There’s a skill to writing a short story that writing a novel doesn’t require. Where a novel can meander, taking detours around purple prose and extraneous plot points, a short story cannot tread. Instead, suspense, characters building, plot advancement, and overall tension must be coiled and released in a much shorter period. Few short stories have an impact beyond the collections they’re bound in, but boy when you find one, does it last with you.
I bought Strange Weather by Joe Hill because of TikTok. I know, so far, so basic skinny iced latte, right? As a horror writer, I find myself drawn to the extremities of the genre. From the barely there horrors that blur on the side of thriller, to the extreme and the vile (see my review of one such book here).
I consider it research (stemming from a brief desire to be a forensic psychologist that pushed me to watch The Human Centipede at 1pm on a Thursday afternoon), because, if you don’t know where the parameters of your genre are, how can you subvert them?
And so, generally, it’s pretty difficult to get under my skin. I’m squeamish, sure, but for a story to linger with me? That’s a rarity.
Enter Joe Hill’s ‘Loaded’.
This synopsis will be brief to the point of useless, but I include it only so that the wider themes discussed in the rest of this article are contextualized.
Randall Kellaway is lauded by local authorities and local media as hero for stopping the indiscriminate shooting at the local mall (say local three times really fast, go!). The gunwoman is pronounced dead at the scene. As are a mother and her child, a store manager, and a passer-by. Kellaway, amidst his own marital and familial troubles, sees this as an opportunity to get his life back on track. Aisha, a local newswoman, and witness to the death of her ’brother’ many years prior at the hands of police, smells a rat.
While the story is, of course, not as linear as I posit here, I don’t want to ruin anything for this whose interest may have been piqued.
So, stop reading now if you’d like to read the story first…okay…3…2…1…
When Horror Gets Too Real
As a Scottish resident, I have never lived more than five minutes away from a police station. The idea of a gun being in my home, or readily available at the supermarket, to defend my home, is foreign to me. My only experience with gun violence is the tragedy at Dunblane, which reshaped the security of my primary school, and what I see – repeatedly – on news coverage of America’s own tragedies.
What happens in the hundred or so pages of Joe Hill’s ‘Loaded’ short story (short being used loosely here) is a distillation of these fears of gun violence into a concentrated use of prose that completely upends any notion of gun safety or safeguarding. And it’s to the last lines of the short story that I turn to explain ‘Loaded’.
As the story draws to its conclusion, Aisha and her daughter, Dorothy, are hiding beneath Aisha’s desk as Kellaway murders her co-workers in search of her. By this point, Kellaway has murdered the sheriff, his ex-wife, her sister, and even his own son, along with a litany of others. As he crouches down to look Aisha and Dorothy in the eyes, he says…
“Just think. If you had a gun,” he said to her, “this story might have a different ending.”
And that’s it.
That’s it?! Yup. The story ends.
While, to my knowledge, no man has ever murdered his son, two women, and a man, only to have the military show up five seconds later, the conclusion of ‘Loaded’ in Joe Hill’s Strange Weather is one that we hear of on an almost weekly basis. These are not the terrors of his father’s novels but the reality on our television screens.
Joe Hill’s ‘Loaded’ Ending Explained
So what does the ending of ‘Loaded’ mean? In particular, those last few lines?
The result of the scene is certainly clear. Aisha and Dorothy are dead, killed in the unwritten scene that follows his ominous admonishment. The mental gymnastics Kellaway does to vilify everyone but himself for the degradation would be inspirational, were they not so egotistical. There’s not a doubt in my mind he killed Dorothy and then Aisha.
But what do we, as the readers, do with the musing he leaves Aisha with?
“If you had a gun, this story might have a different ending.” The meta-exposition of his statement is almost Deadpool-esque, in that he’s speaking with Dorothy but addressing us. And what is the result? A call to arms? A gun with every Polly Pocket sold so that Dorothy would be able to safeguard herself? Or does the meaning slip between Kellaway’s words, like his sanity does throughout the story between the fractured plates of his mind?
I have no answer, contrary to the subheading above. I’m still grappling with the story myself. If Aisha was packin’ then she could have defended herself and her daughter, but Kellaway was packin’, and he killed his own wife and daughter…so where does the line lie?
I’m just a wee Scottish boy, a million miles away from daily occurrences of gun violence, so to me, this is just another story with monsters and heroes contained within ink on paper. But to my American friends out there, read this story with the light on.
Last Updated on April 14, 2022.