Review: “Full Throttle,” Joe Hill

Pros: Left me a bit shaken
Rating: 5 out of 5

Joe Hill’s collection Full Throttle: Stories hit me a little bit harder than I was expecting. The stories range in genre and style; the predominant genre is horror, but there’s some sci-fi in here, one story that was really just sad, and one that was kind of funny. In the introduction Hill explains that he’s always been more interested in villains than heroes, and it shows. Most of his protagonists do things you don’t expect protagonists to do. Some of them are outright villains. Some of them just have major flaws. Sometimes there’s an antagonist who would normally be the hero. It gives the stories a very original vibe.

Content note for explicit language, racism, animal harm and death, and blood-and-guts.

Throttle is, quite appropriately, co-authored by Joe Hill’s father, Stephen King. I say appropriately because it has the feel of an old-style King story. The protagonist is Vince, a long-time member of biker gang The Tribe. He, his son (Race), and the rest of the gang are running from an unintentional slaughter–one that they committed. A truck driver seems to take an interest in them, and things get wild from there. This story beautifully shows all the different sides of humanity.

Dark Carousel takes place in the 90s, and the characters are in their late teens. They take a walk on the pier, ride the quirky carousel with its salvaged animals… and then roll the carousel operator whom they believe stole Nancy’s money. In the world of horror, no sin goes unpunished.

Wolverton Station introduces us to Saunders, also known as “the Woodcutter” for how easily he chops workforces down to size. Unfortunately for this woodcutter, the wolves he’s about to meet are no ordinary wolves. This story is almost more humor than horror, with its wolves in humans’ clothing, but it’s quite fun.

By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain is kind of wistful, and sad. A very imaginative young lady and her friend find a dead dinosaur by the water, but when they send their siblings to get an adult, no one wants to believe. I kind of felt sorry for the girls’ mother, who has to put up with quite some shenanigans from her children!

Faun is one of my favorite stories in this book. The characters are big game hunters, and Stockton invites Fallows to a one-of-a-kind hunt in another world, where they can shoot at and kill mythological creatures. At first I was annoyed by the trope of the grizzled animal king seeming to communicate forgiveness to the man who kills him, but it works out perfectly in the end. (Sorry I’m being vague; I don’t want to give too much away.)

Late Returns features John Davies, driver of the library’s BookMobile. He recently lost his parents and his job, and this gives him a way to cope. However, sometimes patrons seem to come to him from the past, in need of a little something before they die. This is a very lovely story, and I particularly appreciate the ending.

All I Care About Is You is another of my favorites from this book. Iris’s father can no longer afford the finer things in life, but he tries to give her a thoughtful birthday gift anyway. She’s bitter about not being able to have the birthday celebration she’d planned since the previous year, but she does her best not to let her bitterness show. Then the battery gets stolen from her transportation, and she ends up paying a “Clockwork friend” for an hour of service so she can get it home. Chip–the “friend”–figures out a way to give her a happy birthday after all. The (sci-fi) worldbuilding in this one is fabulous, and Iris and Chip are great characters. The ending left me floored.

Thumbprint has as its main character Mal (Mallory Grennan), who served at Abu Ghraib and knows quite a bit about “enhanced interrogation techniques”. After she steals a man’s money and wedding ring, threatening messages start showing up at her house. She knows someone’s after her, but she doesn’t know who or why. This one is a bit tough to read, as we see glimpses of her life overseas as well as the things she did there.

The Devil on the Staircase has laborer Quirinus Calvino discover a mysterious gate that leads to a purported stairway to hell. After he kills a man, he flees down this staircase, only to meet an even more mysterious boy. There’s racism and race-based violence in this one, and the ending was a bit mild for my taste; it felt like the story leading up to it demanded more.

Twittering from the Circus of the Dead sees Blake and her family stop to see a circus–one in which the performers seem to be trying to flee and there are zombies eating people. The entire thing is framed as Blake’s tweets during the events, and it really works. I was wondering how the ending would be handled as things went downhill, but it was perfect!

Mums is another favorite of mine. Jack’s mother, Bloom, tries to get herself and her son away from Jack’s father, who is a right-wing conspiracy nut who hoards guns and teaches Jack to make improvised explosives. Unfortunately she has a history of alcoholism, mental illness, and arrests, which makes it all too easy for Jack’s father to remove her from the situation. Afterwards, a mysterious old lady sells Jack some flower seeds, which he decides to plant over his mother’s grave. The story gets more and more surreal, but it never flies off the tracks. I absolutely love where this one goes. It’s chilling and satisfying all at once.

In the Tall Grass is the other entry co-authored by Stephen King, and it’s a tense one. Cal and Becky Demuth (brother and sister) stop to help a child who’s lost in a field of very tall grasses. Unfortunately, the grass separates them and soon they’re every bit as lost. Strange things are afoot, and it can’t end well for our heroes.

You Are Released hit me the hardest out of all of these stories, but I honestly can’t tell if I’d call it a “favorite.” It takes place on a passenger plane in American airspace, and opens with an announcement that Guam has been nuked. From there we bounce back and forth from cockpit to business class and coach, listening in from different angles as various characters deal with the unfurling drama around them. It references the current political climate, and it makes its apocalypse seem all-too-real. It felt real as I was reading it. I had to go do something entirely different after I finished reading this story so I could get it out of my system. It’s that powerful.

This is an outstanding collection of stories. I would absolutely read more by Joe Hill.

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