Throttle, by Joe Hill and Stephen King

Eight stars

Trying to fill a day-long gap before tackling a major reading project, I discovered two short stories about the issues of road rage. Having read the first—Richard Matheson’s Duel—I turned to this piece by father and son duo, Stephen King and Joe Hill. This piece is supposedly influenced by Matheson’s earlier work, packing just as much punch in a story about modern road rage. The spin makes it just as enjoyable, but equally unique. As an outlaw biker gang talks about a missed opportunity to score a pile of money when their meth lab explodes, they fail to notice a trucker sitting in his rig. By the time the trucker’s presence is noticed by the apparent leader of the rag-tag group, it’s time for the truck to hit the road. In a sort of panic, the bikers take it upon themselves to ensure their criminal ways are not discussed or reported to anyone. They take after the rig, in hopes of offering a lesson in permanent silence. However, this faceless driver is anything but docile, playing his own game with those on two wheels in a piece that pushes road rage to a new and bloody level. As the race is on, both sides seek to exert their own dominance, but there can only be one winner, as the Nevada highway stretches out before them. A great spin on the Matheson piece by these two stalwarts in the horror genre. Recommended to those who need a quick dose of King/Hill magic, as well as the reader who enjoyed Matheson’s piece (as I did) and wanted to see a modern reinterpretation.

I always love a good King story and his collaboration with his own son makes for an even better piece. I almost feel as though Richard Matheson deserves a shout out here, as though his initial creation of this road rage idea should not go unmentioned. King and Hill portray a modern version of the battle of the roads, where motorcycles have come to prove their own form of dominance. Offering the ‘War vet gone bad’ as the biker, the authors spin an interesting backstory of drugs and murder, as they seek to evade the law. When their past is overheard, they spring into action, trying to scrub out any witness (auditory in this case) to their crimes before seeking a new way to make some illegitimate cash. The race on the road becomes the central theme, though the reader will be just as surprised as the bikers about what awaits them. This is no Sunday afternoon drive! The authors pull Matheson’s clash off the page and inject more blood and horror, seeking to push the limits of the horror genre, while keeping things realistic. Strong character development and a well-paced narrative keep the reader on the edge of their seat as they flip pages, if only to see who will become the victor. I am pleased to have stumbled upon both the Matheson and King/Hill short stories, as they complement one another so well.

Kudos, Messrs. King and Hill, who built on a short story from long ago and made it their own. I enjoy your collaborative efforts and hope to stumble upon more when I need a fix!

The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Eight stars

Joe Hill made quite the ‘spark’ with this novel, which garnered a significant following in 2016, culminating in winning one of the Goodreads awards for its genre. With curiosity piqued and a gap in my reading requirements, I chose to dive in while trying to steer clear of the ripples and spoilers that others have left around me. Harper Grayson is a school nurse with little of interest going on in her life, though the world is coming apart at the proverbial seams. People from every corner of the earth are developing what the medical profession has labelled draco incendia trychophyton, known in the vernacular as ‘dragonscale’. It appears on the skin as a grey scaly rash and can progressively envelop more of the carrier’s body, changing colour at times as well. Dragonscale is highly contagious, though no one seems sure how it passes from one human to another. What everyone has come to see is that carriers can show signs of billowing smoke from their hands and feet, like a small collection of dry kindling. As the carrier’s illness develops, spontaneous combustion is also possible, though the general public has been given little knowledge of the events and this leaves them to turn against the infected. Carriers are pariahs and try to hide their plight, fearful of ‘cremation crews’, tasked to seeking to kill those who carry the condition before it can spread further. One such crew is headed by the Marlboro Man, who encapsulates the rugged cowboy and keeper of the peace while slaying the sick as quickly as he can locate them. Harper soon realises that she has been infected, which places an irreparable wedge between her and husband, Jakob. Even after he finds out Harper is expecting their first child, Jakob tries to banish her and does all he can to push added levels of isolation. Harper rages back and soon encounters a fireman-cum-pyromancer, John Rookwood, who has a small following of infected individuals. They lead her to an abandoned and secluded camp where other carriers are living. This camp, a collective of sorts, struggles with the daily worries around being hunted by ‘cremation crews’ and the inner struggle of any group seeking self-sustenance. Fractures within the group develop and soon Harper witnesses a mutiny, all while she tries to learn more about draco incendia trychophyton. Rookwood remains distanced from the group, though he and Harper share a strong connection and his insights are supported by a previous collective member who was murdered for his attempts to push back against the societal ostracism. While she learns how to tame the progress of dragonscale in a melodious manner, Harper has major hurdles ahead if she wants to survive, while the world is bent on killing those who differ too greatly. Hill does a fascinating job of developing this story on many levels and lures the reader in, be they interested in the story, the metaphors, or the microcosm found within the narrative. Well worth the hype it has received and should be high on the list of readers who need a little horror and entertainment any time of year.

Hill has writing pulsing through his veins, with both parents highly acclaimed authors in their own rights. He does not try to grab hold of their coattails to be effective, carving out a niche all his own and remains highly successful in this venture. His writing does have some parallels to that of his father, perhaps in the oddities in which he places his characters, but there is a definite uniqueness in the flow and the tangents presented to the captivated reader. The invested reader will see this novel as being something other than a collection of sick individuals who are in hiding, finding parallels with the proverbial leper colony in which people are thrown when the general public is not aware or given sufficient information on which to base an educated decision. The struggles are not unique or off the wall, though Hill effectively creates a character base to lure the reader into significant sympathy. Additionally, Hill touches on the in-fighting of any isolated community as group and personal politics cloud the larger struggle, that of survival. Hill’s ever-advancing narrative and swath of different characters provides the greatest Petri dish for effective political meltdown. Again, one might see this as a great microcosm of the larger human struggle for success, where those who are too alike tend to clash and forget the thread that ties them all together. I know I used to bemoan English teachers who asked students to look below the story to find these themes, but they seem so apparent and Hill develops these struggles so effortlessly that the reader cannot help but peer through the smoke and blazing to notice them. Hill does not shy away from generalities, perhaps painting the English as a potty-mouth group who curse so uniquely that North Americans could tear out a page from their verbal playbook. However, it has moments of humour, alongside a protagonist whose unusual obsession with Julie Andrews and her depiction of Mary Poppins keeps readers constantly shaking their heads. If this novel is anything like the other work that Hill has produced, I will be sure to rush forward to dive headlong into those, though my reading list is growing daily.

Kudos, Mr. Hill for a wonderful way to start my 2017 reading journey. You offered a light at the end of the tunnel, though tossed in enough smoke and mirrors to keep me guessing.

Thumbprint: A Story, by Joe Hill

Eight stars

Joe Hill pulls readers in with this short story that offers both entertainment and social commentary of the highest order. PFC Mallory ‘Mal’ Grennan was highly effective while serving under Uncle Sam in Iraq. Her time dealing with prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison helped hone a hard outer shell, as she was always to stay out of the limelight and within rage of the camera’s eye. Little soft or nurturing characteristics appeared during her time with those who backed the dreaded Butcher of Baghdad. Now back on US soil, Mal receives a black thumbprint, alone on a white sheet of paper; no note or explanation accompanying it. Unable to decipher what it means, she returns to work, tending bar at one of the local watering holes. As the narrative progresses, Mal splits her time dealing with a present-day blackmail scheme and flashbacks to time in Iraq. More thumbprints emerge, leaving Mal to wonder if someone has taken offence to her making a buck off men who want a cheap thrill, though it is only when she returns home after a weekend shift that all becomes clear. Hill is able to keep the reader flipping pages in hopes of discovering what lies beneath, all while providing strong arguments surrounding US Military treatment of Iraqis in the mid-2000s.

While the story took me under an hour to read, its themes resonate with me even now. This is the second piece by Hill that I have read, both of which were chock-full of social commentary on society and the treatment of others. While some might say I am digging too deep and not reading for enjoyment, as I mentioned in an earlier review, Hill presents his ideas so clearly that the reader would be remiss not to notice them. In crafting the Mal character, Hill is able to effectively paint the portrait of an Iraqi war vet, perhaps jaded and scarred by what she has seen. The story was brief enough that forward development was not possible to notice, though the reader surely develops an understanding of her backstory and can surmise what is to come after the final lines of the story drift into the literary ether. This story comes highly recommended and is brief enough that a lunch break or brief period of quiet is all one needs to absorb what he has to say.

Kudos, Mr. Hill for another great piece of writing. I am not sure where I have been all this time, but am glad to have discovered you lately.