Like his father, Joe Hill has the artistic flexibility to write well at nearly any length. The Maine native and son of Stephen King made a name for himself in 2005 with the intense short stories collected in “20th Century Ghosts.” His novels, which include “The Fireman” and “NOS4A2,” are solid thrillers, packed with incident and captivating characters but not over-stuffed with unnecessary scenes. His collection of novellas, “Strange Weather,” published last year, demonstrates an appreciation for the pleasures of more-than-a-story-less-than-a-novel entertainments.

Cover courtesy of William Morrow

This past fall, Hill returned with another volume of short stories, one that pays homage to previous generations of science fiction, fantasy and horror writers, while remaining thoroughly engaged in the stress points of the modern era.

The book opens with a fresh take on a well-conceived dramatic scenario. A collaboration between King and Hill, the almost-title story “Throttle” is an explicit tribute to Richard Matheson, author of “I Am Legend,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and dozens of stories, screenplays and novels. Before Stephen King came along, Matheson was perhaps the supreme master of “daylight horror.”

“Throttle” takes its inspiration from Matheson’s “Duel,” adapted into an unforgettable movie-of-the-week by a pre-”Jaws” Steven Spielberg. In this version, it’s not put-upon office worker Dennis Weaver who becomes the victim of road rage but a tribe of outlaw motorcyclists who spark the ire of a maverick trucker bent on vehicular homicide. Vince, a Vietnam-era veteran caught in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, wants to survive the encounter but also craves a second chance to connect with his battle-damaged son, who poses a threat from another direction.

The film version of “Duel” was successful partly because its central conflict was so random. The truck driver was nameless and faceless, his bloodthirstiness implacable but inexplicable. In “Throttle,” there’s a motive behind the trucker’s behavior, which may rob the story of some of its impact. Nevertheless, the story accelerates to a bang-up conclusion.

At least two stories evoke the work of Ray Bradbury. All you need is the title of “Dark Carousel” to suspect where the plot might be headed, but Hill provides enough novelty to make the story enjoyable, as a quartet of young people learns a harsh lesson about telling lies about the worker who runs the merry-go-round.

“By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” takes cues from “The Foghorn,” Bradbury’s tale of a lonesome sea-monster calling to attract a mate who will never answer. In Hill’s story, kids find an enormous boulder on the shore of Lake Champlain, but they don’t have the maturity to see what the new landmark means, until it is too late. Funny, touching and creepy, the story does well by its source material.

“In the Tall Grass,” again written in tandem, has echoes of King’s “Children of the Corn,” with a pinch of H.P. Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. A devoted brother and sister interrupt their cross-country road trip when they hear a small boy calling for help in an overgrown field. When they attempt to rescue him, they become disoriented themselves, and as they lose track of where they are, their predicament grows ever more dire, especially for the pregnant young woman. The story plays to the strengths of both authors – alternately horrific, claustrophobic and blackly funny. And it makes a good match for “Mums,” another plant-based horror story about paranoia and a family’s descent into madness.

“Faun” brings a note of harsh violence to C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, as big-game hunters consider what it might be like to stalk a creature from another world. Like something Roald Dahl might have written for adults, it has a neat sting in the tail.

“Late Returns” tells the bittersweet tale of a small-town Bookmobile driver who discovers that some of the selections he carries transcend the boundaries of time itself. With its comforting depictions of eras gone by, the story may remind some readers of Jack Finney, author of “Time and Again” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The story is touching, but with some harsh truths underneath.

Not every offering hits its mark. The social media horror story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead” already feels a little obvious and outdated. It’s brief, though, and does not seriously stall the book’s momentum.

War and its aftermath fuels two stories. “Thumbprint” follows a female soldier home from Iraq as she grapples with her own trauma and faces someone else with firsthand knowledge of the atrocities during their tours of duty.“You Are Released,” which Hill admits in an afterword is inspired by David Mitchell of “Cloud Atlas” fame, takes place aboard an airplane just as some kind of incident takes place in Guam and Pyongyang. Perhaps because their premises are not so far-fetched, “Thumbprint” and “You Are Released” both get deep under the skin.

In his introduction, Hill writes, “I … believe that books operate along the same principles as enchanted wardrobes. You climb into that little space and come out the other side in a vast and secret world, a place both more frightening and more wonderful than your own.”

Entry into Hill’s literary landscape might be more likely through a casket than a wardrobe. His storytelling is transporting, no matter how you approach it.

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:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: