/5

This story answers the question, what would it feel like to be cruising at 37,000 feet when World War III breaks out?

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: The Fireman, Joe Hill (2016)

Monday, May 16th, 2016

Joe Hill strikes again!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racist/sexist language, violence, and sexual assault.)

It was them making the light. They were all of them tattooed with loops and whorls of Dragonscale, which glowed like fluorescent paint under a black light, hallucinatory hues of cherry wine and blowtorch blue. When they opened their mouths to sing, Harper glimpsed light painting the insides of their throats, as if each of them were a kettle filled with embers. […]

Harper felt she had never seen anything so frightening or beautiful.

“You know what the kids say.”
“I have no idea what the kids say. What do they say?”
“She came back from the eighties to save mankind. Martha Quinn is our only hope.”

The hens are clucking. Harper thought it would be a toss-up, which term for women she hated more: bitch or hen. A hen was something you kept in a cage, and her sole worth was in her eggs. A bitch, at least, had teeth.

The year is 2018-ish (if Martha Quinn’s approximate age is a reliable guidepost), and the world is on fire. A fungus called Draco incendia trychophyton – Dragonscale in lay terms, ‘scale for short – is making the rounds, leaving ashes and chaos in its wake. Once it finds a host, the spore spreads and propagates, infiltrating its victim’s blood, tissue, and organs – including the brain, with which it forms an intimate bond. The first sign of infection is the strangely beautiful markings it leaves on its host’s skin – dark tattoos that shimmer with flecks of gold.

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Mini-Review: Wolverton Station, Joe Hill (2014)

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Cheeseburgers and Entitlement

five out of five stars

“I knew by the smell of you. You Americans have different accents – your southern accent, your California-surfer accent, your Noo Yawk accent.” Affecting an atrocious faux-Queens accent as he said it. “But you all smell the same.” […]

“What do we smell like?” Saunders asked.

“Like cheeseburgers,” said the wolf, and he barked with laughter. “And entitlement.”

When Saunders, aka “The Woodcutter” – a hatchet man for global coffee company Jimi Coffee – spots a wolf on the platform as his train pulls into Wolverton Station, he’s hardly surprised: his London trip has been plagued by protestors angered by the expansion of Jimi Coffee into British borders. Saunders’ M.O. is as ruthless as it is simple: find a quaint mom-n-pop store, set up shop nearby, and slowly but surely drive them out of business, even if it means running at a loss for months or even years. First Main Street, then the world. For this he earns a seven-figure salary, even as black and brown children labor in Jimi Coffee’s factories for mere pennies. The giant Uncle Sam effigy, complete with a larger-than-life, pink-as-a-baby’s-bottom penis? It comes with the ribbon cutting.

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Mini-Review: Thumprint: A Story, Joe Hill (2012)

Monday, November 17th, 2014

Cliffhanger ending is cliffhangery.

four out of five stars

You received a two-hundred-dollar-a-month bonus for every month you spent in the combat zone, and a part of her had relished the fact that her own life was valued so cheap. Mal would not have expected more.

But it didn’t occur to her, when she first learned she was going to Iraq, that they paid you that money for more than just the risk to your own life. It wasn’t a question of what could happen to you, but also a matter of what you might be asked to do to others. […]

Two hundred dollars a month was what it cost to make a torturer out of her.

After her tour in Iraq, PFC Mallory Grennan returned to her childhood home in Hammett, New York – newly empty since the death of her father, also a war veteran, just ten hours before she set foot back on US soil. Whereas her father had saved lives as a medic, Mal denigrated them: you wouldn’t know it from the photographs, but she was part of the naked pyramid fiasco at Abu Ghraib. And that appears to be the least of it: as a cop in the army, she regularly humiliated and assaulted suspected insurgents.

Now her past has followed her home, in the form of mysterious thumbprints, blank ink standing out starkly against white paper, left in her mailbox, under her door, on her windshield. Mal’s wronged so many people, both in the Middle East and right here at home; which one of them hates her so much that he wishes her dead?

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Book Review: The Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, Joe Hill & Charles P. Wilson III (2014)

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Christmas in August!

five out of five stars

NOS4A2 was one of my favorite new releases last year; I devoured it in a matter of days and then promptly added all of Joe Hill’s titles to my wishlist. (Too late for Christmas, but that’s the way the gingerbread crumbles.) So you can only imagine how excited I was when I heard that Hill was resurrecting the twisted innerscape of Charles Manx III in graphic novel format. I pre-ordered The Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland as soon as it became available on Amazon, and have spent the last six months eagerly awaiting its arrival.

The Wraith is everything I wanted and more. It collects issues 1-6 of Welcome to Christmasland in a lovely (wait, did I say lovely? I meant nightmarish!) hardcover book, supplemented with oodles and oodles of extra artwork. The storyline briefly explores Charlie Manx’s childhood in the Wild West (we’re talking late 1800s here); after being violently assaulted and raped by one of his mother’s johns, Charles taps into the mysterious and unexpected power of his Fleet Fantom sled to exact his revenge.

Fast-forward to 1988, when a trio of escaped cons – including Dewey Hansom, a sleazy, child-raping music agent who also just so happens to be Manx’s current accomplice – calls on Manx for help. Manx promises to make them disappear so that the authorities will never find them; naturally, he loads them into the Wraith and takes them to Christmasland to meet his kids (and by “meet” I mean at the end of a very long sword). But Chess Llewellyn has an ace up his sleeve: balloons filled with delirium-101, sent to him by his dead son Adam, whose untimely death Chess was about to serve seven years for avenging.

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Book Review: NOS4A2, Joe Hill (2013)

Monday, December 30th, 2013

Dude!

five out of five stars

“High-pitched whine.” (page 663)

If I had to choose just one line in NOS4A2 to sum up my feelings, “High-pitched whine.” would be it. Never mind that it’s in reference to a motorcycle. (Or an explosion; it’s not entirely clear.) All the better, actually, seeing as some of the noises I made while reading this book can hardly be called human.

Equal parts horror and fantasy, with a dash o’ science fiction and coming of age thrown in for good measure, NOS4A2 had me hooked from the get-go. Without divulging too much of the plot, let’s just say that NOS4A2 imagines a world in which certain people, with the help of special objects, are able to cut holes in the fabric of reality and travel in between worlds both real and imagined. With a little help from her bottomless bag of Scrabble tiles, Maggie is able to read the future, while Vic’s Raleigh Tuff Burner bike can conjure up a bridge that will take her wherever she needs to go. But the knife cuts both ways; the more the girls use their respective talismans, the greater the toll it takes. Maggie develops a crippling stutter (and, in time, resorts to self-mutilation and drug abuse), while Vic’s metaphorical bridge begins to crumble – and with it goes her sanity.

But not everyone possessed of these powers use them for good; and sometimes, the ability is itself inherently evil. Take, for example, 116-year-old Charlie Manx, a psychic vampire whose 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is powered by the souls of children (the car’s vanity plates read “NOS4A2”; go ahead, sound it out!). Several times a year, Manx and his accomplice kidnap a young child and ferry her away to Christmasland, an imaginary world made real by Manx and his ride. Here they’re fated to spend eternity, cold, unfeeling husks of the happy children they once were. One day in 1996, 17-year-old Vic runs away from home after an especially vicious fight with her mother. She dusts off her trusty Raleigh and goes looking for trouble – and she runs straight into Charlie Manx.

If, like my husband, you feel like I’ve already spoiled the story for you, fear not: there’s another sixteen years that I didn’t even touch! It’s a long and sprawling tale that doesn’t end with Manx’s arrest. Or death.

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"Don’t mourn – organise!"

Saturday, August 1st, 2009


 
Joe Hill joined my freecycle group this morning.

Okay, so it’s not that Joe Hill – obviously – nor is it his famous namesake. Nope, just some random Joe Hill living in Kansas City. In fact, I don’t even think it’s Joe Hill, but rather the wife of Joe Hill, using a joint email account. (Ladies, wtf is up with that shit? Email accounts are free, ya know, and marriage vows don’t grant your husbands the right to monitor your personal correspondence. Nor do they strip you of your self identity, surname notwithstanding.)

Either way, seeing Joe Hill’s name in the pending members list immediately brought to mind Joan Baez’s performance of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” (itself a cover of Earl Robinson’s rendition of a 1930 poem by Alfred Hayes), immortalized in the Woodstock ’69 movie and soundtrack. Oh, how I loved that soundtrack! I bought the boxed set some time around 10th grade, and blasted it nonstop for damn near a year. That summer, I spent a good chunk of my vacation sanding a car my parents had recently acquired, so my father could paint it (gray, yuck). From sun up to sun down for weeks, I scrubbed rust from metal while immersing myself in the sounds of Woodstock. Good times.

Anyhow, back to Joe Hill. Born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Sweden circa 1879, Joe Hill immigrated to the U.S. in 1902, where he eventually embraced socialism and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the Wobblies). He worked as a labor organizer, political songwriter, satirical poet and activist. Hill was accused of a double murder in Salt Lake City in 1914 and was subsequently tried and executed for the crime. Hill’s guilt, as well fairness of his trial (which are two separate issues), has been questioned by both contemporaries and historians.

But that’s neither here nor there. As one Amazon reviewer commented (oh, how my wishlist continues to expand!), Baez’s song need not be true in order to be powerful – or, for that matter, need not be nonfiction in order to be true. The U.S. government has a long and continuing history of activist repression, and even if Hill was not framed for the murders, it’s not a huge leap to think that the government has committed similar injustices against other, lesser known activists. The spirit of the song is spot on.

I’ve included the lyrics below for those who can’t view the video – though you’ll miss Baez recount her then-husband’s arrest and incarceration for resisting the military draft. Both Baez and David Harris were reportedly vegetarians; according to the Google, Baez still is (oh, how my love for Baez continues to expand!).

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