When I was 13, one of the things I liked best about Stephen King – my hero and bête noire, godfather of my literary children, internet mensch, unstoppable retirement-proof zombie of letters – is the fact that you could turn to the end of any of his story collections and learn, in an amiable afterword, how he got his ideas. King explains how each story came to be, generally in the form of an anecdote that offers little glimpses of his personal life: his wife, Tabitha, and their children, his peaceful and weird rural life in Maine, the books he reads, the cafés he visits, the music he listens to. These author’s notes are what made me want to be a writer. The fantasy was not of creating anything then, it was of explaining myself to other people, an experience that, as a young man, I craved above all others. My deepest fears were of being left out, of not getting the joke, of missing social cues. The TV teen-drama trope of the nerd who, told that the popular girl likes him, humiliates himself by asking for a date, represented, to me, an unspeakable horror. I despised lies, pranks, misdirections. One day, when I was a famous writer like King, my entire purpose would be to make myself abundantly clear.
But like many early desires, this one curdled, and today I take perverse pleasure in denying it to myself. It’s not often that I’m given the opportunity to explain my work, but when I am, I refuse. How dare you. When occasionally a story of mine appears in an anthology, I flip straight to the back to make sure that my author’s note is briefer than anyone else’s. I don’t want to explain and I don’t want to be explained to. My taste as an adult reader (and writer), especially in fantastical, supernatural or science-fiction writing, is for the enigmatic: I prefer arresting, well-placed detail to exhaustive explanation, and the chill of not knowing to the thrill of revelation. This is perhaps why I like King’s short stories more than his novels, which tend to be cluttered with unnecessary reinforcements: establishing narratives, expository dialogue, metaphorical elaborations on things he’s already made clear. King loves to show his workings: he wants to make sure you get it.
This hasn’t prevented him from writing many, many books – nearly two a year since the start of his career. As a result, his fiction bears the signs of having been composed, edited and published in extreme haste, with frequent inadvertent repetitions, pointless tangents and subplots, non-standard spellings and hackneyed or convoluted turns of phrase. (Or, who knows, maybe his people are trying their best. I like to imagine that the word King has written most often in his career is ‘stet’.) On the rare occasions when he seems to have allowed himself to be heavily edited – his stories in the New Yorker, for instance, or his 1998 novel Bag of Bones, his first for a new US publisher after decades at Viking – one can see a more measured, refined version. Clean Steve, you might call him, a prolific (let’s give him fifty books, rather than the nearly one hundred he’s racked up in the real world) but careful writer of crisp, chilling and, yes, enigmatic literary horror.
In King’s earlier work, you could sense his resentment at not having won the admiration of the literati – academics, critics, prize committees – despite his clear intelligence and enormous popularity. But now that those of us who read him growing up are those very people, by and large we adore him and his excesses. He is as decorated as a four-star general and publishes in highbrow places. The work has become kinder, more generous. His protagonists are less often angry and resentful and more often hapless, befuddled, well-meaning. The plots are still scary, but not as bleak. He’s less the edgy camp counsellor, and more the beloved weird uncle. His achievements, however uneven in quality and style, are dazzling in scope.
If It Bleeds, his latest, represents one of King’s most obscure and impressive accomplishments: it’s a collection of novellas. Anyone who’s tried to publish fiction knows that the novella collection is the most reliable loser in the business. It’s a coup to have published even one; this is King’s sixth. Like his entire career, it’s a mess of contradictions: delightful but exhausting, original yet derivative, at times fast-paced and at others a slog. It couldn’t have been written by anyone else. The book opens with ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, a cautionary fable about wealth, technology and the perils of ill will. Young Craig gets a part-time job helping out Mr Harrigan, a moneyed, reclusive investor who lives down the road. Harrigan has lost his wife; Craig has lost his mother. The two become friends. For Craig’s birthday, the old man sends him a card with a lottery ticket inside, and when the ticket pays out $3000, Craig decides to buy his employer a gift – an iPhone, to match the one Craig’s father bought him for Christmas.
At first Harrigan refuses the present: he’s a technophobe who gets all the information he needs from the newspapers. But once Craig shows him the wonders of the internet – constantly updating news and stocks! – he becomes a convert. In time, Harrigan falls ill and dies; Craig discovers the body, and beside it, the beloved phone. At the funeral Craig slips the phone into Harrigan’s pocket and it’s buried with him. Later, missing his friend, Craig calls the interred phone and leaves a message: ‘I miss you, Mr Harrigan.’ The next morning he wakes up to a cryptic, ghostly text message in response. Craig is freaked out enough not to call again until, after a run-in with a school bully, he leaves an anguished message about the encounter. Within hours, the bully has hanged himself.
King is primarily a third-person writer – he likes to change point of view, and to maintain his authorial voice – but ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’ is told in the first person, giving it an intimate, anecdotal feel, and curbing some of the usual excesses of King’s prose. A few remain, like his affection for naming the songs and books that characters are enjoying, and a strong identification with corporate brands. One absurd paragraph lists the features of the iPhone before concluding with a perhaps inadvertent pastiche of marketing copy: ‘All these things were at your fingertips, courtesy of AT&T and Steve Jobs.’
I’ve never fully understood the obsession writers of popular fiction have with brands. In more politically conservative books – police procedurals, military thrillers – they register as cultural markers: Fords and Chevys, country and rock music, Levis and Marlboros. With King, you get the sense that he just loves all this stuff. In addition to the iPhone, If It Bleeds gives us a Toyota Corolla, the navigation app Waze, NPR, Energizer batteries, the TV show The Good Place, Delta Airlines, Fitbit and Amazon (‘relatives are the one thing Amazon can’t deliver’). I find these references irritating: they seem to emanate directly from King, breaking the illusion. There’s no reason to show us somebody lovingly plugging in their ‘little Hewlett-Packard printer’ even if you’re a stickler for verisimilitude. I’m not sure that most people even know what brand their printer is: I don’t.
‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’ also bears King’s most distinctive stylistic marker: hammy, avuncular turns of phrase that might be neologisms or might be something King heard his granddad say in 1954. In this book, people live ‘out here in the williwags’ or call children ‘shrimpsqueak’. They drive ‘zippity-zip, home in a jiff’, and eat oatmeal cookies that really get their ‘bowels in gear’. A character dies by autoerotic asphyxiation, aka ‘the old chokey-strokey’. You may find it silly, but, applied to the work’s more gruesome content – that’s what we’re here for, after all – this childlike language can be remarkably effective. It’s a rare day that goes by when I don’t think of King’s greatest, most cringeworthy coinage, ‘dirtypillows’, an abusive mother’s term for her young daughter’s breasts. (That daughter, the Carrie of King’s 1974 novel, eventually stops her mother’s heart with her mind.)
In the second story, ‘The Life of Chuck’, a vague semi-apocalypse, triggered by environmental catastrophe, has slowed society nearly to a halt. Strange advertisements begin appearing on every screen and billboard, celebrating the retirement, after ‘39 great years’, of a bank employee called Chuck Krantz. The ads serve as a backdrop to a bittersweet romance between a man and his ex-wife, and eventually reach a fantastical level of market penetration, appearing in skywriting and in the windows of houses. A parallel plotline, in what seems like a parallel world, sees this same Chuck dying of brain cancer in early middle age. The story then moves to the past, where a young Chuck dances with a pretty woman in the street. Another section, set further in the past, involves a haunted cupola in an old house from which it’s possible to see the ghosts of the future. ‘The Life of Chuck’ is the weakest story in the collection; its reverse timeline and strange structure (three acts, each subdivided into chapters) are intriguing but confusing, as a semi-apologetic author’s note seems to acknowledge.
‘If It Bleeds’ features Holly Gibney, a Pollyannaish private eye who has served as a secondary character in several of King’s recent novels. A deadly bomb attack on an elementary school distracts Gibney from her ordinarily dull work documenting accounting fraud and extramarital affairs, and eventually comes to obsess her. Suspicion falls on the ostensibly innocent local TV reporter who covered the story, who Gibney believes to be a new variant of the shape-changing, pain-devouring monster from The Outsider (2018). Her sleuthing is intercut with a parallel investigation: Gibney’s assistant, concerned for her safety, tracks her moves via an app. Gibney attempts to blackmail the monster with her research (archival video of his previous incarnations, and a ‘spectrogram voiceprint’ that shows ‘vocal uniqueness’), and the two plots collide in a violent confrontation at Gibney’s office. The story is a rehash of The Outsider and seems to function mostly as fan service. It’s too long and contains some of the most redundant writing in the book. But it also showcases some of the best: Gibney’s relationship with her psychotically needy mother is beautifully rendered, as is a moving scene in which Gibney visits an uncle suffering from dementia. ‘If It Bleeds’ doesn’t need the school bombing or the assistant’s subplot: it already presents us with a villain who perfectly illuminates Gibney’s guilt and shame. King never bothers to make the connection.
The final novella, ‘Rat’, recycles another trope of King’s: a blocked writer confronts his demons in a remote location. Drew Larson is an English professor with a scant half dozen short stories to his name. His efforts to write a novel have failed; the last one nearly drove him mad, and his attempt to burn the manuscript almost destroyed his home. When he gets an idea for a new book he persuades his wife to let him go to work on it in the family’s ramshackle cabin in the woods. After a violent storm, a creative crisis and the flu lay him low, Larson admits an unexpected visitor: a rat who offers him a Faustian bargain in the voice of Jonathan Franzen. It’s an immensely enjoyable story: King is at his best writing about the creative process, and seems energised by the preposterousness of his titular rat. Like ‘Mr Harrigan’s Phone’, ‘Rat’ is focused and efficient, goofy and fun.
In the 1981 science-fiction story ‘The Jaunt’, King gave us a near future in which teleportation is commonplace. A child who refuses the required anaesthetic makes ‘the jaunt’ fully conscious, and is exposed to eternity, driving him insane. ‘Longer than you think, Dad … Longer than you think!’ the boy screams, clawing out his eyes. Childhood, for King, is a permanent condition, its obsessions inalienable, incurable. Even his adult characters embody a child’s awe and fear: they’re motherless wanderers, bewildered in the face of death. For middle-aged readers like me, returning to King’s fiction may be a nostalgia trip back to childhood, but it’s also a reminder of how little of it we leave behind.