Synopsis: Stephen King’s latest book is four long stories. They’re either longer short-stories or novellas, depending on your perspective/opinion. Form aside, these works are never before published works of Stephen King, which is always an exciting prospect. With most of the world still on pause, if you want some escapism then this book, released around a month ago, will provide all your needs for that, and much more. Sci-fi Pulse rates the book as whole, delves into each story, considering each on its own merit, then summarises.
Mr Harrigan’s Phone
Something Stephen King achieves in his work is his writing characters in the first person brilliantly. It’s almost as if, at times, you’re reading an autobiography; that’s how well King knows the people he’s writing. He knows where they fit, what they like, and what they have for breakfast! Something that really stands out in this first-person piece is how authentically it reads, considering that it’s set in the mid-2000s. There’s a certain amount of nostalgia, and within this lovely story is a commentary on how quickly things have changed and moved on, even in fifteen years.
The main character of the story, Craig, is narrating the story as an adult. Presumably from now. Choosing to set the story in the recent past shows just how seriously King considers every part of his craft. We think we can remember mid-way between one and two decades ago, but in terms of getting facts right, we’d probably struggle. This story shows that King is always up to date with the world, too. Another important thing for a writer who is active today. King stays relevant by keeping a sharp eye on things; this work shows he’s not so much a Satirist (for him the story always comes first), but a human who has lived through change and tells us about it. Most of us try to do this and make the story interesting. King succeeds with an accomplished piece.
Character-wise, the biggest relationship in this is between Craig and Mr. Harrigan. It’s an unlikely relationship, but one that works. Imagine Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, if Scrooge wasn’t so hateful to him, at the start of A Christmas Carol (1843). This set-up acts as a metaphor between the old world and the new one, with Craig introducing Mr. Harrigan to (then) modern technology. The story goes much deeper than just an “old meets young” scenario. It’s about communication, about growing up and also about saying goodbye. As the two learn from one another, they both come to see things that they hadn’t thought possible.
The supernatural almost always features in King’s work, with a monster, an incident, or a chance-encounter. This story offers something different and shows King’s scope. It flirts with ideas of the afterlife but makes nothing explicit. It’s about negotiating nostalgia and is a brilliantly crafted piece that can be read for the sheer beauty of the piece, or for those who want to remind themselves what things were like, how different they were when the internet was just taking hold and changing how we live, forever. King reminds us that whilst it may feel it was, it really wasn’t that long ago. King knows that we can’t ever get back to the time before. Things have changed, indefinitely.
The Life of Chuck
Something evident here is that King likes to challenge himself. When he wrote The Green Mile (1996) he wanted to see if he could do a serial format piece. Of course, he could. Many writers want to show what they can do, when they start out. King likes to constantly prove to himself what’s possible if you really try. That’s why his work always sells so well. Yes, he has an army of fans (some dwindled, much preferring his earlier stuff, citing at his best), but he still has to deliver the goods.
“The Life of Chuck” is told in reverse. If that’s not tough enough to write, whilst maintaining a sequential plot, then there’s the weaving in of multiple narratives, too. Of course, King achieves it. Quite how he manages to so is further testament that whilst his earlier work may seem fresher and more captivating, this later stuff shows quite how active King is as a writer, offering up a tiny slither of what is an endless stream of light: King’s creativity. The ordering of things, and the necessity for emotional impact and even the simplest thing, wanting to read on, would be skewed and jumbled by a lesser writer. King absolutely nails it, never once veering off.
Genre-wise, it’s hard to place. Not horror, in the typical sense; it certainly isn’t in the same vein as the title story. This is one on its own, and an exploration of a character, by King. But like all great writing it speaks volumes about us. We’re reminded of the fleetingness of life. Of the choices we make, and that every now and again, just for the hell of it we should get up and dance, for dancing’s sake. The message of this one is that it’s not the length of a life lived, but the quality of it that counts. With his trademark dark-humour, frankness and ability to haunt you without needing ghosts and ghouls, King, the master of his trade, tells a poignant tale that cuts deep without you even noticing that the incisions have been made.
If it Bleeds
Stephen King is no stranger to the novella form. Famously, he wrote “The Body”, that was adapted to the screen. We now know and love it as Stand by Me (1986). It’s this form he chose to tell the story of the titular “If It Bleeds”. It was much awaited by many fans (including me!), for multiple reasons. Whilst not a direct sequel to King’s best-selling The Outsider (2018), it’s a stand-alone story and one set in the same “world” as the story (most of King’s books are loosely connected – some more than others). The events take place following those in The Outsider, which included a dramatic incident for one of the best King (and generally, too) characters of recent years. What most people will be delighted to hear (I was), is that this is Holly Gibney’s very first solo outing.
This time around, Holly Gibney is at the forefront of the action. She is leading the investigation. A school has been attacked. A bomb. Holly Gibney watches from the offices of her business, Finders Keepers. They are a small firm of private investigators, focusing on small jobs. Lost dogs and those who jump bail, mainly. This idea is perfect for the story, as Holly isn’t a gung-ho action hero. She’s an every-person. Her quirks are what make her such a brilliant creation, sensitively written and realistically considered. Quite what her diagnosis is isn’t clear. She’s highly anxious, we do know that much. That’s all we need to know. If anything, it’s more realistic, as most people who have an underlying condition go undiagnosed for years; when and if they are, even that’s usually wrong.
Often peoples’ neuroses or struggles stem from events in their childhood, and their relationships with their parents. King shows that he knows this well, which is his job as a writer. We are shown glimpses of Holly’s early world and given more on the relationship between her and her mother, which is one of the most defining features of her. The characterization is sincere and the emotional writing sits deep within you, long after reading.
The narrative of the story begins with Ralph Anderson (the main character and now good friend of Holly’s from The Outsider) receiving a package, from Holly. She is documenting her investigation, as she decides that something doesn’t quite add up when she sees the bomber on the news report. This is where King really starts to deliver. In writing Holly Gibney he has created a neuro-diverse character that is real, vulnerable, and memorable. He makes her idiosyncrasies her superpowers. Her attention to detail and obsessiveness means that she is able to focus in; her considerable knowledge, due to how she processes and retains information, gives her an edge that others don’t have. She’s going to need it, as this time she hasn’t got Ralph to help.
After finishing this adventure, I wasn’t as enamored with the story in quite the same way I was with The Outsider. Perhaps that’s because the idea was known, now, so this isn’t a critique of King’s ability to tell a story. You still get a well-paced yarn, and some new characters too. There’s some trademark beautiful illustrative writing, with the images bursting to life in your mind, in the way that King’s able to achieve again and again, with seemingly effortless skill. His metaphors and concrete imagery are always fresh and innovative. Mostly, the real pleasure was getting a whole story where Holly Gibney runs the show. He makes it so easy to fall in love with a character, and most importantly to root for. King crafts complexity expertly. Holly may appear to be a vulnerable character as if she’s made of glass, but the bravery and mettle he gives her are what really drives things. You want to reach out and protect her, to shelter and shield her; but King screams back at you “Don’t you dare, she’s the hero, and the one protecting you from the monsters”. Finding out if she succeeds was all of the pleasure in the reading of this story.
This deeply psychological tale is on the surface a simple story about a man who has a deep-rooted desire to write a novel. When he has previously attempted to do this, it resulted in a spiraling depression that in turn caused him to have a mental breakdown. The mind is very much the place of action in this piece. What Stephen King really does is to give a detailed analysis, via a creation of his own, of the stresses of feeling a pull towards something. With the consummate skill of an old-hand at the trade he delves deep into the workings of a person’s subconscious. It’s this that makes the story a seriously impressive piece. It’s layered, and as much as it can just be read for the plot, to entertain as a story should, this is really a fine example of literature. There’s no need to try and argue the point though, to say it is or isn’t in a certain category (literary or non-literary fiction). It’s irrelevant. What sticks is that both the surface and depth “agree”. The water is as blue down there as it is at the top, with this one. That may sound contrived, or something that doesn’t really tell you about the content of the work, or analyze it closely. It should make sense if you read it.
Something else that seems to be of a similar vein is this: this is a story only a writer could write; as an aspiring writer there was a definite, immediate jealously at how well executed this piece is. The plot, the setting, and the pacing. All of it. Of course, following that initial pang of “why can’t I write something like this”, the admiration comes. As a reader there is a great deal to enjoy in this story, as you are sucked in, as desperate to discover if the character *name* will finish his book as he is to finish the thing himself. The way it pans out at first seems typical of King. The supernatural presented as normal, mundane even. That changes though, and by the end of the story you see the clever trick that he has achieved, which is an inspired way to do the “open-ended” ending (so much so that even knowing this won’t spoil your enjoyment).
The book itself isn’t cheap to buy new, coming in at not far of £20. If you can afford it though it’s worth it, as these quite different stories share a deep knowledge of the human condition. That’s what you’re paying for (if you’re a bit short of cash then you can perhaps pick up a second-hand copy cheaper, or check out your local libraries’ online services and see if it’s available that way). You’ll certainly get a good few hours’ of pleasure from this collection, as a reader, and are likely to find at least one you love; at the bare minimum you’ll get a masterclass in creative writing. .
What’s evident in abundance is that King knows how to reach you, never having to shout to be heard. His well-placed word-choices and his powerfully inventive ideas take you deep into the worlds he builds. You know you’ve read King when you learn something about yourself in the journey. Few know the ways of the human mind as well as King, the route into it, and the ways that images are conjured. These varied and original stories’ commonalities are that the author always talks to our hearts, as well as our minds. King finds that place in between, that may be the soul. Whatever it is, he makes his writing climb in and once it does it does its magic.
- Story Content9.3
- Writing Quality9.6