(In Part One of this review, I discussed three out of four novellas in Stephen King’s new collection, If It Bleeds. In Part Two, I specifically address the title novella. Some spoilers follow.)
The architecture that undergirds power in America is sometimes visible. Examples include police, walls and fences, “No Trespassing” signs, or any of the innumerable and minute transactions that make up the beehive hum of 21st-century capitalism. Most of power’s structure is invisible, however, composed of our norms, our collective morality (such as it is), and our conceptualization of and responses to “evil.” The engineers of this invisible support structure are sometimes politicians, but more often come from the realms of money and the arts. Perhaps no author in 2020 can speak to the confluence of these two realms quite like Stephen King, who has earned half a billion dollars and sold hundreds of millions of books, and whose novels – whether in their original form or as adaptations – have shaped American popular culture for over 40 years.
It would not be fair to say that King hasn’t grown since the publication of Carrie in 1974. People of color appear more frequently in his work now than they used to, although many of the tropes and awkward center-left characterizations of them still mar his attempts to expand the scope of his empathy. Women, always prominent in his books in some sense, have made progress in the Kingoverse as well. Holly Gibney, the heroine of “If It Bleeds,” is one of his most frequently-recurring characters these days. Holly also represents an attempt on the part of King to portray mental illness with more sensitivity (Holly suffers from a complicated and never-quite-diagnosed anxiety disorder). I suppose King could have picked a worse avatar for his current true crime phase – the late, white ex-policeman Bill Hodges, for example. Just kidding, Hodges was a recurring character, and serves as Holly’s mentor and moral center.
And here we have the problem with “If It Bleeds,” and with several of King’s recent novels (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch, The Outsider). King has written these books in the 21st century. In fact, Mr. Mercedes – the first Bill Hodges novel – was released a mere six years ago, in 2014. 2014 also happens to be the year that protests against the police killing of Black folks including Michael Brown and Tamir Rice kicked off, protests that evolved into the movement known as Black Lives Matter. The last few years have seen a rapid evolution in public perceptions of the problem of police violence and the unimaginable devastation it has inflicted on the Black community.
To read Stephen King, however, it’s still 1987 – or maybe 1994 – only with high-tech wonder-phones and the ability to Google things. Brand names are, in fact, one facet of 2020 that manages to penetrate King’s books. Holly Gibney, whom I suspect is a version of King’s ideal consumer/reader, shops at Amazon, but laments the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. While this may just be a worn-out center-left trope, I do think that it’s mighty convenient that Stephen King, gazillionaire author, has crafted a character who has a lot of opinions about how “good” people “ought” to buy books.
Having a lot of opinions isn’t a damning characteristic, but Holly’s opinions – specifically – are, by and large, horrible. Here is an example, in which Stephen King (in Holly’s voice) lectures his readers:
“And are we really any better? Don’t people slow down for a good long look at an accident on the turnpike? That’s roadkill, too.” I said that I always looked away. And said a prayer that the people involved in the accident would be all right. He said if that was true, I was an exception. He said that most people like pain, as long as it’s not theirs. Then he said, “I suppose you don’t watch horror movies, either?” Well, I do, Ralph, but those movies are make-believe. When the director calls cut, the girl who had her throat slashed by Jason or Freddy gets up and grabs a cup of coffee. But still, after this I may not… [Pause]
…Excuse me, Mr. King, but what has put food on your table for your entire life? What has paid for your vacation homes and your kids’ college educations — not to mention provided lucrative careers for your sons once they graduated? Horror. And yet he sees fit to chide his readers for their prurient interest in the gruesome and the macabre. Nor is Holly’s petty and pedestrian moralizing stop there. Here she orders a pizza (King has to get those brand names in there, doesn’t he?), and oh-so-casually adds:
Holly orders out to Domino’s—a small veggie pizza and a large Coke. When the young man shows up, she tips according to Bill Hodges’s rule of thumb: fifteen per cent of the bill if the service is fair, twenty per cent if the service is good. This young man is prompt, so she tips the full amount.
Stephen King is worth approximately $500,000,000. Minimum wage for a pizza delivery person is $7.25 per hour. Plus tips. The fact that King threw a line like this into his book, putting it in the mouth of a person we are supposed to love and side with, Is genuinely immoral, and I was completely floored when I read it.
This is representative of who Holly Gibney is, however; the woman whom we are supposed to root for, in the primitive, capital-g-Good versus capital-e-Evil morality of Stephen King’s world. Holly Gibney kills monsters – but she is also a private investigator who, King explicitly mentions, sometimes works in skip tracing and collections. Trained at the aged foot of a killer cop (Bill Hodges), Holly is King’s version of Law and Order, and I like it about as much as I like Donald Trump’s.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Holly Gibney, we are reminded every few pages, prays. King’s religiosity has been a constant presence in his work, especially since he joined the Alcoholics Anonymous cult in 1987. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have any qualms with sobriety, and I don’t even necessarily begrudge King his faith. AA’s God-centered, cultic, simplistic moralism, on the other hand, I find insufferable and dangerous, and on the occasions that it infects his work – such as this, or 1996’s Desperation – the end result is frustrating.
In 2020, an increasing number of Americans are beginning to realize that policing needs to be fundamentally reexamined. Part of that reexamination – part of moving forward – is going to be a reevaluation of the stories we tell, and the heroines we invent to support those stories. While I love Stephen King (and have for decades), he is a man who, at his core, prefers moral simplicity, the Cosmic Good versus the Cosmic Evil. This type of storytelling becomes highly problematic when the avatars of that Good are also stand-ins for law enforcement. Holly Gibney represents a worldview in which meticulous and scrupulous attention to evidence and the judicious application of State violence can literally defeat the boogeyman.
These days, I’m more interested in what the boogeyman has to say, what his (or her, be it a bogeywoman) story is. In “If It Bleeds” we are given only the thinnest and most preposterous version of this, a ridiculous escalation of mistrust of “FAKE NEWS!” to the literally monstrous. Holly Gibney may overtly virtue-signal her distaste for Donald Trump, but Stephen King’s choice of a newsman – or newsmonster, I suppose – as his villain is telling.
In Part One of my review, I mentioned that three out of four of the novellas in If It Bleeds are worth reading. One of them, “The Life of Chuck,” is fantastic. On the whole, the collection is worth picking up. The character of Holly Gibney, however, would be better left in King’s rear view mirror, as would his fascination with true crime and policing.