If It Bleeds by Stephen King (Scribner, May 2020)
Four shorter works of fiction than we are used to from the modern master of horror. I haven't read any short Stephen King in a while, so I was delighted when Jim waved his hardback copy down the video screen from America and said, 'I've got the new Stephen King, and I'll bring with me'.
Each story in If It Bleeds had quite a different tone, which I appreciated. 'Mr Harrigan's Phone' was the first, comparatively short, tale. It focused intensely on the personal and that made it very moving emotionally. Craig gets a job reading to old Mr Harrigan, an immensely rich and now very old businessman.
The latter is lonely and doesn't use modern gadgets at all. Somewhere along the way, Craig introduces him to the Internet, SMS messaging and the iPhone. Harrigan is hooked by the ease with which information is available, and it gives his continuing interest in the stock market a new lease of life.
Eventually, Harrigan dies and Craig slips the old man's iPhone into his suit pocket just before the lid of the casket is closed. Missing his friend, he later calls to leave messages including voicing his wish for justice whenever something bad happens as he grows older. These messages are received for far longer than is feasible, but that is just the beginning of Craig's discomfort.
In 'The Life of Chuck', the premature death of one man at the age of 39 is juxtaposed with the final closing down of power and food supplies as humanity as a whole faces extinction. I found the comparison between the two extremes really powerful.
In the title story, Holly Gibney is disturbed to notice the resemblance between a local TV anchor and the anonymous deliveryman who arrives at a Pennsylvania Middle School and leaves a box containing a powerful bomb. Could there be more of the vampiric shapeshifters out there, and was the one she and her former partner previously took down in a cave not acting alone?
Finally, in 'Rat', Stephen King runs wild with the superstition that struggling author Drew Larson brings to whether his current work, a western, will be finished and whether it will sell. Overcome by a fever dream in an isolated cabin in the woods, and trapped by a super storm that renders roads impassable, Drew makes a demonic deal with a rat to allow an old friend to die in return for his book becoming a bestseller.
The relentless self-sabotage of the would-be author combined with a sympathetic reason for having hallucinations in the first place to generate a lighthearted exploration of authorial instability. 'Rat' was probably the story I enjoyed the most.
If It Bleeds was a cracking volume of short tales from Stephen King. Each was tautly written and tense, with great characterisation and lots of variety in tone and subject matter. I enjoyed every word.
I'll be back on Monday. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested in reading my article about recent developments in the modern vampire novel (Once Bitten) here. Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Woods by Harlen Coben here.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my article about sigils in fantasy fiction (Truth Stranger Than Fiction) here.