I have an old Philip Roth paperback on my shelves – Goodbye Columbus plus three short stories. I get the impression that his publishers felt that Goodbye Columbus needed bulking up in some way, that it wasn’t sturdy enough to be a book in its own right, that it needed a bit more as far as the old page count was concerned (and so we get three examples of a form Philip Roth was not strong in). Stephen King’s latest, his umpty-trillionth if we’re counting (and really, who is at this point?), is being marketed very much in the vein of his previous four-novella outings – Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, Hearts in Atlantis etc – but, to this reader at least, it feels much more like that Goodbye Columbus book – there’s a star attraction here and then three support bands.
If It Bleeds should really lead off with ‘If It Bleeds’, a slightly longer than typical novella length (160 pages) sequel to The Outsider, starring Holly Gibney, a character that King appears to have something of a Thomas Harris-style crush on (given that she’s now appeared in five books). ‘If It Bleeds’ is the best thing here. Taking its cue from the old newspaper mantra – if it bleeds, it leads – the story concerns another outsider (like John Peel on The Fall, it’s different but the same from the last version), a TV news presenter who always just happens to be around when there is a terrible disaster. The new outsider is creepy, is able to change from one person to another like an X Files monster of the week, and King is obviously enjoying himself, not least in the development of Gibney, once something of a shrinking violet sort but coming on in leaps and bounds from book to book. As far as we’re concerned, we’d be happy for further Holly Gibney outings if the urge takes King (we still think The Outsider is one of his best in recent years).
We said If It Bleeds should lead with ‘If It Bleeds’ but it doesn’t – there are two stories before (‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’ and ‘The Life of Chuck’) and one story (‘Rat’) after. If it was up to us, editorially, we’d have them all follow ‘If It Bleeds’ (and, you know when the paperback swings around, if you want to take our advice, maybe have a wee reshuffle there which we can then take credit for – thanks). The first and the last stories are about 70 pages and ‘The Life of Chuck’ clocks in at about 50 – thereby underlining our point about only one of these really being a novella – it’s a novella and three short stories, we think. Taking each of the stories in turn – ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’ is a pretty good chiller, the kind of story that wouldn’t feel out of place in Night Shift: decent young kid goes to work for the town multimillionaire, reads a few books to him, carries out a few chores and earns himself a nice bequest; after the multimillionaire shuffles off, the kid occasionally calls the old man’s phone and before you can say “only in the age of the iPhone”, there may or may not be retribution for anyone who crosses the kid of the ‘beyond the grave’ variety. ‘Rat’, the story that closes out the book, has a similar tongue in cheek EC comics tone about it: writing teacher (yes, it’s one of King’s stories about a writer to add to the chunky file) takes out to his late father’s country cabin to scratch the old novel writing itch and comes down with a fever at the height of a storm during which he makes a devil’s bargain with a talking rat. We’ve all read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (the rat even alludes to it in the bargain) but it’s a lot of fun watching the pay-off unravel and the last line is a doozy (we’d pay good money to know if King thought of the last line first and built the story around it).
‘The Life of Chuck’ is possibly the strangest thing here – and paradoxically whilst we like it the least, we think it’s the kind of thing we’d like to see more of, as it’s King experimenting with form and being audacious and not tying up all the loose ends and leaving the reader to work some things out for themselves. The life in question is a life in three acts – we open with the world ending, we segway into a busker’s dance-off and end up with a story that feels vaguely like a haunted version of The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s an oddity to be sure but unsettling as well and a story that keep nagging at me to read it again. That’s a kind of nagging I can get along with.
King is obviously having fun here. There’s a quote about midway through ‘Rat’ in which the narrator if talking about King favourite John D MacDonald that could just as easily be him talking about himself (and we think he knows it):
“From the credit page at the front it looked like MacDonald had written sixty or seventy books. No problem finding the right word or phrase there it seemed, and by the end of his life, he had even attained some critical cred. Lucky him.”
We had fun too. But – and it’s only a tiny but, based on the kind of readerly greed you more commonly see in the trolls that dog George RR Martin – we’d love to see one more (at least one more) weighty tome from King. We’d love a DeLillo-esque King that gets into the nooks and crannies of his previous books, that twists the helix, that adds to what he’s done. In ‘If It Bleeds’, there’s talk of “The Second World” (where all the ghouls and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties live): we’d love there to be a 1300 page book called The Second World that’s lands on doormats with a thunk in the next two or three years. We’d even forgo the excitement of two new Kings a year for a spell if it meant we had a chunky monkey to look forward to… What do you say, Mr King?
Any Cop?: I think we’re safe in referring to the newer Kings as late King, right – and if we go down that road then this is a good late King, better than Sleeping Beauties, better than The Institute, hovering in the shadow of The Outsider.