With all of the craziness currently going on in the world, it seemed like we all needed some good news, and none other than Stephen King himself has stepped up to the plate.
Originally set to be released in early May, King’s new compendium hit the shelves on April 28th 2020.
If It Bleeds features four brand new novellas penned by King, which according to its publisher, Scribner, will “pull readers into intriguing and frightening places”. The four stories are titled Rat, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life Of Chuck and the titular If It Bleeds.
King is, of course, no stranger to the novella format, with multiple Hollywood blockbusters being created on the back of the author’s shorter stories, including Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me.
Check out the animated trailers for each of these stories:
I loved the first three stories but I didn’t enjoy the story that covers the title cover. Holy Gibney takes over again, in her monotone voice, dead to me and to all the readers! Picking up from where “The Outsider” left off, the neurotic owner of Finders Keepers has another mystery on her plate. But let’s go back to the other (and in my opinion) better stories!
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
The first book in the collection takes a trope I am used to with Stephen King novels, an adult looking back on childhood before rounding back into the present, and doesn’t exactly twist (ok, doesn’t twist it), but because this story takes place contemporary to now, the “nostalgia” elements or the time-marking ones of 2004 feel kind of funny to me here. Our narrator spent many days of his adolescence reading the small town’s rich miser novels. He reads a lot of American realism classics (which no one really reads anymore) like McTeague. They chat about the world, and about the billionaire’s general luddite tendencies. Each year for a gift, the old man sends people in his life lottery ticket scratchoffs. One year, the boy wins $3000 and he buys his friend an iPhone. The older man, Mr. Harrigan, dies of old age and as a parting present, the boy inserts the man’s phone in his funeral jacket.
When the boy missed Mr. Harrigan or when he wanted to share some good news, he would call Mr. Harrigan’s phone (which eerily still had a dialtone and wasn’t disconnected) and after the voicemail message, leave one of his own.
When the boy is bullied, he calls and cries his woes on Mr. Harrigan’s voicemail and shortly thereafter, the bully commits suicide by auto-asphyxiation. Of course there is nothing to relate the two incidents, but in his mind, they are cause & effect so when something else bad happens and his ex-school teacher dies a horrible death, he rings Mr. Harrigan’s phone again and gives the details of the hit & run driver and sure enough, he is found dead shortly after.
The novella is technologically up there with Cell or Ur and it connects (in an implausible manner), the afterlife and the living.
The Life of Chuck
This story begins as a meditation on some future moment in which the earth is too far gone and we start to reckon with the actual damage we are doing to the planet. That moment where catastrophic nightmare starts happening daily or hourly and society starts to crumble, but we’re too inured to it all to note much beyond, to quote the characters, “It sucks”. But the story goes from there in an unexpected turn. The narrator and his comrades notice a near ubiquitous set of signs, banners, congratulations, ads, etc marking “39 Good Years” or something to that effect for “Chuck” and so eventually, working backwards, we get the story of Chuck and his 39 years. What looked like it would be a celebration of 39 years in say, a bank or something, was actually 39 years of life.
Internet stops working, electricity soon after, thank you “Chuck” for 39 years in the bank. The ending was a bit duff as it seems to correlate a bank employee’s death with the world’s death and metaphysically asks us if the world is truly another man’s dream or our own.
Our narrator in this story is a middling short story writer with a good job teaching creative writing (sound familiar?). He awakes one day to an alert in his brain of a fully formed novel just ready to be written. Normally this would be a good thing, but apparently he spent a decade or more writing a badly thought-out John Updike derivative novel that led him to a very dark place and he promised to give it up. So extracting a sabbatical from his wife is met with concern. He makes it out and goes to a cabin his father owned. All is set when a coming snow storm and a flu bring up the very real possibility of abandoning this novel as well. In the midst of a fever, he has a vision…..and it goes from there.
Not particularly strong, but also not weak. The writing and the story themselves are good, but the “Stephen King” part of this novel is not so great.
If It Bleeds
We find Holly watching tv as part of her regular schedule, solving cases, working, learning, self-improving, when breaking news tells her that a bomb has gone off in a middle school in Pennsylvania killing several dozen teachers and students. As she’s watching, she notices a curious anomaly with the local news anchor which leads her back down paths. His pocket is ripped indicating an act of self-destruction similar to those Jewish families perform when a family member dies.
This is by far the longest of the stories and is most fully realized because of the material that came before it. It’s not that hard to build a world around a character in a novella when you have four novels backing her up. In the Outsider, I wasn’t the biggest fan of rolling those novels into the supernatural world being created there, but the third Bill Hodges novel was already heading that way.
Book gets 3/5 stars as the writing is lazy in parts and none of the endings are any good. It’s trying and failing to be “hip and down with the kids” and reminded me of: