It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Unlike Christmas

No doubt these have been trying times during the past few months of the pandemic, but at least there is now something to celebrate: the return of the series NOS4A2 on AMC. It’s time for strong creatives to grab their “knives,” cut through the fabric of reality, and trek to Christmasland–that uncanny combination of Santa’s North Pole and Cooger and Dark’s carnival.

Admittedly, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to adaptations of favorite novels, and am easily irked by radical changes to the book’s characters and plots. This series, though, has remained quite faithful to Joe Hill’s original vision, and any changes from the source material have seemed organic and unjarring. This is due in large part to the writers’ commitment to developing believable characters, whose realism makes the show’s flights of dark fantasy seem all the more natural. NOS4A2 is blessed with stellar performances across the board, starting with Zachary Quinto as the vampiric child predator Charlie Manx. Quinto presents a perfect mix of suave and sinister, of charm and underlying harm; his portrayal of Manx makes for a classic American Gothic hero-villain.

Following suit from the novel, Season 2 opens with an eight-year time jump that leaves us feeling like we haven’t skipped a beat with these characters and their strange situations. Thankfully, in last night’s premiere, “Bad Mother,” not a lot of time was wasted on reestablishment (or the introduction of new characters). Like the Wraith gliding along the St. Nicholas Parkway, the episode keeps the narrative driving forward, showing that the troubles of protagonist Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings) with Manx and his horrific “inscape” Christmasland are far from over.

Judging from the first episode, it appears Charlie’s daughter Millie will have a much larger role this season, and the creepily fanged Mattea Conforti looks like she will be up to the task of playing a pint-sized Big Bad. In Hill’s novel, Vic’s parents Linda and Chris get pushed mostly to the background in the latter part of the narrative, but if the show is smart it will find a way to keep these characters front and center. Virginia Kull’s and Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s respective performances formed one of last season’s brightest highlights, so it would be a shame to see their contributions lessened (and to hear less of their townie accents).

One episode into Season 2, I’m already as excited as a kid at Christmastime. For sure, I’m looking forward to where the ride takes viewers–both this season and hopefully beyond.

 

The Kings of Comedy

In case you missed it:

Stephen King and Joe Hill recently did an event in Massachusetts together to promote their new releases (The Institute and Full Throttle, respectively). To see father and son on stage together is a terrific treat, and what makes the occasion even more special is just how downright entertaining the two writers prove. They elicit continuous laughter, via both prepared anecdotes and nimble ad-libbing, and as they tease each other mercilessly. The love and respect that King and Hill have for each other, though, is readily apparent, and heartwarming to witness.

Not that this hasn’t been mentioned before elsewhere, but, man, is Hill (especially when sporting a beard) the spitting image of his father at that same age (check out King’s original-hardcover book jacket photos for novels like The Dead Zone or Firestarter).

The interaction between the two here is so precious, and this video is such a fun watch, that I wish it was something King and Hill did together on a regular basis.

Kudos to Porter Square Books, not just for arranging “An Evening with Joe Hill and Stephen King,” but also for posting the video for the sold-out event to YouTube.

 

 

Hill of the King: A Review of Strange Weather

Stephen King (Different Seasons; Four Past Midnight) isn’t the only horror writer to publish thematically-grouped novella quartets (cf. Charles Grant’s Dialing the Wind; The Black Carousel), but he is undoubtedly the most popular. Joe Hill, though, might soon threaten his father’s reign, as evidenced by his latest collection Strange Weather.

The opening novella, “Snapshot,” appears to pick up right where the finale of Four Past Midnight left off. Much like “The Sun Dog,” Hill’s story deals with a young protagonist’s encounter with a paranormal camera, which in this case doesn’t capture moments but actually erases the subject’s memories. This alien technology from another reality could have come straight from the Dark Tower multiverse. A coming-of-age tale, “Snapshot” even references Stand By Me (not coincidentally, Will Wheaton narrates the audio version of the novella), but such invocation only throws the loneliness and “adolescent sadness” of the obese thirteen-year-old Michael Figlione into starker contrast. The narrative’s mysterious and perfectly nasty villain, the Phoenician, is perhaps vanquished too easily and too early on, but the long anticlimax does a fine job of establishing the American Gothic elements of the figure’s photographic endeavors (which trace back to a heinous act of domestic violence). For all its fantastic elements, “Snapshot” reminds us of the natural ravages of senescence; it is a haunting tale that won’t fade from consciousness anytime soon.

“Loaded” is the longest of the four pieces collected here, and the most frighteningly realistic (arguably that Hill has ever written). Mall security guard Randall Kellaway is hailed as a hero when he stops a potential mass shooting, but the circumstances of his intervention set off a chain reaction of events that culminates in an explosive climax. Hill makes poignant points about racism and gun violence, but without ever climbing up onto a soapbox. With its large cast of diverse characters whose storylines inevitably intersect, “Loaded” forms the author’s literary equivalent of Crash, and is just as award-worthy.

In “Aloft,” a parachuting mishap renders Aubrey Griffin a “Robinson Crusoe of the sky”–stranded in cumulonimbic limbo, on a sentient and wondrously protean cloud island. The scenario is a prime example of the soaring flights of fancy Hill is so apt to produce, and allows him to flex his writing muscles via passages of astonishing description (e.g. “Ohio lay beneath him, an almost perfectly flat expanse of variegated squares in shades of emerald, wheat, richest brown, palest amber. […] Ruler-straight ribbons of blacktop bisected the fields below. A red pickup slid along one of these black threads like a bright steel bead on an abacus.”). “Aloft” is at once humorous and profoundly human (in its meditation on unrequited–and also unrecognized–love). With its glimpses of both the exhilaratingly beautiful and the awful (the unworldly flying object doesn’t lack a Lovecraftian aspect), the narrative epitomizes the sublime. This one reads like a lost masterpiece from the glory days of Amazing Stories.

Fans of Hill’s last novel, The Fireman, will revel in “Nails,” a post-apocalyptic epic condensed into a novella. The weather is at its strangest here, as crystalline slivers rain devastatingly from the sky. This deadly downpour, though, doesn’t represent some latter-day Biblical plague, isn’t presented as meteorologically-themed magic realism. Instead, the tale posits an act of terrorism that is made to sound terrifyingly plausible. Hill has a grand time describing the bloody mayhem created by the unnatural hail, but for all the chaos that ensues, it is order that ultimately impresses most. The narrative is as tightly plotted as a murder mystery (which in a certain sense it is), where even the smallest and seemingly most incidental detail proves integral. Heart-pounding and heartbreaking, filled with stunning set pieces and touching character moments, “Nails” needs to be made into a feature film quicker than a wicked thunderstorm rolls in.

While its structure recalls the work of Stephen King, this book also testifies to what a unique and incredible talent Joe Hill is. The local forecast for the reader of Strange Weather: captivation, with unremitting entertainment.