I started reading Stephen King novels when I was a young adult (read: child), and I have never stopped. I started with Through the Eyes of the Dragon, a YA book, but moved on to Carrie and Cujo in short order. I read him through junior high and into high school. I read King’s horror, his dark fantasy, and his short stories. One day, Lucifer willing, I will write something lengthy about his oeuvre. , because I think his body of work worth giving serious consideration. As I’ve read King’s output over the last two decades of my life, King’s material has evolved in interesting ways. Good old Stephen has maintained an almost self-satirically prolific level of output. From his eyrie in Maine and from various vacation properties, he has cranked out 61 novels, 11 collections, 5 nonfiction books, and 19 screenplays, and that isn’t even the entirety of it. He has sold about 350 million books, give or take, and has a net worth of roughly half a billion dollars (USD 500m, or $500,000,000).
King is prolific, King is successful, and King is influential. Modern horror was in large part shaped by him, and he has had an outsized impact on the publishing of popular fiction in a larger sense. One day, Stephen King will be held in the esteem of a William Shakespeare or (certainly) a Charles Dickens. In fact Dickens – also a commercial author, also fond of ghost stories – is probably not a bad point of reference for King. Dickens was highly critical of the British aristocracy and of the condition of the poor in England in the 19th century. Likewise, Stephen King’s politics could be characterized as broadly “liberal” without being leftist; the staid, Joe Biden wing of the Democratic Party, in short. King has been criticized for the lily-white nature of much of his early work (and his use of some fairly worn tropes when he does bother to put Black people in his work), and clearly, in his 21st century work, he’s trying to be a better white guy. Given his overall Twitter presence and often-enjoyable flaying of Maine Governor Paul LePage (a true bastard) and soon-to-be-former President Trump, I’d call him a largely benign presence, politically speaking.
Why does any of this matter? Well, because I just read If It Bleeds, a collection of four previously unreleased novellas that came out in April. I am Madness Heart Press’ resident (and self-appointed) Kingologist, having often discussed him both here and on the MHP podcast Wandering Monster, and thus it fell to me to review King’s new quartet of stories. A word right out of the gate: I very much enjoyed the novella format, and wish more authors would explore it. The segmented nature of If It Bleeds allows me to give it a segmented review. Two out of four of the novellas in Bleeds are good; one is great. And one is infuriating.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” and “Rat” are fairly straightforward King fare; “Harrigan” is a passable attempt at a 21st century ghost story, and “Rat” is an engrossing-enough tale of a writer going mad (sound familiar?). “The Life of Chuck” truly shines. While it lies well outside the wheelhouse of horror and more like something that might be included in The Year’s Best Short Fiction or McSweeney’s. I enjoyed the experimental style of “Chuck,” and its heartbreaking message – centered around a colloquial proverb, “when an old person dies, a library burns” – is as well-realized as I’ve ever seen in King’s work. I highly recommend it.
That leaves the title novella of the collection, “If It Bleeds.” To talk about “If It Bleeds,” we need to talk about Holly Gibney. Since his early days, King has had a tendency to revisit a number of characters in different contexts and settings. In his recent phase – what King-themed podcast Losers Club has called his “true crime phase” – Gibney has been one of King’s most frequently-recurring characters, having appeared in Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch, The Outsider, and, now, “If It Bleeds.” MILD SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Unlike poor dead Bill Hodges, Holly lives on as the embodiment (along with another recurring character, Ralph Anderson, who is not in “If It Bleeds”) of the Nobility of Law and Order in King’s universe. This is an odd position for a person of King’s politics to take in their fiction. Hodges and Anderson are, after all, both cops who have killed multiple people; and let’s not forget Holly’s partner Pete (not in this story either), another retired killer cop. Sure, they may have murdered enough people to fill a small school bus over the course of those many stories, but all the people they killed had it coming and/or were monsters. It’s as though King’s conception of justice never evolved past the early 1990s: and certainly never encountered Black Lives Matter.
Holly Gibney herself is an irritating and poorly fleshed-out character, a caricature, if you will, of neurotic-but-brilliant mental illness. This is a misrepresentation of the realities of mental health that has been a tired trope since at least the TV show Monk. I’ve heard more than one acquaintance tell me that they think Holly is supposed to be “on the [autism] spectrum,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate. She is obsessive, anxious, bullied by a one-dimensional ogre of a mother (another recurring King character making an appearance here). She is not particularly well-realized as “brilliant,” as much as representative of self-indulgent impulses: fa thin figment crafted from the most annoying parts of Stephen King’s personal moral code. King’s moral code has, I might add, become increasingly God-centered in his later phases, although that part of his cosmology has been a quiet but persistent part of his stories going back at least to the beginnings of his association with Alcoholics Anonymous in 1987.
What could possibly be wrong with that? Well…
(TO BE CONCLUDED NEXT WEEK)