|IF IT BLEEDS
Stephen King (stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
We are living through strange – nay, unprecedented – times, and it has been said more than once that 2020 feels like we’re living through a Stephen King novel. As fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, we’ve lived through this scenario, through the escapism provided by fiction, many times; it’s odd to experience it first-hand, to try to imagine the world that will be left behind once this version of Captain Trips has passed or been defeated. As we live in lockdown, many people are struggling to read, and our collective mental health is suffering in as-yet immeasurable ways. Thankfully, my own reading has been largely unaffected – if anything, I’m looking for ways to read more, eschewing Netflix and the newly-available Disney+ in favour of the written word. When Stephen King’s new book, If It Bleeds, dropped through my letterbox, I opened it with a strange mix of excitement (for nothing beats a new Stephen King) and dread (how meta that I should be reading a new Stephen King book while I’m living through this warped version of The Stand meets The Dead Zone). It didn’t take long to lose myself in King’s wonderful imagination, the real world vanishing for a few hours each evening as I spent time in the company of Constant Reader’s old friend, Holly Gibney, and a handful of new creations who spring to life as only Stephen King’s characters can.
If It Bleeds is a collection of three shortish stories, and one longer piece that ties in with King’s 2018 novel, The Outsider. Four is the magic number for King, with past collections Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight and Full Dark, No Stars containing some of the author’s finest short form works. If It Bleeds is a worthy addition to this star-studded line-up, containing four excellent tales, each with varying degrees of darkness and the supernatural, designed – as always – to leave us uncomfortable and wary, looking at everyday objects or events in a new and suspicious light.
“Mr Harrigan’s Phone” opens the collection, the closest thing to “classic” King that you will find in his later shorts. Craig is nine years old when he begins working for Mr Harrigan, one of America’s richest men who has decided to spend his twilight years in the small town of Harlow, Maine. Craig visits a couple of days a week to read to the old man, and to do some odd jobs around the house – watering plants, and the like. In return he is paid $5 an hour and receives a card four times a year – one each for Valentine’s Day, his birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas – with a lottery scratch card inside. When Craig wins big on one of the tickets, he decides to buy Mr Harrigan one of the newly released iPhones, enticing the old man into the technology with the promise of always-on stock markets and current affairs news. In 2008, with economic disaster in the air, it’s an easy sell and when Mr Harrigan dies, Craig decides to sneak to the phone into his coffin with him. Of course – some thirty pages in – this is where the real story kicks in, and you’ll never listen to Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man in quite the same way ever again.
“The Life of Chuck” does exactly what it says on the tin, highlighting three periods – in reverse chronological order – in the life of Chuck Krantz, an ordinary man who, like everyone, contains multitudes. A billboard appears in the centre of town, a picture of a man named Chuck Krantz, with the message 39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS CHUCK! emblazoned across it and leaves people wondering who exactly Chuck is. As it turns out, Chuck may just be the most important person in the universe, despite his rather mundane existence.
The collection closes with “Rat”, a story that sees King on familiar ground, as an author heads to the remote woods of Maine in an effort to free himself from distractions so that he can write a novel, something that he has tried – and failed miserably at – several times before. Stuck in a remote cabin as a snowstorm hits, Drew Larson comes down with the flu and finds himself making a deal with a talking rat. While Drew convinces himself that it’s down to delirium caused by the sickness, the reader has no doubt of what has actually happened, as King examines the lengths we will go to in order to get what we want.
The title story of the collection returns Holly Gibney – a character who first appeared in Mr Mercedes and the rest of the Bill Hodges trilogy – to centre stage, as King presents us with a sequel of sorts to his 2018 novel, The Outsider. When her attention is drawn to a disappearing mole on the face of a small-town television reporter who was first on the scene of an elementary school bombing, Holly is consumed by a need to know who this man is. When she begins to suspect that the reporter is the same man who planted the bomb, despite the fact that they look nothing alike, she draws connections to the creature that she met alongside Detective Ralph Anderson in Marysville Hole in Texas several years earlier. While not exactly the same, this shapeshifter is at least a first cousin with that other creature. Digging into the story, while attempting to keep her friends and colleagues at Finders Keepers in the dark, she discovers that this reporter has been operating under different names – and with different faces – since at least 1960, and that he seems to thrive on pain and suffering. Holly has no choice but to stop him, and we follow her adventures through a series of recordings she makes for Detective Anderson in case she doesn’t make it out alive.
King, as ever, has his finger on the pulse of popular culture, which allows him to firmly embed his stories in a real – or at the very least believable – version of our world. The four stories that make up If It Bleeds are written in his trademark style, that easy-going storytelling voice that has been entertaining Constant Readers for almost fifty years. These stories provide a brief glimpse into the dark heart of man and give us something to think about long after we’ve finished reading. A dark sense of humour and a deep understanding of what makes us tick combine to produce some of the best fiction – in any genre – being produced today. It’s difficult, at the minute, not to think that we’re living in a reality based on a novel by Stephen King, but there’s no better way to take a break from that reality than by diving headfirst into this new collection of stories. Stephen King remains on the top of his game, a consummate entertainer and a master storyteller and If It Bleeds is a reminder, if we needed it, that his short fiction is as good – if not better – than his long form work.