Full Throttle by Joe Hill
Publisher: William Morrow | Release Date: Oct. 1, 2019 | Pages: 496
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First, a word of warning. Readers going into Full Throttle expecting a collection of balls to the wall horror stories in the vein of Joe Hill’s sublime NOS4A2 may be disappointed, and perhaps even bored. While Full Throttle does have a couple good scares among its thirteen stories, it is, for the most part, surprisingly gentle. Rather than packing in an assortment of blood and guts goodies strong enough to make papa King proud, the majority of the pieces here are softer, quieter explorations of characters and moods, with several of the stories having been written as odes to Ray Bradbury for various anthologies, with dashes of C.S. Lewis, and a couple of experimental shorts. Those looking for some vicious thrills, though, will likely be pleased with a couple of Hill’s stories, including two collaborations with his father, Stephen King, but those seem to be the exception rather than the rule here.
In his introduction, Hill writes about his various influences, including those of his highly regarded author parents, Tabitha and Stephen King. While Hill writes that “Dark Carousel” is “probably the most shamelessly Stephen King thing I’ve ever put down on paper,” one can still feel the influence of his father throughout the book, particularly in other stories like “Late Returns,” a decidedly non-horrific ghost story that is positively rich in characters, concept, and, most of all, heart. I couldn’t help but wonder just how much of Hill’s creativity is genetic, how much of it is pure nature rather than nurture. Obviously, having Tabitha and Stephen as parents, there’s plenty of their shared DNA baked right into Joe, and being raised and read stories by them, it’s certainly a given that their fingerprints would ease into Hill’s writing. Maybe it’s equal measures of genes and influences, perhaps it’s more one than the other, but whichever you shake it Hill is clearly the sum of all these various parts. You can feel the various influences he discusses in his stories, like spending time on the set of, and acting in, Creepshow and watching laserdisc movies with dad and playing out fantasy sequences on the road, like Spielberg’s Duel.
When he was invited to contribute to an anthology paying respects to the works of Richard Matheson, it’s only natural that Hill would return to those fond childhood memories and tackle a recreation of Duel, co-writing with his father, for the story “Throttle.” As in Matheson’s original, an oil tanker truck is the central antagonist, but this time it’s gunning for a biker gang, and the bloodlust is high here. “Throttle” is a pretty straight-forward story, and a clear ode to its source material, more thriller than horror, with dashes of revenge and a nifty father-son dynamic.
Those who want their horror bloody will be pleased with “Dark Carousel,” this collection’s second entry. Originally produced as a vinyl record audiobook, I was delighted to see this make it into print. I’d heard good things about the original recording, but since I don’t have a record player, I had to pass on the audio version. This printed edition, though, is one of the easy highlights of Full Throttle for me, and as Hill states, it’s definitely his most Stephen King-like story. This sucker is most definitely the product of King’s child! This one has an excellent throwback horror feel to it, and strikes a mood reminiscent of a great slasher flick, only without the slasher (don’t worry, you’ll find out). A night out at the local carnival at the pier for a group of teens goes completely sideways after they lose some money, and the result, for us, is one damn good horror story.
“Wolverton Station” is a horror by way of metaphor, a dog eat dog sort of narrative in which a rich American aboard a London train finds himself in some unexpected company. It took a bit for this one to click with me, but I ended up enjoying it, particularly the ending. “By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain” is an ode to Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn,” and involves a group of children finding a dead lake monster. This one’s being adapted for Shudder’s just-released Creepshow series, and I’m curious to see what they do with it. Frankly, it’s not the story I would have picked for a Creepshow adaptation (that honor would have gone to “Dark Carousel,” one hundred percent), but I’m open to being proven wrong here. This one’s got a particular bit of whimsy to it, guided largely by the overactive imagination of children. And hot damn, Hill absolutely positively knows how to write children, and it makes for a fun story, which makes the small doses of tragedy woven throughout all the more impactful.
Also inspired by Bradbury, particularly his time travel story “The Sound of Thunder,” is “Faun,” which sees a group of hunters passing through a small doorway and into a land of fantasy, where they can hunt and murder fairy tale creatures. This one’s definitely a morality play, and I can’t particularly say I disagree with the message, even if I would have liked more action and some lingering on the much-justified violence that inevitably plays out. This isn’t a bad story overall, but it’s also not really a very exciting one either. I kept waiting and hoping for these big game hunters to get their just desserts, but by the time that happens its execution is practically a blink and you’ll miss it event.
“Late Returns.” Holy hell, you guys. This story right here is worth the price of admission alone. While there are most certainly a couple other stories I would include in this category, this one in particular is absolutely marvelous. And there’s nary a single bit of horror about it! This is a magnificently gentle story about books and ghosts and the needs of a reader to find one last good story before they die. Goddamn, I loved this one! Although Hill says “Dark Carousel” is his most King-like story, I actually think this one helps show just how truly Joe is his father’s son and just how much of that writerly DNA lives on in Hill. This story taps into the tragedies and sweetness of life, and it’s a really precious, and moving, story. Easily one of my favorites here, this is a story about book lovers for book lovers. Dig it.
“All I Care About Is You” is another piece that shows off Hill’s knack for characterization, and it’s a light sci-fi story no less, about a teenage girl and the rent-a-friend robot she buys for an hour. It’s a decent enough story with a powerful ending, but it didn’t grab me the way “Late Returns” did. “Thumbprint,” however, was a great little thriller! Mal is former military, and her time in Iraq saw her torture a number of captives, including those at Abu Ghraib. Now discharged and back at home, somebody is following her and leaving blank envelopes with a sheet of paper inside, each containing only a single thumbprint. Mal’s a pretty awful human, but the story is damn good.
“The Devil on the Staircase” is the first of two experimental stories that sees Hill playing with the formatting for his delivery. Inspired by the steep staircases of the Amalfi coast, this one involves a jealous man’s oh so brief descent into hell. Visually, it’s typeset so that each paragraph resembles the ascent and descent of a staircase. It’s a neat gimmick, but ultimately one that this did nothing to improve the story for me. Better is “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead,” which unravels like a prolonged Twitter thread. While I found it to be more interesting than “Staircase” in terms of story, it runs on a few tweets too long for me and the payoff regarding the circus was a bit too lazy and cliche for me.
I pretty well enjoyed “Mums,” a story of a boy trapped with his militia nutjob daddy after his mother dies. There’s a neat supernatural element here that pairs well with the following story, “In the Tall Grass.” Hill plays around with the old “is it real or just in the kids head?” trope, but it works pretty well with whichever way you go, and it delivers a few neat scenes and concepts over the course of its page count.
“In the Tall Grass” is just absolutely brutal. Readers looking for some hardcore horror, this is the one for you, man. A couple hear the cries of a boy asking for help and, thinking he’s lost in the tall grass, step into the field. What’s so scary about grass, you might wonder. Well, in this particular field, lots. Things get incredibly fucked up fast. King co-wrote this one, and it’s got some real jagged teeth on it, and both writers let themselves completely off the chain for this outing. It’s positively savage and dark as pitch.
“You Are Released” closes out Full Throttle, and follows a group of travelers aboard a flight to Baltimore when a war breaks out and missiles start flying. Hill, again, shows off his knack for characterization and brings in some great shades of humanity amongst the various POV characters, as well dashes of conflict and reconciliation. Like several others stories here, it’s packed with plenty of social commentary, particularly as the world’s worst, and easily imaginable, fears regarding the Trump presidency play out on the land and air outside this story’s Boeing 777. It’s a neat little bottle episode in its own right, a timely bit of thriller paranoia coupled with possibly too-real life horrors, and a solid end to this collection.
As somebody who was a bit disappointed in Hill’s last release, Strange Weather, a collection of four novellas, I’m happy to report that I was largely satisfied by Full Throttle. While some of these stories feel a bit bloated, “Faun” especially, and “The Devil on the Staircase” feels a hell of a lot longer than it actually is, I enjoyed most of these thirteen stories. Others, like “Late Returns,” “In the Tall Grass,” “Dark Carousel,” “Mums,” “You Are Released,” and “Thumbprint,” highlight Hill at his best for me. These stories just groove along nicely, and I think “Late Returns” will be sticking with me for a good long while.