I’ve read most of Stephen King’s books — not all of them, but someday I’ll get there — and I find distinct pleasures in each, even the ones that aren’t as good.
But my favorite type of King book, and favorite style of his writing, by far, are the Bangor author’s short stories and novellas. A true master of the form, for my tastes, King does his best, most affecting work when he fits a fully-realized world into 100 pages or less.
“If It Bleeds,” King’s newest book, a collection of four novellas that comes out today, April 21 — a date mercifully moved up from an original publication date of May 5, perhaps to placate our collective need for more things to read during quarantine — hits that sweet spot. And, much to this delight of this Mostly Constant Reader, it contains two of King’s finest shorter pieces to date.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” set in the fictional Maine towns of Harlow and Gates Falls, not far from the mythical Castle Rock, tells the story of 11-year-old Craig’s unlikely friendship with Mr. Harrigan, an elderly, wealthy neighbor, and the ongoing effect that relationship has on Craig as he grows up and becomes an adult. Though the story flirts with a supernatural element, it is mostly a touching, tenderly told tale about trying to let go of the past — and, more directly, about the seductive power of technology. Craig and Mr. Harrigan, like Ted and Bobby in “Hearts in Atlantis,” or Ben and Mark in “‘Salem’s Lot,” make a satisfying, mentor-mentee pair.
The second story, the equally moving “The Life of Chuck,” is one of the more experimental of King’s novellas, told from the end of the story backwards, with its resolution landing somewhere in the middle of main character Chuck’s odd, Walter Mitty-esque life. It starts, however, in a setting that could loosely be described as pre, or mid-, apocalypse. California is dropping into the ocean, half the world is on fire, and technology has ground to a halt. While “The Life of Chuck” was undoubtedly written months before anybody had heard the phrase “Covid-19,” its arrival at this particular moment in history is unnerving, to say the least.
“If It Bleeds” takes its name from the third story in the collection — a short novel, really, and another installment in the ongoing tale of Holly Gibney, King’s beloved detective, who was first introduced in “Mr. Mercedes.” Building off themes introduced in “The Outsider,” Gibney must contend with another shape-shifting bad guy, who this time takes the appropriate form of a TV news reporter, feeding off the anxieties of his viewers. And “The Rat,” which closes out the collection, finds a writer striking a Faustian bargain to end some serious writer’s block — a favorite plot device for King.
Throughout these four stories, King seems to be grappling with an ambivalence toward the technology that dominates our lives. In “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” the title character muses on both the beneficial and destructive powers of his new smartphone. In “The Life of Chuck,” lack of access to the Internet is the first thing people notice when the world starts to end. And in “If It Bleeds,” the 24-hour news cycle is literally the method by which people are tortured.
While that anxiety about technology puts these stories squarely in the 21st century, the characters, locations and emotional themes are classic King — unsettling, but in a comforting kind of way.
Watch: Stephen King talks about the accident that nearly ended his career