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If It Bleeds by Stephen King review – a return to vintage King?

If It Bleeds is Stephen King’s most recent collection of the macabre, released earlier than originally planned this year in response to the desire to escape into new Stephen King fiction felt by many Constant Readers practising social distancing. Each of the four novellas within this collection – including “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”, “The Life of Chuck“, the titular “If It Bleeds”, and “Rat” – feel like a return to vintage King, though each accomplishes this feat through very different means.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” opens in 2004, when a boy named Craig who lives in a small town near Castle Rock is hired by Mr. Harrigan, a local eccentric and aging billionaire, to read classic literature to him and help around the house. On four holidays each year, Mr. Harrigan sends Craig a greeting card – “a Valentine’s Day card in February, a birthday card in September, a Thanksgiving card in November, and a Christmas card either just before or just after the holiday” – containing a single scratch ticket from the Main State Lottery inside. Three years later, when Craig wins the three-thousand dollar jackpot from the Pine Tree Cash scratch-off ticket Mr. Harrigan sent for Valentine’s Day, Craig gifts Mr. Harrigan a brand-new iPhone. After learning how it works, as well as the incredible informational power it holds, Mr. Harrigan becomes addicted to the device. When Harrigan dies, Craig surreptitiously makes sure that the old man is buried with the precious device. While grieving the loss of his former employer and friend, Craig discovers that he can call Mr. Harrigan’s phone and hear his voice once more through the no-nonsense pre-recorded voicemail message – “I’m not answering my phone now. I will call you back if it seems appropriate.” Unfortunately, Craig quickly learns that these phone calls may be causing Mr. Harrigan to rise from his grave and kill anyone that Craig wishes was dead.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is an extremely fun read. Then again, how can you go wrong with an iPhone-loving murderous corpse? The experience of reading the ghoulishly delightful “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reminded me of my first time watching Creepshow (1982), for which King wrote the screenplay. The image of an iPhone ringing while resting in the jacket pocket of a decomposing corpse, combined with the moral question of whether or not Craig is complicit in the deaths of his mundane enemies combine to create another enjoyable visit to King’s brand of gothic realism. The novella also allows readers to return to 2004, when the smartphone was a new and exciting piece of technology. King’s question of whether or not the power the iPhone (and, by extension, the internet) is too unwieldy remains vital and worth exploring.

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The second novella in this collection, The Life of Chuck, is the most experimental of the four. It is divided into three parts. In the first section, titled “Act III: Thanks, Chuck!”, the reader is dropped into small-town America on the brink of a catastrophic apocalypse. The Internet is fading, making it nearly impossible for high school English teacher Marty Anderson to watch Breaking Bad on Netflix, and grocery stores are rapidly selling out of whatever food remains. Most unsettling for Marty, however, is the ubiquitous advertisement that pops up on billboards, Netflix, and even on his ex-wife’s windows. These ads all feature a smiling man with a crescent-shaped scar on his hand who looks to Marty like an accountant, as well as a wall of blue and red text proclaiming “CHARLES KRANTZ… 39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS, CHUCK!” The second section, “Act II: Buskers,” follows Chuck Krantz as he takes a moment away from his accounting conference in Boston to let loose and dance with a street drummer named Jared and a twenty-something woman who was recently dumped (by text, no less!) named Janice. Finally, “Act I: I Contain Multitudes” features a much younger Chuck, who, following a car accident which killed both his parents and his unborn sister, was raised by his paternal grandparents. They lived in a Victorian house in Boston, complete with a sinister locked door leading to a forbidden cupola that Chuck’s grandpa swears is “full of ghosts.”

“The Life of Chuck” shocked me in its ability to be bizarre, terrifying, and heart-wrenching all at once. I don’t want to give too much away here, but one of the most memorable moments of this story comes initially from Miss Richards, Chuck’s “hippy-dippyish” sixth-grade English teacher, when she explains Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” to Chuck after class. When Chuck doesn’t understand what Whitman meant in his line “I contain multitudes,” she informs Chuck that each person contains a world inside of them:

“Everything you see. Everything you know. The world, Chucky. Planes in the sky, manhole covers in the street. Every year you live, that world inside your head will get bigger and brighter, more detailed and complex. Do you understand?”

King explores this concept – a world existing within each mind – through the three “acts” of “The Life of Chuck”. Although there is mention of apocalypse, death, ghosts, and a secret and forbidden room, this novella mainly works to warm the heart rather than chill it.

The third novella, “If It Bleeds”, shares its title with the collection and references the somewhat morbid mantra of journalism – “If it bleeds, it leads.” “If It Bleeds” features Holly Gibney, a quirky genius private detective and fan-favourite featured in a number of Stephen King’s previous work, including the Bill Hodges trilogy (2014-16), The Outsider (2018), and HBO’s recent televised adaptation of The Outsider (2020). While Holly appears as an investigative team-member in each of her previous outings, “If It Bleeds” follows Holly as she works primarily alone to track and destroy another entity similar to the one she encountered with Detective Ralph Anderson in The Outsider. This entity, which goes by the name of Chet Ondowsky, appears unique in that it can change its face, name, and identity across three different moulds. Ondowsky has lived for as long as news media has existed – perhaps longer – and maintains its life by feeding off of the pain and trauma of human beings. Being a smart as well as a supernatural being, Ondowsky has worked for decades as a reporter, allowing him to be present at a number of painful human events, including the JFK assassination and the 12th Street Riot. Even more troubling than the fact that Ondowsky is an immortal being feeding off of human pain, however, is that Ondowsky has become greedy. Holly begins to hunt Ondowsky down when she begins to suspect that he is to blame for a mass murder known as the Macready School Bombing.

“If It Bleeds” seamlessly mixes the supernatural and detective fiction genres to create a truly thrilling read. It was a joy to spend some time with Holly Gibney again, this time learning more about her family life, and being with her as she works her way through the mysterious puzzle of Chet Ondowsky. “If It Bleeds” also puts forward an important question about the role of televised news. It’s not a hard stretch to believe that broadcasted pain and trauma is something that could feed a supernatural monster. After all, it’s something that humans avidly consume as well. The novella ends, as do many Stephen King pieces, on a bittersweet note. Stephen King reminds us that friendship and love are an effective remedy to the unimaginable evil that exists in (and beyond) this world.

The final novella in this collection, “Rat”, is a Stephen King fairy tale. An English professor, desperate to write a novel and avoid the nervous breakdown he suffered the last time he attempted to write a long-form piece, decides to spend some time away from his family in a remote cabin located in the northern parts of Maine for a few weeks as a means to get a “running start” on his idea for a Western novel. While at the cabin Drew Larson writes fairly well, but quickly faces a trio of obstacles: an approaching storm, debilitating flu, and a talking rat. This rat proves to be the most important to the story, as the rat offers to grant Drew his wish, but, of course, this comes with a price. The rat tells Drew that he can finish his novel – and do so painlessly, without writer’s block or any sort of breakdown – but, once his novel is finished, Drew’s elderly and cancer-ridden department head, Al Stamper, will die.

“Rat” is perhaps the most obvious return to the vintage King form in this entire collection. Much of the horror in this novella comes from the frustration and isolation with which any writer will be unfortunately familiar. As such, moments of “Rat” are deeply reminiscent of King’s The Shining (1977), particularly in the similarities held between the characters of Drew Larson and Jack Torrance. “Rat” also includes a return to form for King in his collection of characters from the more remote parts of Maine, all of whom are written with a thick Yankee accent. There’s something comforting about reading a Stephen King story that includes the word “ayuh,” but perhaps that’s the New Yorker in me. Besides bearing a number of connections to earlier works by King, however, “Rat” also asks a very timely question: do the lives of elderly and sick people matter less than those of the young and healthy? “Rat” answers with a resounding NO. Considering the current pandemic that so many of us are currently living through, as well as the disturbingly cold conversations had by those in charge about potential strategies like herd immunity, insisting that some lives are not more valuable than others is incredibly important.

If It Bleeds ends with a brief Author’s Note in which King divulges a secret about his creative process. When asked about where he gets ideas for his stories and novels,

“I often don’t know the answer, which makes me embarrassed and a little ashamed… Sometimes I give the honest answer (“No idea!”), but on other occasions I just make up some bullshit, thus satisfying my questioner with a semi-rational explanation of cause and effect.”

Instead, for this Author’s Note, King says that he will be honest, and he lives up to his promise. He proceeds to move through each of the four novellas featured in the collection, explaining the process of creating their stories. If you’re at all interested in the work writers do behind the scenes, or if you enjoyed King’s creative memoir On Writing (2000), you will enjoy this brief peek into King’s process.

Overall, If It Bleeds is a fantastic addition to King’s considerable collection of short-form fiction. I highly recommend once more visiting the Stephen King Universe; it’s alive, well, and waiting for you in If It Bleeds. 

If It Bleeds by Stephen King is published by Hodder & Stoughton (UK) & Scribner (US).


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