On paper, a collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, two of the masters of contemporary horror, should be incredible. We have reviewed several books by each of these writers here on Genre Lasagna, and our general opinion of each is pretty high. The novella “In the Tall Grass” was originally published in two parts in Esquire magazine as part of their poorly titled “Fiction for Men” campaign this past summer. The story was recently released as a standalone e-book, which was how I read it. While I went into my reading excited to see what these two masters would cook up together, I was disappointed to find an uninspired, sort of ugly story.
“In the Tall Grass” is a simple story. Two siblings, on a cross-country drive to a new city, hear a strange voice from the tall grass beside the road. They pull into an abandoned church parking lot, where several other cars are parked. The voice in the grass belongs to a young boy, begging for help. The two siblings go into the tall grass in an attempt to save him, and that is where things go terribly wrong.
To spoil what happens in the grass would be spoil one of the few interesting bits of storytelling in this novella, so I will be as vague as I can. Suffice to say, the effect of the tall grass is weird, unsettling, and compelling. But that’s where the novelty stops. After the initial shock of the disorienting properties of the tall grass, the story devolves into a poorly-paced, poorly-plotted mishmash of horror tropes that we seen a thousand times before. Worse, we’ve seen them done far better as well.
There is no subtlety in “In the Tall Grass.” Everything is visceral, gory, and, worst of all, totally unearned. There is so little context for what is happening that the horror bits, the apparent terrible center of the story, fall completely flat. The action of the story, while spare, manages to also be frustratingly vague. I know what happened at the end of the story, but I have no idea why it happened or why I was supposed care about it. There is one tantalizing mystery at the core of the story, but there is no attempt to explain it, or really even acknowledge it. It’s an empty center holding a dull, tedious, and totally bland horror story.
“In the Tall Grass” has none of the qualities we associate with the best writing of either author. It has none of King’s lingering, escalating tension, and none of Joe Hill’s focus on character. The story is short, perhaps only a third as long as a short novel, but it still took me four days to read it because, up until the last quarter, I was almost totally non-engaged. The story relies on weirdness it doesn’t earn and vivid, technicolor gore that it doesn’t need to tell a story about characters I never connected with.
“In the Tall Grass” gets 1 piece of lasagna.
It is currently available for your favorite ebook reader. The e-book version does contain short samples of King’s upcoming “Doctor Sleep” and Hill’s forthcoming “NOS4A2.” Those samples alone were worth my money, but they might not be for everyone.