Joe Hill, author of the apocalyptic “The Fireman” and the surreally spooky “NOS4A2,” demonstrated with those two novels that he’s capable of working at great length on a wide canvas.

Now he’s taking a breather from 800-page books, serving up a quartet of short novels that still reflect his macabre interests and off-kilter outlook.

Each selection in “Strange Weather” is a well-crafted piece of storytelling, with characters to care about and conflicts creepy, mind-boggling and action-packed. Weird meteorological phenomena do indeed play a role. But the book arrives in the wake of recent tragedies that may color one’s reading, imbuing at least two of the stories with extra, unexpected relevance.

The opener, “Snapshot,” is a straight-ahead supernatural thriller, set in Cupertino, California, in the late 1980s. When teenager Michael Figlione rescues his elderly neighbor, Shelly Buekes, after he spots her shambling through the suburban streets in a state of confusion and disarray, his act of compassion puts him on a collision course with a fearsome figure known alternately as “The Phoenician” and “The Polaroid Man.” A heavily tattooed thug with a white Cadillac and a caustic attitude, The Phoenician carries a camera that seems to erase the memories of whomever he photographs. When Michael runs afoul of him, the encounter leads to a deadly showdown.

“Snapshot” may remind some readers of “The Sundog,” a novella by Hill’s father, Stephen King. Both stories’ central conceit involves a supernatural camera, but Hill finds a way to make the subject his own, offering a meditation on how people sometimes overlook the individuals who love them the most.

In “Aloft,” cellist Aubrey Griffin realizes at the final second that the last thing he wants to do is jump out of an airplane to impress a woman. When his skydiving lesson is interrupted by engine failure, he doesn’t have any choice in the matter. His terrifying descent ends abruptly, though, not on the ground but with Griffin precariously perched on an immense cloud shaped like a pie-plate UFO.


The oddly sturdy vapor from which the object/vehicle is built not only keeps Aubrey from tumbling to his death, but it seems to respond telepathically to his wishes, conjuring up, among other things, a bed, blankets and a beautiful companion to share them. Threatened by hunger and exposure, he can’t stay in the sky forever but must muster the inner resources necessary to save himself.

“Aloft” works perfectly at novella length. Hill needs the well-detailed build-up that allows the reader to see the roots of Aubrey’s isolation and loneliness, but the tale is short enough not to wear out its welcome.

Jonah Hill is a proven master of the supernatural and the creepy, and he’s done it again with “Strange Weather.”

The volume’s longest selection, “Loaded,” may be uncomfortably timely for some readers.

As a young girl, Aisha Lanternglass saw her beloved cousin Colson gunned down by police when he was mistaken for a carjacker. Years later, she’s a newspaper journalist investigating a deadly shooting at a Florida shopping mall. Iraq War veteran turned security guard Randall Kellaway is the supposed hero of the day, presumed to have prevented a deadly lovers’ quarrel in a jewelry store from erupting into a full-on massacre. His story doesn’t add up, though, and as Aisha picks away at the discrepancies, Kellaway descends further into a murderous fury.

Just weeks after a mass shooting in Las Vegas, reading “Loaded” may feel like too much, too soon. What might at first be taken as simply a slice of well-written Southern noir gains more urgency as it barrels toward its shattering ending. Guns, racism and misogyny are titanic forces in the United States, and Hill’s novella insists, with a final sentence that could be interpreted as breaking the Fourth Wall, that no one is safe from them.

“Strange Weather” concludes with “Rain,” a short, apocalyptic yarn about the day that razor-sharp, crystalline nails pour from the skies over Colorado. Watching from the safety of a neighbor’s garage, Honeysuckle Speck sees her life-partner Yolanda and Yolanda’s mother ripped apart by the lethal precipitation. No one can explain the tragedy, but Honeysuckle decides to leave the next day to track down her lover’s now-widowed father.


In his afterword, Hill admits that “Rain” is at least partially a spoof of his own world-ending blockbuster, “The Fireman.” He has fun chronicling the adventures of his hard-as-nails protagonist, of whom her Russian neighbor observes, “You are like if Miss Marple haff baby with Rambo Balboa.”

Again, some readers of “Strange Weather” may not be ready for “Rain.” Anyone affected by the devastating wildfires in Northern California, for example, knows that life can be upended in a single night, and that chaos can reign without warning.

Yet, thrillers and horror stories often serve as cultural safety valves. With his eclectic and captivating “Strange Weather,” Hill employs his formidable narrative skills to relieve some of the pressure of modern life.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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