Described by the author himself as “three novellas [and one] short novel” (i.e., the title story), Stephen King’s new collection, If It Bleeds, is another terrific showcase for his special touch with short fiction. “[When I was an emerging writer] my short stories were making money and I got very comfortable with the format,” he told an interviewer in 2013. “And I never wanted to leave that completely behind.” One can certainly see why in the pages of If It Bleeds. The book gets off to a very strong start with “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a ghost story that makes excellent use of the eeriness inherent in the digital echoes of the deceased. In it, a teenage boy named Craig takes a job reading to the wealthy retiree of the title. An unlikely friendship blossoms between the two, and the young man eventually gifts his Luddite employer with a first-generation iPhone (the story is set when the technology was still brand new). Despite some astute misgivings about the device and its implications, Mr. Harrigan nevertheless becomes a regular user. When the old man eventually passes away, Craig is surprised to learn that he has been bequeathed a huge chunk of his fortune. But that’s nothing compared to his surprise at the new messages from Mr. Harrigan’s phone (which was buried with the body). A thinly-veiled critique of the speed of technology and how much human communication is now mediated by smartphones, King also delivers the goods in terms of scares, which ensures that it all goes down smoothly. (Imagine if Richard Matheson re-wrote Wendell Berry’s essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” and you’ve got the basic idea.) In a smart change of pace, “The Life of Chuck,” which is told in three reversed acts, begins with the end of the world. As the planet slowly collapses into itself, an English teacher named Marty wonders what, if anything, it might have to do with a very conspicuous series of billboards and advertisements that read simply: “39 Great Years! Thanks, Chuck!” It’s hard to say much more without giving the whole thing away, but suffice to say it has a lot to with Walt Whitman’s most famous poem. King’s short story collections often include a comparatively down-to-earth human story or two — such as 1982’s Different Seasons, which contains both “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (the bases for Rob Reiner’s 1986 film Stand By Me and Frank Darabont’s 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, respectively) — and, despite its apocalyptic set-up, this touching tale of a life well-lived is probably the closest this volume gets to one of those. But if it’s fan service you’re after, look no further than “If It Bleeds,” which features a favorite character from the King canon: detective Holly Gibney, who appears in 2018’s The Outsider and an earlier group of novels known collectively as the “Bill Hodges Trilogy.” This time, Holly is front and center, investigating the strange circumstances surrounding the bombing of a school and its subsequent media coverage. A mini-sequel to The Outsider, the story also humanizes the protagonist more than she probably has been in the past (for the uninitiated, Holly is yet another exemplar of the detective-with-developmental-disorder trope). What really makes an impression, though, is the thematic material: King is on to something particularly intriguing here about the differences between meaningful and feigned performances of caring, and the sometimes thin line separating healthy and unhealthy expressions of love and concern. The best of the bunch, though, might be “Rat,” which tells the story of middle-aged writer Drew Larson’s last-ditch effort to finish a novel (his first). Though he has sequestered himself in an idyllic, remote cabin, a series of adverse circumstances conspire to thwart him almost immediately. But just as Drew is about to admit defeat, he’s offered a Faustian bargain…by, of all things, an eponymous rodent. Writing about writing usually brings something special out of King, whether he’s working in nonfiction (2000’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft) or fiction (1987’s Misery), and that’s definitely the case here. Because Drew’s writer’s block is so expertly articulated, for example, the quality of our engagement is ratcheted up considerably (no pun intended). That said, pretty much everything else about the book works at least as well as it should; loaded with spooky passages, disquieting story elements, and more than a few sharp insights, If It Bleeds further burnishes the reputation of the “King of Horror.” (It’s also choice Halloween reading for those looking to get into the spirit of the season!)
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