|GWENDY’S BUTTON BOX
Cemetery Dance Publications (cemeterydance.com)
Gwendy Peterson is just twelve years old when she meets Richard Farris at the top of the Suicide Stairs which lead from Castle Rock to the playground on Castle View. Richard Farris gives Gwendy a box and tells her that she is now its custodian – Farris has been watching her for a while, as he does with many others, and has decided that the responsibility must be hers, for as long as he wishes to leave it in her possession. The box has two levers and eight buttons, six of which correspond to the planet’s continents. The red button is for whatever the box’s owner wishes, and the black one is for everything, “The whole shebang”, as Farris tells Gwendy. Then he disappears, leaving her with the box, and only a tiny inkling of what the buttons might do. It remains largely hidden as Gwendy grows, though it will ultimately bring tragedy; how much, only Gwendy can decide.
“Take care of the box. I advise you not to let anyone find it, not just your parents, because people are curious. When they see a lever, they want to pull it. And when they see a button, they want to push it.”
Gwendy’s Button Box, a collaboration between Stephen King and long-time friend, publisher of the wonderful Cemetery Dance magazine and author, Richard Chizmar, presents a short and bittersweet glimpse into the teenage and early adult years of Gwendy Peterson, and the burden that has been placed on her by this mysterious man with his strange black hat that turns up in the most unexpected places. The novella gives King and Constant Reader a chance to revisit one of his most enduring creations, the Western Maine town of Castle Rock, but this is not a visit to the modern-day town; this is the Castle Rock of Sheriff George Bannerman and the Castle Rock Strangler; the Castle Rock which is home to a rabid St Bernard; the Castle Rock before Leland Gaunt came along with his must-have knickknacks and his thirst for destruction. Gwendy’s story runs in parallel to King’s earliest novels and while, surprisingly, there are few references to the events going on in the wider town, it still feels like something of a homecoming.
Constant Reader will also recognise Richard Farris as one of the many pseudonyms of King’s Dark Man, Randall Flagg. Here his role seems somewhat more benevolent than we might expect, even though he is placing an artefact of unimaginable power and, essentially, the fate of humankind, into the care of a twelve-year-old girl in a small backwater town. We can only imagine that this is some kind of game for the man who represents the ultimate evil in King’s universe, a way to place temptation in the path of a weak-willed race, and see how long they can refrain from satisfying their curiosity.
For much of the story, the box lies hidden in various places, Gwendy having taken Farris’ advice, full of threatening potential. Gwendy’s Button Box is, essentially, a coming-of-age tale, following Gwendy from pre-teen to young adult, placing her in positions where the box might have an impact, and watching as she decides whether to use it or not. The authors sum up the question at the heart of the novella in an early scene:
“What if you had a button, a special magic button, and if you pushed it, you could kill somebody, or maybe just make them disappear, or blow up any place you were thinking of? What person would you make disappear or what place would you blow up?”
It’s an age-old question, one that has been examined in fiction many times before, going as far back as W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” and beyond, given the Stephen King treatment and placed in the familiar surroundings of a universe where Constant Reader will always feel at home. The collaboration is seamless, Richard Chizmar holding his own alongside one of the genre’s greatest writers, and exposing his name to the much wider readership that his writing deserves.
Here’s something you don’t hear about a Stephen King book too often: it’s too short! There’s material aplenty here to turn novella to novel, but that may just be me being greedy. It’s long enough to keep us going until Sleeping Beauties, making this the year of King collaborations, a small, perfect gem of a story that will make you stop and think, force you to consider the question of what you would do if you had that special magic button. It’s beautifully packaged, as you might expect from the perfectionists at Chizmar’s Cemetery Dance Publications, and illustrated throughout by the excellent Keith Minnion.
Gwendy’s Button Box is likely to be one of King’s lesser-known stories, given its small-press origins, but it is definitely worth hunting down a copy. “Classic” King, it’s filled with the insight and humour that we’ve come to expect, as well as the distinctive narrative voice that lures the reader into the story. It’s also a wonderful showcase for Richard Chizmar, an excellent author in his own right, who deserves to be much more widely-read than he currently is. Thought-provoking and chill-inducing, this is a wonderful addition to the King canon, and the perfect excuse to go back to the start, and revisit the small town of Castle Rock.