Tanya's Reviews > Full Throttle

Full Throttle by Joe Hill
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really liked it
bookshelves: short-stories, arc

Thank you to HarperCollins/William Morrow for providing me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review—and this far in advance, too! Full Throttle is the new and upcoming short story collection by Joe Hill, to be released on October 1st, and one of my most anticipated releases of the year.

I've read everything Joe Hill has published thus far, and I consider him one of my favorite authors—but I won't deny that I first came to his work because of who his father is. How fitting, then, that this new collection starts with an introduction titled "Who's your daddy?", truly one of the finest ones I've ever had the pleasure to read, in which he touchingly pays tribute to the influences that have formed him both as a person and as a writer. They go beyond King Senior, but of course he's a big one—yet instead of fearing or resenting that he might never grow out of his father's huge shadow, he sees it as a blessing in his life, and describes a most wonderful and loving relationship with both of his parents, something that made me ache somewhere inside, because I never had that.

Short stories are a format Hill excels at, and all of these (even the ones that weren't entirely my cup of tea) were memorable, which is impressive in and of itself. It's very rare that I can look back at the table of contents after finishing a short story collection I read over a period of a month and still recall what each story was about. Full Throttle collects thirteen stories—two are collaborations with daddy King (the second of which, In the Tall Grass, I found so disturbing, it robbed me of a night of sleep), and two are previously unpublished (the first of which, Late Returns, is hands down the finest story included).

I'm very happy to report that I enjoyed this collection very much—I suppose now it's as good a time as any to come clean: I didn't particularly like Joe's latest two releases. The Fireman was okay, but much too blatant a tribute to King's The Stand to be truly enjoyable, and Strange Weather didn't live up to my high expectations after 20th Century Ghosts, either. I have one qualm with his fiction in recent years, and some of the stories in this collection suffer from it, which is why I'm going to mention it: I'm increasingly finding that Hill is rather unrefined about the way he infuses his fiction with his political views. He tends to do it in a way that doesn't really add value to the story, but just needlessly dates it—his dad has been guilty of this lately, as well. There were instances in this collection where, if he'd kept political (as well as pop culture) references out, the story had the potential to become a timeless classic... Can't we just agree that it's not worth souring a perfectly lovely story by mentioning the Kardashians or to take a cheap dig at Trump? I say this as someone who wholeheartedly shares his morals and political opinions, I just wish he were more subtle about it.

But that's the only detractor. Joe's characters come to glorious, fully-rounded life in just a few sentences, and so do his alternate realities, it's a masterful gift; his dad is good at it too, but not in so few pages. Joe doesn't waste words, and all of these are all killer, no filler, most having supernatural and/or horror elements, usually of the graphic violence variety. Each story packs an emotional punch, and he has a knack for getting the pacing just right; he takes the reader on a ride at full throttle, but after going for a short spin he sets you back down, perhaps a little shaken, but feeling exhilarated and satisfied.

Throttle (with Stephen King) · ★★½
Originally published in an anthology in honor of Richard Matheson, and directly inspired by Matheson's Duel (which I haven't read), this story follows a Sons of Anarchy type of biker gang trying to figure out how to get their sunken money back from a meth deal gone wrong. The motorcycle tribe, which includes a father and son, mirroring the writing team, find themselves being chased down by a faceless trucker on a forlorn, dusty road in the middle of the Nevada desert, and what ensues can only be described as carnage. It reminded me of 80's B-movies and of King Senior's early splatter stories such as, for obvious reasons, Trucks, but I could spot Joe's influences as well—their voices mesh together well. It makes for an enjoyable, tension-building and action-packed half an hour of visceral, gory entertainment, but where it really shines is the brutally honest and realistic backstory that manages to be built along-side the deadly chase. It does a lot of things right, but as a whole, it's just not the sort of adrenaline and testosterone-laden story I enjoy, and I would've hoped for something different to come out from this first time collaboration.

Dark Carousel · ★★★★
This is the first time this story is making an appearance in print, as it had previously only been released as a vinyl audio edition (a trend I could personally really do without). On a summer night in the mid-90's, four teenagers out at the pier and boardwalk take a ride on a creepy antique carousel, and their night of fun starts going horribly wrong from there as their misguided decisions have terrifying repercussions. I enjoyed the mention of Charlie Manx of NOS4A2 fame, probably my favorite Hill novel, and thought the story was a nice little nod at Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes—when October Country was casually mentioned I was in fact quite sure of it. As such, it's perhaps a bit derivative and predictable, but it kept me engaged from the very first page, and I especially really liked the characterization—creating not just one, but four well-rounded and likeable characters in a short story is a talent Hill clearly has, not to mention his penchant for taking stories just that tiny bit further to show that even a cursed and haunted life goes on. Pulpy good fun.

Wolverton Station · ★★★
This one may seem pretty silly, but I think that there's more to it than would appear on the surface, even if the execution was a bit messy. A ruthless American businessman is traveling through England on a train; he's come overseas to do what he does best: Put the little, independent people out of business and make way for corporate expansion with dirty tactics—he's the big bad wolf in a dog-eat-dog-world, pardon the bad double pun. At a train stop a Wolverhampton, passengers of a different and blood-thirsty kind get on... I'm still not quite sure what to make of this odd, surreal story. Is it a parable? A satire? Is he hallucinating the wolves haunting him, are they a sign of his conscience catching up with him? Or are they truly manifesting as a punishment for his ways? In any case, it's a very on-the-nose denouncement of (American) capitalism with gruesome, dark humor.

By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain · ★★★★
Mommy has a killer hangover, and sends her loud and bickering girls out of the house to have some peace and quiet. It's a cold and misty end-of-summer day that will mark Gail's end-of-childhood, and she decides to head down to the lake, where she meets up with a friend... until they realize that the boulder they'd been playing on isn't actually a rock. Their discovery lets them spin out the possibilities their future holds, but also makes them confront mortality... but is it really happening, or are they just playing pretend? We are shown from the very first sentence that Gail has a lively imagination and gets invested in her made-up stories... and yet assuming it's all make-believe leaves a lot of questions unanswered, and this blurry line between reality and fantasy is what makes the story work. A rather unusual one from Hill—it reads like something that could've been written by Bradbury or Gaiman.

Faun · ★★★★½
This offering was recently picked up by Netflix in a three-studio bidding-war to be developed as a movie, and I can see why. Inspired in part by Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder (which is even openly referenced) and the myriad of fantastical tales that start with nice children finding passageways to fairy-tale worlds populated by fairy-tale creatures, this story explores the idea of what would happen if someone... not quite so nice discovered a little door to a mythical world instead, and tried to turn a profit by offering rich trophy hunters a unique opportunity. This was a really engaging story that turned a pretty tired trope on its head, and I had no idea where it was heading while I was in the middle of it... then the sudden turn it took really threw me off track. I slept on it and am still not too sure about that ending, I almost feel as if Hill was scrambling to find a resolution, so it didn't feel entirely organic to me (it's really quite possible that confusing the reader for a couple of pages was the intended effect though). Once I found my bearings again I found that I was still enjoying it very much though—short stories are usually pretty straight forward, so I'm delighted when they manage to surprise me, which this one definitely did.

Late Returns · ★★★★★
I had tears streaming down my face through the entire latter half of this new, previously unpublished tale about a grief-stricken truck driver turned part-time librarian who drives an antique Bookmobile that sometimes travels back in time to deliver anachronistic reads to long dead people. This story made me infinitely sad as it drove home that I'll never get around to read all the books I'd like to in my lifetime (a thought I've often had), and also that I'll miss out on so much more that will be published after I'm gone (this was a new consideration to be bummed out about), even though that's not at all what this story drives at; it's much more about the comfort we find in books, and the memories and significance that they can hold, and that's what moved me to tears. Since it deals with time travel there's obviously details that date it, and my only complaint is that I wish he'd done a better job at keeping it more vague—particularly the little political references at the end will not let this story age well, and it was really nothing but a gratuitous dig that felt jarring, given the bittersweet beauty of this tale.

All I Care About Is You · ★★★
This was very sci-fi, which is not something I'm used to in Joe's writing, and I'm not sure if it's really up his alley. An awfully entitled and ungrateful brat of a girl, who isn't having the sixteenth birthday she thinks she deserves, activates a Clockwork, a "timed friend" who will do everything for her for the next hour. They end up clandestinely doing just what she'd envisioned and wished for on her special day, an experience which appears to be changing her perspective on what's important... I'll say this, he built up this world out of nothing and in so few paragraphs that I felt like my head was spinning, but that ending made me want to throw the book at the wall... I think in a good way. I recently read Ted Chiang's new collection, and this offering was basically the anti-thesis to those stories, and somehow managed to encompass everything that's despicable about humanity in a story so short, it only took ten minutes to read. If there's a deeper moral or message, it was lost on me, but if he was trying to go for something that will make the reader feel a sort of hopeless, hard-to-pinpoint despair about the state of humanity (...or teenagers?), then he succeeded.

Thumbprint · ★★★
I don't like war fiction. I dislike war movies (I fell asleep out of desperation both times I tried watching Apocalypse Now), and I've read only very few novels about the subject, all considered classics and anti-war in nature (All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse-Five,...), so I was definitely the wrong audience for this short story... and yet. It goes deep into the depravity that goes on in war-zones—there's some scenes that were horrifying to read, not because they were particularly graphic in violence, but because they showcased humans' inexhaustible capacity for cruelty. In a very short story that follows an unlikeable female Iraqi war vet adjusting to civilian life when she starts getting strange, threatening messages via mail, Hill manages to call out the treatment of Iraqis by US military forces in no uncertain or subtle terms, and goes into what one must already carry within oneself to willingly do certain things during a deployment, but also what being exposed to horrific things does to a person. This story and its main character are uncomfortable because they are believable: Real life is way stranger and disturbing than this particular fiction—just read up on the Abu Ghraib scandal (which was the inspiration for this story, and where the main character was stationed) if you have any doubts.

The Devil on the Staircase · ★★★★½
Set in the late 19th century in Positano, one of the famous picturesque Italian towns on the Amalfi Coast built up steep hills and awash with winding stone steps, it tells the story of a boy who makes his living lugging a rich foreign merchant’s wine up and down the pathways cut into the cliffs. He lusts after his cousin, and when he commits a horrible crime under cover of night, he stumbles down unknown dark steps. They wind down the mountain much further than they rightly should, and when his legs give out, he meets a devil in the form of a child, who gives him a gift. Despite its dark and ominous subject, it was a delight to read because it’s incredibly well done; the language was simply gorgeous—that of a myth or folktale,
with
a lovely flow
and pretty cadence
emphasized by the typography,
mimicking steps instead of paragraphs
suggesting the falling slopes he takes every day.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead · ★★★
Two stylistically interesting short stories back to back, but I rolled my eyes when I started this one—it's presented as a very typical teenage girl's ranting twitter feed, including time stamps and mobile client used, but boy, did it reel me in by the end! The girl's on a family vacation, she's hated every minute of, and has gotten into multiple fights with her mom, who thinks that she spends entirely too much time online, so she keeps tweeting every minute to piss her off even more in that petty way teenagers have. The hellish vacation's finally over, and there's only a ridiculously long cross-country drive left to get through... but the dad takes a wrong turn somewhere, and since they've now tacked on a hundred mile detour somewhere through the Arizona or Utah desert, it is decided that they pull over for a roadside circus show... and our teenage girl will soon find out what it is to have a truly hellish time. The format choice ended up being surprisingly effective, but the story is quite a few years old, and it shows in little details that already date it, like the fact that tweets are still limited to 140 characters... and who calls it "twittering" these days?

Mums · ★★½
The second of the two previously unpublished stories included in this collection tells the story of a thirteen year old boy with a maternal family history of mental illness who lives on a farm with his radical, separatist father after his mom failed at taking him away from him and wound up dead, supposedly by slipping and banging her head in the shower after falling off the wagon again. She's illegally buried on the property, and the kid plants some mum flower seeds he's gotten from the roadside stall of an old lady on her grave... but what's really growing? I liked the ambiguity of this story—how the reader isn't really given any clue as to whether there truly was some magical, supernatural revenge going on, or if the kid was hallucinating it all and became unhinged after the sudden loss of his mother. I also thought that the way the domestic abuse dynamic was depicted in the early pages was very well done, but this one's by far the least memorable story in the collection.

In the Tall Grass (with Stephen King) · ★★★★★
I was raised on horror; I've read countless stories and seen countless movies, but there's only two disturbing enough to have gotten into my head and really fucked me up: One was Stephen King's short story The Jaunt, the other the movie Event Horizon. Well, add this second father-son collaboration to that list! A brother and his pregnant sister are traveling cross-country, and pull over next to a field when they hear a little boy crying for help. Thinking that he wandered into the field while playing and got lost in the grass that's well over six feet tall, they rush in to help him find his way out... but within minutes, they've gotten separated and disoriented themselves. The first half of this story made me feel anxious, claustrophobic, and increasingly terrified—it really tapped into some primal fear of the mysterious unknown, I guess. The second half then takes a turn for the very gory; I can stomach a lot, but some descriptions made me feel physically sick. When my boyfriend came into the room and started saying something, I was so absorbed, I got such a fright that I scrambled to the other side of the bed screaming... and I regretted reading this one before bed, because I really didn't sleep well. I feel positively ridiculous now—in the safety of daylight—but every shifting shadow made my heart pound and I wrapped myself in the sheets despite the heat so nothing could "get me". I felt like a scared kid who watched a movie it should not have and paid the price in the night—I really can't say what it was about this story that affected me as it did, but this is what good horror should do, and it will stay with me for a long, long time. The explanation and ending were a bit lackluster, but the rest of the story was so strong that I'm prepared to overlook it—it takes a hell of a lot to scare me out of my wits, and this story managed it better than anything has in years. Netflix is adapting it into a movie which should be out around the time this collection is published, but I honestly don't think the feeling of sheer helpless dread this story evoked in me could be replicated on a screen.

You Are Released · ★★★★
It's a testament to Joe's talent as a writer than he managed to squeeze nine POVs into such a short story, and make all the characters recognizable and well-rounded. Imagine being aloft (sorry, I had to—Strange Weather has a story with this title, and he uses the word twice in this one, it really stuck out. I guess he likes it!) in an airplane when World War III breaks out. Sounds like a bummer of a story, right? And yet he somehow manages to turn a tale about a bunch of strangers approaching nuclear Armageddon together into something almost uplifting, focusing on the bright side of humanity rather than the darkness that got us to the point where the missiles were sent flying.

A Little Sorrow · ★★★★
I shouldn't list this one—it's like half a page, and basically a bonus Easter Egg tucked on at the end, included in the About the Author section. I can't say anything about it without giving all of it away, it's that short, but I really, really liked it, so it deserves the mention. It felt like an extra gift, the cherry on top—it conveys a lot about the human condition in very few, poignant sentences.

—————

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Reading Progress

March 22, 2019 – Shelved
May 5, 2019 – Started Reading
May 5, 2019 –
4.0% "That was one of the finest introductions I’ve ever read"
May 11, 2019 –
11.0%
May 12, 2019 –
18.0%
May 16, 2019 –
22.0%
May 17, 2019 –
28.0%
May 24, 2019 –
36.0%
May 26, 2019 –
45.0% "Late Returns: Wow. Wow. WOW."
May 26, 2019 –
51.0%
May 29, 2019 –
56.0%
May 30, 2019 –
67.0%
May 31, 2019 –
74.0%
June 1, 2019 –
82.0%
June 3, 2019 –
91.0% "Oh my fucking God. I‘m not gonna be sleeping after that last one."
June 7, 2019 – Finished Reading

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