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If It Bleeds by Stephen KingUK covernovella collection
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsThe wildly prolific Stephen King regularly contributes short fiction collections to his bibliography, some of which, beginning with Different Seasons in 1982, are specifically dedicated to four novellas. At that time, it was an unusual thing, as novellas were hard to market. You might only see them in dedicated fiction magazines, most of which probably couldn’t afford to buy a manuscript from King, and no one was as yet publishing novellas on their own in book form. Now, with novellas more popular than ever, King is sticking to his program with these collections, and 2020 has given us If It Bleeds. It’s a mixture of Stephen King at both his most adventurous and his safest, but it’s an easy bet that there’s plenty here to satisfy longtime fans, even if I don’t see it as a book you’d offer as a good introductory volume to new King readers.

There’s no overarching theme here, as there was in Different Seasons, but in the first two stories, King is definitely playing with new approaches to horror and weird fiction, and there’s a general focus throughout the book on optimism. Character has always been King’s strong suit. Even when his plots are dodgy, King can compel his readers because his protagonists feel so real, and his ability to capture everyday American life even when infusing it with the horrific and strange has never been anything short of masterful. In these stories — whether or not it’s a sign that King in 2019-2020 is reading the American room, so to speak, and gauging our nation’s anxieties during a historically awful period — he offers his characters and readers a sense of hope, even defiant hope in the face of a terrifying future.

We open with MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE (★★★½), a sort-of black-comedy satire about, you guessed it, the ubiquity of smartphone technology, set in the mid-2000s when such technology was new, its ultimate impact on our lives far from fully understood. Unlike his 2006 novel Cell, a deeply pessimistic book released just before the iPhone changed everything, King avoids clichés about mind-controlling signals and such in favor of a story about the way smartphones influence our interpersonal connections and the way we’ve come to live so much of our emotional lives online.

Our protagonist is Craig, a 12-year-old kid in a small town who makes a little extra cash working for a retired tycoon named John Harrigan, mostly reading books to him. Mr. Harrington, who had a reputation as a bit of a shark in his professional days, occasionally gives his hired help scratch tickets. When one of these scores young Craig a $3000 bounty, Craig buys Harrigan a brand-new first-generation iPhone as a thank you, and the old man, at first a skeptical Luddite, quickly takes to the device when he sees how it can track stocks in real time. Harrigan dies of natural causes not long after, and at the funeral, Craig slips the phone into Harrigan’s jacket pocket, which will have interesting results.

I really enjoyed the way King depicts the iPhone, and the characters’ reactions to it, with a real sense for the endorphin rush we all get when some new life-changing technology comes our way for the first time. And yet Harrigan’s observations about this little gadget’s potential impact convincingly sound like they come from a character with a lifelong history of success in business who understands both the benefits and hazards posed by products that reshape human lives. Which is to say, they don’t sound like an authorial lecture. Mostly, this is a gentle story about how, regardless of technology, people impact us more than anything else, and it’s stronger for the way its supernatural horror elements are kept extremely low key.

THE LIFE OF CHUCK (★★★★) comes next, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read from King in ages. He’s working in very experimental territory here, relating the death (at age 39 from a brain tumor) and life of bank employee Charles Krantz in reverse chronological order over three chapters, each of which could work as a fantastic stand-alone story, and all of which are tied together at the end through a clever solipsistic twist. It’s best to walk into this one knowing as little as possible, so all I’ll say is that while the opening sequence is the story’s scariest and the closing sequence offers haunting recollections of Chuck’s childhood, it’s the middle sequence that has probably the most joyous expression of any of Stephen King’s stories in his whole career. This is a story all about carpe diem, capturing those fleeting moments of happiness in a lifetime that’s all too short and fraught with stress and anxiety, and if the modern world of 2020 has been just a little too upsetting for you to process, this may be the story to put you back on an emotional keel.

“The Life of Chuck” is so freaking good that the next one — the centerpiece of the whole collection — cannot quite measure up, though it’s likely to please fans. IF IT BLEEDS (★★½) is a 200-page short novel that serves as a direct sequel to 2018’s The Outsider, which I consider one of King’s stronger late-career novels. If “The Life of Chuck” showed King taking risks, this one plants him squarely within his comfort zone, writing what amounts to a Stephen King story on autopilot, organized with such fidelity to his established plot formulas that you can practically visualize the outline while you’re reading it. None of this is to say it’s lousy, just one that disappoints mainly because all it’s doing is catering to fans.

Holly Gibney, the brainy, long-suffering introvert who possibly has ASD, and who served as Bill Hodges’ assistant throughout the Mr. Mercedes trilogy, here comes into her own as a protagonist. If It Bleeds opens with a horrific school bombing. Holly now owns and runs the Finders Keepers private investigations service. As she watches local news reports about the disaster, she gets a suspicious feeling about the reporter delivering live updates from the scene. Long story short, Holly becomes convinced this guy may be another Outsider responsible for the bombing, and in order to unmask him, she may need to set a trap, using herself as bait.

There are some very good moments here, especially the detours into Holly’s family life, where she endures a mother who’s both judgey and clingy, and quietly grieves as she watches a beloved uncle slip into the final stages of Alzheimer’s. But the investigation plot feels a bit contrived, the final confrontation relies too much on convenient coincidences, and the middle of the story contains one of those massive infodumps about the monster’s history that I remember King inflicting upon us going back at least as far as 1983’s Christine. It is, I suppose, a story that gets the job done, and Holly is likable enough. But it’s not one where he’s exactly challenging either us or himself.

In the final story, RATS (★★★½), the protagonist is — wait for it — a struggling writer stranded in a remote cabin while fierce storms rage outside. Again, this is an unmistakably comfort-zone premise, but I say it’s better entertainment, mainly because its narrative engine is fueled by dark humor rather than despair and woe, like some of King’s earlier stories starring writers (The Dark Half; Bag of Bones). And considering this story must have been written no later than 2019, the coincidence between what happens to Drew Larson during his sabbatical at the cabin and the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak gives the story an added level of interest, to say the least.

Drew Larson has had sporadic success with short fiction over the years. But he can’t quite seem to push out a novel. His previous attempt resulted in a nervous breakdown, so Drew’s very patient wife is wary when he excitedly exclaims that he’s gotten a sudden burst of inspiration for a novel, so fully formed in his head that writing it, he declares, will be just like “taking dictation.” Drew retreats to an extremely remote family cabin to write (the cabin really is so remote I wondered why his family owns it at all, as it doesn’t seem there’s much in that part of the countryside to see). At first the book, a western, really does come to him very quickly. But then Drew comes down with an absolutely horrendous case of the flu. Next, a torrential rainstorm lasting days practically cuts him off from all civilization. Worst of all, the sicker Drew gets, he starts sliding back into his old writer’s block. But in the midst of the deluge, an unexpected visitor suddenly shows up at the cabin…

There’s a Faustian bargain involved, and a metaphor so outrageously on the nose — about human nature acting on self-interest and making whatever justifications are necessary — that all you can do is laugh at it. But I think that’s what King is after here, the knowing laugh as we plunge into Rod Serling territory where moral themes are delivered with a smile and a nod rather than a stern, wagging finger. I got a kick out of this one, and it ends the collection on a high note.