A little over a week ago, I announced on this very blog that I was ceasing writing for publication. I hope I made it clear that I was going to attempt to finish works-in-progress but the act of seeking publishers interested in my work had come to an unfortunate end. I haven’t exactly changed my mind about that decision, but a recent experience has forced me to reconsider.
Joe Hill’s latest release titled “Strange Weather,” a collection of four short novels, is the cause of that experience. Let me start by saying I am a huge fan of Hill’s work. For those of you who don’t know, Joe Hill is the pseudonym of Stephen King’s son, Joseph Hillstrom King. This might sound blasphemous to King readers, but I think his son’s work is vastly superior these days. Maybe it’s because we’re both Gen-X’ers and I can relate better to his approach and perspective, or maybe it’s because King’s recent work, with notable exceptions, hasn’t gripped me the way it once did. So, a new Hill book is an event for me in much the same way as a Palahniuk or Mitchell novel. And I’m really enjoying this one. However, I couldn’t shake a certain feeling of déjà vu when I read “Snapshot,” the first story in the collection. While I found the writing engaging and the narrator compelling, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the plot was familiar territory. I don’t mean that in the “Stranger Things” blatant, sub-standard rip-off masquerading as homage way; But I had definitely experienced the plot before somewhere.
Before I go any further, here is a basic description of “Snapshot’s” plot courtesy of a review in USA Today:
Snapshot opens the salvo with a creepy exploration of memory that doubles as an Alzheimer’s metaphor. The 1980s-set narrative centers on an inventive teenage boy visited by an old housekeeper who finds that pieces of her past have gone missing, leaving a sense of increasing loss. The culprit: a mysterious man armed with a Polaroid-style camera that sucks a piece of one’s history every time it points and shoots. If the key concept doesn’t unnerve you, the abundance of dead sparrows will.
Sounds sufficiently creepy, right? And while it was a solid entry into the book with an admittedly meandering conclusion, I kept wondering where the hell I’d seen the basic
premise before. It took me a few days to place it. Another author published a short story
called, “The Memory Thief” four years ago with a similar idea behind it. Below are the
first few paragraphs of that story:
The Memory Thief had a stand inside my local grocery store where he pretended to sell photo packages to gullible idiots. He was a smooth one, in his mid to late twenties, handsome but not intimidatingly so, presenting the appearance of the good-looking, non-threatening African American friend on a sit-com or drama about up and coming young people.He read people like they were walking flat screens with all of their pertinent data on display in size 48 font. He was especially good at charming women, being handsome and smooth and all, but there was more to it than that: The Memory Thief understood a woman’s brain and how it related to memories.He didn’t call himself the Memory Thief, by the way. That’s what I named him. I gave it to him when he took something from me and refused to give it back. I don’t remember the name he went under.
In case you’re wondering, the author of the second story was me. Originally titled, “My
Greatest Forget,” it was published by Voluted Tales Magazine in December of 2013. My
story was different, of course. Instead of a genius child narrator, mine was a woman
with a forgotten past. But the concept of a mysterious man with what appeared to be a
magical camera that stole memories was strikingly similar. No offense to Hill, but I think
my antagonist was creepier because he seemed to have foreknowledge of the main
character’s missing memories. My story is also much shorter than Hill’s.
Before you start accusing me of accusing Joe Hill of stealing from me. That would be
absurd. Is it possible? Sure. My story has been viewable online for a few years and
anyone willing to spend the money on a subscription can read it. The idea that Joe Hill
had the time to look up a relatively obscure online zine is rather difficult to swallow.
Besides, writers get ideas from other writers all the time. I once wrote a short story
about an abused child fantasizing that he has super powers after reading a similar story
by Horror Zine editor Jeani Rector.
So, no. I’m not making a case for plagiarism against one of my favorite authors. I firmly
believe ideas exist in a realm that can only be touched by those of us who are open to
them. Content dictates plagiarism. Hill’s content and mine differ markedly.
So what’s my point?
Simple: The basic idea behind both stories is similar. The executions are different. I am
me and Joe Hill is…well, Joe Freakin’ Hill. The man has earned the right to have his
work published through hard work, quality writing, proven sales and name recognition.
Would “Snapshot” have been published if I’d written it? It’s far from perfect but it’s a
compelling read, for sure. I struggled to find a receptive editor for “The Memory Thief,”
one close-minded individual actually criticizing the fact that the customer service rep
protagonist received several job offers when she decided to quit her job. Do you think
Joe Hill’s budding young engineer with the bizarre inventions faced similar scrutiny? It’s
doubtful. Again…Joe. Freakin’. Hill.
But what this tells me is my ideas are worth something. I have been published, after all.
All writers experience dry spells from time to time. Instead of being discouraged by Hill’s
story’s similarities to my own, I am cautiously encouraged.
That doesn’t mean I’ve changed my mind, but it does mean I might. I suppose that’s as
good as it gets right now~