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Stephen King’s ‘If It Bleeds’ a captivating quartet

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Stephen King’s ‘If It Bleeds’ a captivating quartet (image courtesy Scribner)

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds” (Scribner, $30), the latest in his every decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

The collection opens with “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a tale of connections that run far deeper than we can imagine. A young boy works odd jobs for the reclusive billionaire who has moved to his town, watering the plants and reading the classics aloud. But when the boy gifts the old man with an iPhone, things change in ways both ordinary … and supernatural. One can’t call the relationship between the boy and the billionaire “love,” but it’s a real and meaningful connection – one whose binds remain tied well beyond expectation.

King’s not-quite-suspicious affinity for technology is at the forefront here as well, as is the grimly relentless optimism that the author occasionally decides to display. He’s not always looking to scare you – this story is a prime example of why that’s a good thing.

Next up is “The Life of Chuck,” a story that offers a different take on the end of the world. Society is falling apart, and physical infrastructure is crumbling; the availability of essential services is becoming more and more spotty. In the midst of it all, a series of inexplicable ads – a photo of a smiling businessman captioned “39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS CHUCK!” – arise all over, appearing on billboards, in print and on TV. The worse circumstances get, the more the ad appears.

So who is Chuck? The answer unfolds gradually in this three-part story that sees King venturing further into “New Weird” territory than we’ve seen before. It’s a strange and idiosyncratic story that veers surreal in a thoughtful meditation on imagination and mortality.

The fulcrum of the collection is the title story. “If It Bleeds” is the longest of the bunch, a new story featuring Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective service, continuing the character’s journey from the Bill Hodges trilogy and “The Outsider.” A tragedy at a school inadvertently leads Gibney to the discovery of a monster similar to the one she battled alongside Ralph Anderson in an Oklahoma cave; this one follows (and feeds on) pain via altogether different means. With old allies and new, she’s the one who must destroy the entity before any more die.

King’s affinity for Holly Gibney is palpable; it has been a while since his fondness for a character shined through so brightly. She’s undeniably compelling and complex, giving the author a window onto his created worlds through which he delights in looking. “If It Bleeds” is a scary and tense creature feature, one that also comments on the voyeuristic nature of humanity and the media apparatus that enables that voyeurism.

“If It Bleeds” closes with “The Rat,” where King once again illustrates his affinity and aptitude for telling stories about writers. Specifically, the difficulty of writing and the emotional ramifications that come with that struggle. A man heads into the woods of northern Maine, making his way to his family’s camp to isolate himself and finally write a novel – a task that almost destroyed him the last time he tried.

It revisits the longtime motif of writer’s block and the potential devil’s bargains a sufferer might make to break through, embracing the dark side of the creative process. What starts as a taut, albeit straightforward portrait of a writer’s desperate efforts to finally finish a novel takes an abrupt and surreal left turn that lends it an unexpected degree of depth.

One of the joys of King’s novella collections is the reminder that he, perhaps more than any of his bestselling peers, has a tremendous gift for giving stories exactly the amount of space they need to be properly told. Sometimes, that results in 700-plus page epics. Other times, just 70. Whatever it takes to get the story from his head to the page – that’s what King gives you. It’s remarkable really, that an author can create stories that cause a reader to shiver, to smile and to shed a tear in the space of a few pages – but really, should anything Stephen King does surprise us anymore?

“If It Bleeds” practically pulses with the humanistic empathy that marks the best of King’s work. It’s an outstanding quartet, featuring four tales that are wildly different from one another, yet undeniably bound together by the voice of our finest storyteller. There is much to fear in the worlds created by Stephen King, but even in the depth of his darkest shadows, a light of hope steadily glows. More exceptional work from the maestro.

Keep ‘em coming, Mr. King.

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 April 2020 13:10


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