A Review of Joe Hill’s “Full Throttle”
Joe Hill’s writings have been of interest to me because, over time, I’ve gotten to see the arc of a writer growing more confident in his abilities. (Unless this is just me.) I tried and failed to read Hill’s debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, not long after it came out, giving up on it a scant 70 pages in, as I found the writing to be pedestrian and the concept of buying a ghost off of the Internet to be silly. However, his sophomore release, Horns, was a marked improvement. Even better was NOS 4A2, even if it was a little long and rambling, and The Fireman was his best yet — even though I could have done without the multiple endings. So now I’ve gotten around to his second collection of short stories, Full Throttle, and while they were written over a 13-year period, it shows the mark of an author coming into his own and finally stepping out from under the shoes of Hill’s much more famous father, Stephen King.
In fact, Full Throttle is interesting because two of the collection’s 13 stories (there’s that number again) were co-authored by King. After reading them, I can conclude that there’s a difference you can spot between Hill’s writing style and that of King’s. Hill, I find, is a little more refined and restrained when it comes to his brand of horror, while King is ready and able to go for the profane and the full gross-out when he wants to. It’s like light and day, comparing the two styles, which is a way to say that you definitely can tell the difference and play the “spot what part of the story was written by whom” game.
Elsewhere, Hill shifts gears between the horror genre and more slipstream-y, or an almost fantasy style of writing. One of the stories, “All I Care About is You,” comes off as a little twee, in fact, as it is set in a world where robots grant wishes and those wishes involve being able to float down from a high skyscraper to the earth in a bubble-like membrane. This is definitely not the kind of story a Stephen King would write, so this is proof that Hill is of a different vintage of writer than his father and his influences are more rooted in, say, the style of a Neil Gaiman rather than of a Richard Matheson or a Ray Bradbury, as much as Hill wants to convince us in the collection’s introduction that he owes a debt to both of the latter.
As with any short story collection, there are pieces that work well and then there are the lesser stories. The story “Dark Carousel” is so unmemorable in its position as the second story in the collection that I had trouble recalling what it was about as I got deeper and deeper into the book, only to be reminded of it once I read the author’s afterword. (Hill shares the same trait as his father in that both writers, in their story collections, have a section at the back of the book detailing how certain stories came to fruition.) However, the story that comes after that, “Wolverton Station,” is deeply memorable — it’s about an executive with a coffee chain that snuffs out mom and pop stores who runs into a sort of den of werewolves while on a train in England. Even with the crackling stories, though, there are sometimes problems if you think about them too deeply. (Not to provide a spoiler, but in the aforementioned latter story, you’d think that someone would have noticed and done something about the “problem” area of England being plagued by wolves before the executive shows up, no?)
Despite that, these stories are enjoyable because they are usually fun and entertaining. The writing is quite dazzling, and Hill has really come a long way from his debut — whether or not you find the stories to be problematic. I did find that sometimes people who may have slight moral issues with doing the right thing easily met their demise — but this was a nuanced problem. By that I mean they were not all out evil, which would have made their outcomes more palpable. King, on the other hand, seems to redeem his flawed characters somehow, usually, so I was a little disappointed in the majority of the stories’ outcomes where slightly flawed characters seem to die as a result of their flaws. However, your mileage may vary. I would suppose that this is another way of distinguishing himself from his father — but, still, I often found that these characters hadn’t done enough bad things in what scant information the story gives us about their past digressions to warrant getting an ax to the head or some such thing. Moral ambiguity is something Hill feels that should merit punishment, usually. It’s hard to be so cut and dry about that, though, as a reader. Nobody is perfect, after all.
All in all, though, even if you don’t agree with the author on all of his plot choices, which come to be a bit predictable as the collection wears on, this is still a worthy book to read, especially if you’re not new to Hill’s fiction. The writing quality by pulp standards is so good here that it has me reconsidering my appraisal of Heart-Shaped Box and has me wondering if I should check it out from the library and try it again. With Full Throttle, I felt that Hill was starting to emerge as a writer in his own right, and may be, in some ways, starting to surpass his father’s writing — despite the fact that the stories in this book cover a wide time span in Hill’s writing career. Whether you agree or not, one thing is clear: Joe Hill is a name to be reckoned with, and may very well be the new “king” of horror and speculative fiction.
Joe Hill’s Full Throttle will be published by William Morrow on October 1, 2019.
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