Any steps Joe Hill has taken, including the name change, to distance himself from his famous father have proved futile. Though a new release of his work, even the slightly overhyped The Fireman, is more of an event than his dad’s yearly tome drop – and I have read all of Hill’s novels since I have read one by his father – his books are always going to be inextricably linked with his dad’s oeuvre. Originally regarded as a novelty with potential, Hill has reached the acme of horror writing, his NOS4A2 being compared to It and the aforementioned The Fireman touted as the Hill’s take on The Stand. Though he is arguably the more vital writer currently and might not have reached his ceiling yet, his work, at least for me, will probably never supplant that of his father, whose novels were ready and waiting for the impressionable adolescent version of me, who voraciously devoured each one of them.
Hill’s work is to be admired, but it arrives at a time when my tastes have become a little more varied, and actual terrors have supplanted any desire for the thrills and chills of pulp literature. I read his books as a diversion; any terror he can conjure is minuscule compared with the mundane toothache of having children in the era of school shootings and pondering if your parents will have enough money for medicine when Medicare is brought under the umbrella of the Disney Company. It’s unfair to Hill, but I was much easier to scare before I knew about truly frightening things.
That said, Dark Carousel is retro-tinged enjoyment, and for the first time, I am the same age as the character doing the reminiscing; as the story unspooled I found myself both drawn into the narrative, actively creating the characters from my history, and wondering if this is what is was like for dudes in the Eighties reading It and reconstructing their own idyllic and creepy childhoods. King and Hill might peddle terror to move the merchandise, but both underpin the scares with a healthy dose of nostalgia. In Dark Carousel, Hill includes this on two levels; he is drawn to the time of his own teenage years, and offers a knowing depiction of aimless youth in an uncool place, but also harks back to the best of his father’s work.
Hill is able to conjure some of the King magic, balancing in the reader a straightforward sense of terror and the giddy belonging, helped by the Maine setting, at recognizing an easter egg from King’s meticulous universe. The terror here comes from the titular boardwalk attraction, and Hill doesn’t beat around the bush. After a smidgen of exposition, the story takes off, moving quickly to a satisfying, if somewhat rushed, conclusion. The world building is interwoven well, but often runs parallel to the more immediate events taking place. Dark Carousel will reward the reader who returns to it, and contains enough connections to indicate the seriousness with which Hill manages his own shared universe. In fact, given some of the details that Hill includes in the denouement of the story, I would not be surprised if its protagonist has a larger role in a later work. Hill seemingly wants to follow his character just a little bit farther, but was unable, due to constraints of the chosen medium, to do so.
This medium is, frankly, a little ludicrous, but is also a final connection between spooky father and creepy son. Dark Carousel, at the time I write this, exists only as a vinyl double album. Though I can’t believe, particularly with how enamored Hill is of his protagonist, that this will be the case for very long, right now this story is available exclusively as two records packaged with a digital download code. Though there is something to be said for exclusivity driving purchases and the pure pleasure of listening to something on vinyl, most people I know who listen to audiobooks do so on their commutes or doing chores around the house. Picturing the pure hedonism of listening to Dark Carousel on vinyl, possibly with a snifter of cognac in a leather chair, is amusing, but most people will probably end up listening to it on their phones with cheap headsets reducing the rich tones of Nate Corddry, who reads the piece, to lowest of tinny denominators.
The records and their packaging can be considered a nice piece for collectors or the price of admission for Hill fans who have to have the story right now, damn the price point or inconvenience, but it is fair to say that two records is not the most accessible format for short fiction. Given the level of fandom that Hill engenders, I am sure that Dark Carousel will sell a fair amount of copies. I would, given my current responsibilities, probably pass at shelling out the thirty dollars for what amounts to a short story and a conversation piece, but when my fandom was more intense and my income more disposable, I happily shelled out for each individual chapter of The Green Mile. I’m not sure that Dark Carousel signals the next big trend in publishing, but neither did The Green Mile. I wanted that story immediately, and I bought it as it was offered to me. Such was my fandom. As someone who has spent money as a fan and despite my suspicions to the contrary, I hope that Hill leaves Dark Carousel exactly where it is, as an interesting curiosity attainable to the hardest core of Hill devotees.