I liken short story anthologies to a supermarket trip – you go in for what you want, see things you don’t like and often come away with something extra you didn’t know you liked in the first place. An odd analogy perhaps, but you get my drift I’m sure. In other words, in Full Throttle by Joe Hill, there were some stories I liked, some I didn’t like at all and a couple of nice surprises.
I am perhaps the only person in the world who had forgotten Hill’s pedigree when I began reading. I knew he was familiar but couldn’t recall why, and I skipped the introduction which (as I later discovered) goes into much detail about his childhood and his famous dad. To follow into the horror genre in his father’s footsteps is no mean feat, and Full Throttle does contain moments of pure King-like tension.
In places, the prose skips along beautifully; Hill can pick out a lovely turn of phrase and make you notice it. He also has great skill in establishing a scene and then swiftly subverting it, and then reasserting the reality of that world – all in the blink of an eye. It’s the writerly equivalent of having the rug pulled out from under your feet not once, but multiple times. This is a device which happily helps with suspense throughout the narratives, and at times it left me feeling uneasy (in a very good way).
“Throttle”, the first piece in the book, was co-written with King-senior. I’m always curious how such a partnership works, and how the dynamics fit. In other co-written pieces I’ve read, it’s easy to see the joins: here, I couldn’t tell. The story, about a biker gang and a vengeful, faceless truck driver, is a dose of pure adrenalin, straight out of the Chandler/Hammett school of hard-boiled prose. A brilliant example of the style is this little line, about one of the bikers: “Race had found what he was hunting for in the hardcase on the back of his bike, a flask sloshing with what looked like tea and wasn’t.” That could’ve come straight out of Philip Marlowe’s narrative mouth. I have a tiny gripe, in that a chunk of backstory was dumped precisely where it shouldn’t have been… see if you spot it.
“In Dark Carousel”, Hill once again demonstrates his skill with words: “The air was redolent with the cloying perfume of cotton candy, an odor that doesn’t exist in nature and can only be described as ‘pink’ smell.” Isn’t that great? He’s right, candyfloss really does smell pink, and I’ll now think of it as so forever. He also treats us to some grotesque imagery, as a group of kids looking for kicks incur the wrath of a fairground ride.
“Wolverton Station” is my favourite in the entire collection. Hill cleverly uses a moving train as the setting, from which there is no escape for the repulsive Wolf-of-Wall-Street type character of Saunders. I love the story’s humour, imagery and imagination. “Late Returns” is great too (any story about a library gets a thumbs-up from me).
As you can see, there is much to commend the book. But – and it’s a big but, I’m afraid – collectively, I’m not that keen. It took me quite a while to get into it, and often found myself setting it aside to do something else as my attention wandered. I can’t say if that’s more to do with me than the book, but it just didn’t grip me as strongly as other books have. About halfway through (it’s big – this is no ‘one sitting’ tome), I started doing what I hate – skimming. I hate it because it’s unfair on the author’s weeks, possibly years, of toil and sweat. But I couldn’t help it. By the time I finished “Late Returns”, I was ready for it to end, which is a shame, because the penultimate story, “In The Tall Grass” (again co-written with King and soon to be Netflixed), is spine-chilling. I also have a small gripe about the layout of the book. The paragraph breaks begin by capping up the first few words in bold, every time. It really put me off my flow, in a book that I was already struggling to get into properly. We all know capital letters in the printed form look aggressive. Here, they were plain annoying.
In “Full Throttle”, very human struggles are given a horrible twist. Animated fairground rides and anthropomorphic wolves are fair game, and loyalty and psychosis are among the themes in what are fairytale-like stories. To borrow a line from “Dark Carousel”, Full Throttle attempts “a uniquely disquieting collection of grotesqueries” but, for me, doesn’t hit the mark at every turn of the page. Hill is evidently a very skilled writer – I’d love to see him try a different genre. In the hands of another reader, this could be a joy. But I closed the book feeling it was less full throttle and more third gear.
Full Throttle by Joe Hill is published by Gollancz (UK) & William Morrow (US). Buy the book.