(Riding The Bullet)
Riding the Bullet isn’t really a whole book — I guess it’s a novella, and by King standards, I think it’s a pretty short one. It’s also collected later on — in Everything’s Eventual, I think. So I ordinarily wouldn’t even include it until I talked about that book. If I wanted to track down all of the different places that King’s short fiction ended up published on its own before being collected, I’d go bananas. I am generally of the opinion that uncollected work that’s more than a decade or so old is probably uncollected for a reason, and I’ll leave it alone for now, and collected work I’ll deal with as I reach the various collections they’re included in.
However, Riding The Bullet is a curiosity similar to The Plant, in that it was released as an ebook in the days before all the books were released as ebooks. In fact, the Wiki page on this book says that it was billed as “the world’s first mass-market ebook.” Can that be? If that’s even close to true, it definitely deserves its own entry.
Unlike The Plant, which was released on Stephen King’s website on the honor system without encryption, Riding the Bullet was released by an actual publisher for $2.50 per download. And it apparently broke the internet, or at least the servers that were responsible for storing the story and allowing readers to download it. There were multiple crashes, and it sold a lot of downloads.
I don’t usually bother with reading Stephen King reviews at all, because a lot of them are… let me just say they’re not applicable to the way the people who buy his books in droves think about his stories. But I glanced at the section of the Wiki page titled “reception” while I was looking up the release information, and found one reviewer who basically panned the book because he didn’t like reading on a screen. I mean… really? What has that to do with the story? I could go on a whole rant about why I think that ebooks are a better invention than people give them credit for, and while I agree that physical books are awesome too, it does no one any good to be snobby about the wonders of binding and paper. But maybe I’m being too harsh — I also have no clue what this guy was reading the story on, and I know ebook readers have improved over the years. Still, reviewing the story and reviewing the method of release are two different things, and while no one is required to like both (or either) it irritated me to see them mixed in this way.
Anyhow, Riding the Bullet is an important story in ebook history. Beyond that, I feel like it’s largely a story about coming to terms with growing up and losing your parents. The story begins with Alan Parker hitchhiking home to see his mother, who’s just had a stroke. Alan ends up getting picked up by a dead guy, and the dead guy tells Alan that he has a choice to make — his mother’s life, or his own. Alan chooses his own. He feels bad about it, but he does it.
The thing is, his mom doesn’t die. At least not then. She recovers, tries to take better care of herself, backslides, has another stroke, rinse, repeat. Alan, meanwhile, finishes school, gets a job, and persuades his mother to let him take care of her. She doesn’t live to be especially old, but things shake out probably about the same way they would have without Alan’s encounter with the dead guy. But he has physical proof that the encounter was real, so what gives?
Here’s the thing — as a mother, I’d say this is the easiest thing in the world. If any of my children were ever asked to choose between their life and my life, they’d have my blessing to choose their lives. Maybe not every parent would say that, but I think more would than not. We have our children in the first place expecting them to outlive us. If they don’t, that’s a tragedy. From a parent’s perspective, this is easy.
But I’m also somebody’s child, and if I were presented with this choice, it would be hard to choose between myself and my mom — and I would feel awful if I chose myself, even if that were the most logical thing to do. Even if I knew my mom would want that. Again, that’s probably not a universal feeling, but it’s probably pretty common.
But isn’t this what happens when someone dies? When your parent dies — when anyone dies — you keep living. Eventually, you move on. You love other people, you enjoy things, you celebrate holidays, you laugh at jokes, etc. And when this first starts to happen after a death, you feel bad and guilty and disloyal about it. How can you not only keep going on but keep going on and enjoying life when this person you loved is gone? You may not have been given an explicit choice between your life and theirs, but it can feel that way when you realize that you’re enjoying Christmas without mom for the first time, or whatever.
I feel like this story makes that feeling concrete. Because the guilt Alan feels is really just the same guilt we all feel when life moves on after we lose a person. Most of us aren’t really given a choice to avoid that — but then, Alan isn’t given a choice either, really. The dead guy makes him say a choice, but then things just go on the way they would have regardless, probably. Making him say it just gives him a specific moment that occurred before her death to fixate on when he chose his life over hers, as opposed to realizing it gradually or without warning at some point following her death. It makes his guilt seem more justified — but I’m not sure that truly means that it is justified, just the same.
In other words, this strikes me as another King story where the monster isn’t really the monster, reality is the monster.
I have not seen it, but they did make Riding the Bullet into a movie. I remember hearing about it a lot but didn’t see it. It apparently didn’t do that well. Looking at the synopsis makes me think that they changed it enough to kind of change the point, but maybe that’s on whoever wrote the synopsis — this one will need to go on my list to watch eventually.