(If It Bleeds)
OK, we’ve returned to Stephen King stories written by Stephen King now. I didn’t want to end the year on a non-King book — that feels wrong — so you’re getting a random Saturday post. Happy end of the year!
If It Bleeds is both a novella collection and the title of one of the novellas within. Not the first one, though. Let’s go through them in order, shall we?
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is actually kind of a lovely story with a bit of darkness inside. There are supernatural elements, but this is not a horror story by any stretch.
Instead, it’s a story about a boy who befriends an elderly wealthy guy. I’m a little unsure that this pairing would happen in real life — older person/kid friendships are often lovely when they come up, and King, as per usual, is great at writing from the point of view of a precocious kid, but when it’s not an actual grandparent/grandchild pairing, it rarely feels organic to me. I’ve never seen this sort of thing happen, and I feel like it would be less likely to happen in the time period when this story is set — by the time the iPhone came out, we were well into heavy helicopter parenting. It’s just hard to imagine a parent letting his kid go hang out alone with a relatively unknown adult, even for pay, during a time when there was no point letting my kids go play outside to make friends because zero other kids were playing outside. You don’t think about this while you’re reading — in the Kingdom, this scenario feels perfectly natural, I will give King that. It’s after the story’s over that I think, “hey, wait…”
Anyway, the kid — Craig — befriends a somewhat crochety older guy. A podcaster I listen to, the marvelous Kim C. from The Year of Underrated Stephen King, made some comparisons between Mr. Harrigan and Scrooge that I found particularly apt. Kid reads to Mr. Harrigan — for pay, but he likes to read, so he would have done it anyway. Mr. Harrigan sends cards to the kid on holidays, and the cards contain cheap scratch-off tickets. When the kid scratches lucky and wins a few thousand dollars, he uses some of the cash to buy Mr. Harrigan an iPhone. Did I mention that Mr. Harrigan is a technophobe? I think that’s become a frequently recurring theme of King’s. At any rate, Mr. Harrigan’s young friend manages to sell him on the iPhone, and he becomes enamored with it. Then he dies, and the iPhone is buried with him. (He also leaves Craig a good bit of money, so college is covered.) This is when the spooky stuff starts. Because you see, Craig calls the phone a few times. First just to hear his old friend’s voice, then again after being beaten up by a bully.
Then the bully dies.
There’s more, but I’m not trying to spoil the story entirely. You feel a little bad for the bully since he was just a kid (although he’s a King bully, which makes him pretty vicious. I often wonder just who that man went to school with and what they did to him.) You probably won’t feel much sympathy for the next guy. Craig — I was going to say “learns a lesson”, but he doesn’t, not really. Nothing happens to him, he just reflects and decides that using the undead for revenge (and revenge itself) may not be worth it and may actually be hurting him. Or hurting his deceased friend. Good for Craig. I sound unenthusiastic, but like I said, this really was a lovely little story, in my opinion.
This got picked up for a Netflix movie and actually came out recently — about the same time as Black Phone, which is a (much darker) Joe Hill story that features a much older kind of phone. I have not seen the adaptation yet, but most of the reviews I’ve heard seem to agree that it’s a perfectly competent movie — not amazing, but not bad, either. For a Stephen King adaptation, I feel like competent is actually a win. Kim C. had a higher opinion of it, and I actually want to watch it based on that, so take all that for what it’s worth.
“Life of Chuck”
Personally, this may be my favorite of the bunch, but it took me a couple of reads to get there. Have you heard the Walt Whitman quote, “I contain multitudes”? I know I’ve read it, but I don’t remember the poem (I could look it up, I know, but I’m not sure it’s important for this story), but that line struck me too, and I do remember that. It struck King, and he produced this, which is largely about what happens internally – to those multitudes a person contains — when they die. It looks back at that man’s life — including a truly beautiful scene involving dancing — and also looks at the people around him who are dealing with that man’s death. It’s also got a very interesting structure to it. It’s just a gorgeous story, and I really recommend reading it, There’s nothing there that’s shocking or scary, just beautiful writing and some contemplation on the internality of the end-of-life process.
“If It Bleeds”
Now for the title story, which is, in case you were unaware, a Holly Gibney story. I actually read this the first time before reading the Mr. Mercedes trilogy or The Outsider. I think it’s her best story (so far), and I was predisposed to like her when I did read those books because I met her here first. I mention that because I’ve seen a lot of people say that they didn’t like her at first, but she grew on them. And if you were going in order, I can see how that would happen. But because I didn’t read in order and came across this first, I was just interested in how the Holly we meet in Mr. Mercedes becomes this Holly. Score one for non-chronological reading. (I know some people just dislike Holly entirely, but I don’t have much to say about that… I mean, to each their own, I guess, but I find her likable enough and definitely interesting.)
The story isn’t super surprising — it’s something of a reprise of The Outsider. The details aren’t the same, but the monster is similar — the story makes the case that they’re probably related, on the order of cousins or second cousins, perhaps. I like this combination of detective story/monster story. We also get more of Holly’s family history/family present, which maybe helps us understand or relate to her more. I understand that there’s a Holly-centric novel coming up soon — entitled Holly, I believe — and while that’s a lot of Holly, she really hasn’t been the star of a show before this. Bill Hodges was that for the Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and Ralph Anderson was that — I guess — for The Outsider. Although, to be fair, The Outsider felt a little like it was Holly’s show once she finally showed up and that the previous half of the book was just waiting on her. In any case, she hasn’t truly been the main character of anything except this novella, and since I think this novella was the best Holly story so far, I’m pretty happy with the idea of a Holly-focused novel. She seems to thrive in the center of the story, maybe partly because the character herself would never think that.
So I’m not a huge fan of rats or stories about rats. But this rat is playing the role of wish-granting genie/monkey’s paw. This one is probably my least favorite of the bunch. Although maybe that’s because I, too, am a writer who can’t seem to manage to write a book. Maybe I see a little of myself in Drew. If so, I don’t like it.
Or maybe what I see in Drew is what some folks (I’m going to say mostly men, insert obligatory #notall here) have and some folks (mostly non-men, and including myself) never will have — the ability to be truly selfish in pursuit of achieving some personal goal. Drew isn’t even that worried about whether his book will sell — he wants that, sure, but mostly he just wants to finish one. But he wants it at the expense of everyone around him. Before the rat ever shows up, he’s insisting on traveling to his late father’s little cabin in the woods to write all by himself, never mind if that puts an extra burden on his wife or if his kids miss him. He lies to his wife more than once — not about anything big, but the fact is that he puts his goal of achieving that novel ahead of everything, and he’s willing to forgo being honest with his life partner if that seems like ti would be helpful to him. A massive storm comes, and rather than leaving and going home to his wife and kids, he opts to stay there, putting himself at risk and showing us that he cares more about finishing his novel than how his family is faring without him, more than how they will fare without him if a tree caves the roof in and crushes his head, more than the worry for him that he’s causing that’s going to make their experience worse.
I want to be clear that nothing he does here is that big. None of his choices are life-ending or life-ruining or even marriage-ruining. But he’s selfish as hell, and he’s selfish without even considering that he’s being selfish and burdening the people he’s supposed to love for this thing that’s not even about money (even that would still be selfish because the family doesn’t seem to be in any particular need) but just about proving he can do it. And on top of it, he can’t do it. He tries to blame it on a cold that he’s developing, but he’s got a case of analysis paralysis coming on before the cold starts hitting him. So it’s not all that surprising to me that when a rat shows up offering to help him finish — if he’s willing to make an actually really seriously selfish choice to allow that to happen — he goes ahead and makes the selfish choice. He has to live with it, and he’s pretty sure there’s never going to be another book — but he got what he wanted. And when I think about all the words I’ve written with a small child on my lap or a bigger one sitting next to me doing homework and asking questions, all the times I’ve had to stop in the middle of a thought and interrupt the flow of the words when they’re coming smoothly because it’s time to cook dinner, because the dishes or laundry need to be done, or because my husband or kids need something really urgently — I’m just annoyed with Drew. We wonder why men produce so much of the art/inventions/etc? It’s because they get to do this — to go off and be selfish and not care about how they inconvenience or burden others — and the rest of us don’t. Would we do this if we could do it and get as little backlash as men seem to? I don’t know, I’d like to think I’d give a damn about people even if I hadn’t been actively socialized to put everyone who’s not me first. But the fact is, I — and a lot of other non-cis-man people — were socialized to put everyone else’s needs first, and maybe if men like Drew did that sometimes, too, they might accomplish a bit less, but maybe the rest of us could accomplish more.
That’s If It Bleeds. King’s novella collections are always pretty good, and I don’t do rankings, I find it impossible because what I like changes day to day sometimes, but I do think this one is really good. I’d recommend it on the strength of any one of the first three, at least.