Monday 3 August 2020

Twenty in '20: If It Bleeds

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading twenty books in 2020. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

10/20: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

The blurb: News people have a saying: 'If it bleeds, it leads'. And a bomb at Albert Macready Middle School is guaranteed to lead any bulletin.

Holly Gibney of the Finders Keepers detective agency is working on the case of a missing dog - and on her own need to be more assertive - when she sees the footage on TV. But when she tunes in again, to the late-night report, she realises there is something not quite right about the correspondent who was first on the scene. So begins If It Bleeds, a stand-alone sequel to the No. 1 bestselling The Outsider featuring the incomparable Holly on her first solo case - and also the riveting title story in Stephen King's brilliant new collection.

Dancing alongside are three more wonderful long stories from this 'formidably versatile author' (The Sunday Times) - Mr Harrigan's Phone, The Life of Chuck and Rat. All four display the richness of King's storytelling with grace, humour, horror and breathtaking suspense. A fascinating Author's Note gives us a wonderful insight into the origin of each story and the writer's unparalleled imagination.

The review: so here are four novellas from the prodigious and prolific Stephen King. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am a fan, a so-called Constant Reader: basically, I am genetically predisposed to like this book. And I do, very much. Of the four stories, the real hook, the sales driver if you like, is the title story. A follow-up to the Bill Hodges trilogy and The Outsider, in that it features the much-loved character Holly Gibney, with a cameo from Jerome. We learn, from the author's afterword, that Holly is much-loved by King too, so I hope I'm not giving too much away by saying that this novella gives her story a fitting end. Multiple ends, actually, as this is a novella that doesn't quite know when to stop.

And what of the other novellas on offer here? Mr Harrigan's Phone opens the collection and, in some ways, sets the tone for the whole book in some of its themes: the all-pervasive reach of technology, the awfulness of one Donald Trump and a general feeling of how things aren't as good as they used to be. Isolation too, of course, whether that's geographical or social. So in this tale, we have a young loner communicating with his late employer, a wealthy old man who had retired to the middle of nowhere to get away from it all, via an iPhone that the boy slipped into the old man's jacket pocket as he lay in an open coffin. So far, so King... but also so Poe, to me at least.

In many ways, The Life of Chuck is the most interesting story here. Told in three parts, in reverse chronological order, it opens with a dystopian end-of-days scenario, brilliantly and chillingly evoked - it feels like it could be 2021. But as the tale unwinds, from Act III back to Act I, it becomes apparent that the world as we know it, as depicted in this story, is driven by, and focused on, the life of everyman Chuck. I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers, but Chuck is ill. Very ill...

The collection closes with my favourite of the four tales, Rat. This concerns another of King's favoured recurrent themes, that of a writer who just can't deliver any more. Specifically, in this case, it concerns an author who's had minor success with short stories but whose last attempt at a novel led him to a nervous breakdown and a narrowly averted disaster. So when our protagonist hits upon a new idea for a novel, and proposes to hole up in a cabin in the woods to write it, well, unsurprisingly his wife is unimpressed. But he goes ahead anyway, picking up a bad cold and fever from a shopkeeper at his last stop before the woods, for good measure. Oh, and did I mention that a big storm is on its way, that will take out the power and the phonelines? Quite a set-up, isn't it? And we haven't even got to the rat yet. But better than the premise, better than the tropes of isolation and adversity, is the insight into a writer who is driven mad by an inability to choose words - he has so many at his disposal, and can lose hours (days?) agonising over which metaphor is better. It's a feeling this aspiring but perennially underachieving author can identify with. I have never been holed up in a cabin in the Maine woods, deprived of all power, cut-off from the outside world. But this story felt so real to me.

All in all, this is a fine book - King has successfully extended his record of releasing four-novella collections. I raced through it, and enjoyed all four stories - they are recognisably King, no apples have fallen far from the tree here, with the possible slight exception of The Life of Chuck. Fans will eat it up; equally, it is unlikely to win over many converts to the King cause. One closing observation though - the eponymous If It Bleeds has a conventional climactic ending (followed by a number of codas), but none of the other three do. They are stories that just come to an end, sometimes satisfyingly, sometimes leaving questions unanswered. There's no showboating, they are just stories that are told. King can get away with this because he's Stephen King. I did wonder though whether an unknown or unheralded author would have had these stories published, in this format, with these endings. Based on my admittedly limited experience of agents and publishers, I think not - there would be a lot of editing required (demanded), more of the loose strings would have to be tied up. But I'm not complaining - sometimes it's enough, I think, just to tell the story.

The bottom line: four fine, original tales that King fans will love, with favourite themes revisited and a nice epilogue to the Holly Gibney story.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆


  1. On the list, but still gotta read The Institution first...