[Book Review] 'If It Bleeds' is the Perfect Introduction to Stephen King for Fans New and Old
Stephen King remains a name synonymous not only with horror, but with massive novels as well. Some of the most well-known stories such as The Shining come close to 700 pages and the story of It and the (hopefully not) foreshadowing narrative of The Stand both come in at over 1,000 pages. Loyal fans of the writer eagerly welcome the massively detailed look into King’s terror-filled mindscapes, but some readers might find the lengthy texts a little inaccessible...
...Lucky for horror fans, (both the literary-devoted and the not) the Monarch of the Macabre has also mastered the lesser used art form of the novella. Quite a few of the most famous King-influenced movies hail from the shorter book form as even non-horror fans will know such titles as Stand by Me (from the novella “The Body”), Shawshank Redemption, and The Mist with several other titles premiering every year. But even with a shorter medium, the author still manages to pack the whole King experience into a much smaller package.
Those familiar with the horror author know King turns again and again to certain themes or symbols. Small Maine towns, good vs evil, loss of innocence, and the power of memory play important roles in a lot of King’s fiction, but one uncommon object which creates a through-line in his new collection, If It Bleeds, is the phone. Specifically, the landline. Two stories occur in a place where cellphones do not work, and in the other two tales the characters would have benefitted from not relying on cellphones. Now King is not anti-technology. Quite the opposite in fact. He just prefers taking the everyday and showing his readers how even the familiar holds the unexpected.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”
The first novella may seem like a promotional story for Apple products, but this is only on the surface. Craig provides the narrative as he grows from a young boy to manhood and all under the watchful guidance of Mr. Harrigan. Two or three times a week, the pre-teen goes to the mansion on the hill to read to the richest man in town (possibly the state) and there the boy learns unintentionally about books and his future as he develops a bond with the elderly Harrigan.
The story jumps around a bit time wise as the reader discovers how Craig started working for Mr. Harrigan and the resulting aftermath, but the catalyst of the story centers around 2007 with the release of the first iPhone. Simultaneously, King explores the wonder of the smart phone from two very different generations. We see the fresh-youthful curiosity of Craig as he embraces the technology and quickly accepts everything the iPhone has to offer. While Mr. Harrigan, on the other hand, in his 80s prefers a life of simplicity and skirted the burden of technology for a large portion of his life. That is, until he met his iPhone. Even with his advanced years and previous avoidance of gadgets, Mr. Harrigan quickly adapts to the device but remains wary of its power and the associated complications which only he seems capable of predicting. This is a King story, so the phone provides services beyond mere communication, and even the communication capabilities do not end at death.
“The Life of Chuck”
While the first story tells a ‘coming of age’ tale, this novella is a philosophical ‘end of life’ narrative. Starting in medias res of a world slowly (or maybe not so slowly) failing, “The Life of Chuck” tells of a near-apocalyptic landscape where both natural and man-made necessities have or are in the process of collapsing. The internet ceases to exist, one natural disaster after another rains havoc across the entire country, medicine becomes scarce, and suicides become the number one battle for health care professionals. I got to wonder, did King sell his soul to gain divination abilities? The story begins about a year into “the end times,” but what is causing the destruction of the world? Divine intervention? A change in the earth’s rotation? Or the retirement of a man named Charles “Chuck” Krantz? The text definitely follows some theoretical byways as King explores the stages of a man’s life and the philosophical questions which inadvertently arise when faced with happenstance, the unexplained, and tragedy. Dividing the story into three sections, King provides a reflection on mortality, a tale of magic, and even a ghost story which all combine to tell the story of one man’s life. Definitely my favorite in the collection.
“If It Bleeds”
The Stephen King universe stretches through several generations and the population of King-land most likely rivals any metropolis; however, one character appears on a pretty consistent basis (at least over the last few years): Holly Gibney. First appearing in the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) and later The Outsider, the eccentric investigator finds herself yet again tracking a figure who threatens destruction and death. After tragedy strikes a Pittsburgh middle school, Holly refuses to rely on “thoughts and prayers bullpoop” to mend all the broken bodies and destroyed families. However, how do you track a killer who can change his face at will?
Even if you are new to the Holly Gibney (and Jerome) story arch, the novella packs in enough info to let you know the details of her previous adventures as well as expand on her character development. One complaint about this story arises from the pacing as, I feel at least, the events came off as rushed. With “If it Bleeds” coming in as the longest story in the collection, this comment might seem unfounded, but then again, I think I speak for a lot of King fans when I say “I want more Holly.”
The final novella takes place largely in one location and focuses on Drew Larson, the tortured author prototype so common in King’s works. Drew discovers a novel inside himself and sequesters away from family and amenities in hopes of birthing the story. Again, King (the soothsayer!) demonstrates his other-worldly abilities as we see the dangers of a handshake. Drew’s self-isolation starts as a pleasant and peaceful time for self-reflection and productive creativity, but an unfortunate contact with a sick man and an approaching storm turns the writing retreat into a dangerous fever dream. As conditions both inside the cabin and Drew’s head worsen, the terrified author finds an unlikely companion in a dying rat. Part Master Class on writing mentor and part magical creature, the mysterious rodent offers a Faustian-like bargain to the desperate writer. Now Drew must ask himself, is a life worth the completion of a novel?
So, with the newest literary release from the legendary author we gain four new titles which are not too long and not too short. Familiar King themes and characters make appearances, but he also expands on his well-crafted worlds. Really a perfect read for everyone from life-long residents to even the newest visitors to King-land.
If It Bleeds is now available from Simon and Schuster.
By Amylou Ahava
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