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If It Bleeds


If It Bleeds

Stephen King’s long and darkly beautiful march continues. In the past, I have preferred his shorter work to his doorstopper efforts. So IF IT BLEEDS held a special place of anticipation for me, and I was not disappointed. What we have here is a collection of four original and unrelated novellas that will remind readers why King, who is knee-deep in his fifth decade of writing and publishing, continues to be not just a household name but a genre unto himself --- and deservedly so.

IF IT BLEEDS opens with the deceptively titled “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” a coming-of-age story of sorts that features elements from such disparate sources as Sherwood Anderson and “The Twilight Zone.” It concerns a boy on the cusp of adolescence who is employed to perform chores for an elderly male neighbor. During the course of events, the two strike up a friendship, and the young man learns indirectly who his employer/neighbor is. The story lopes along a bit as King sets up his chess pieces, but just when one is wondering when the clown is going to come out from under the bridge, the old man passes away peacefully. Things then kick off, gently at first but chillingly, so that readers quickly realize that they are in the middle of a Stephen King story. I assure you that your patience will be more than rewarded.

"Each of these pieces contains some of [King's] shiniest wordcraft. You will want to linger over it, but you will be compelled to read as quickly as possible --- and, as always, with the lights on."

Next up is “The Life of Chuck.” It is a three-part tale told in reverse (to its slight detriment). It begins with what appears to be the collapse of the world (could King’s timing have been any more perfect?) heralded by the mysterious appearance of a series of billboards acknowledging a local bank executive named “Chuck.” The second and third parts explain how the state of affairs came to be, but the game is somewhat given up at the beginning. I’m not alone in having a problem with this story --- King himself briefly hints in his Author’s Note that its format may not work for everyone --- but, as a whole, it is wonderfully told and imagined, and appears to be an homage to a legendary science fiction author (if I say his name, it will give away the story; you will figure it out as you read). It is likely to keep you up thinking on more than one night.

The title novella is by far the longest of the four and is pretty much perfect, whether or not you are a fan of THE OUTSIDER. I find Holly Gibney, who was a featured player in that book, to be slightly irritating, but nonetheless I miss her when she is not front and center. For me, she is one of the most realistic characters, warts and all, within the voluminous King bibliography. Holly is around in all of the best ways in “If It Bleeds,” where an all-but-invisible element revealed in the aftermath of a school massacre puts her on the trail of the doer, who is hiding in more than plain sight. There is plenty to love here, including a puzzling mystery, suspense, a brilliant “Plan B” that you probably won’t see coming, and… Oops, I almost went too far. Suffice to say that there is a reason why the collection is named after this story. It is arguably one of King’s best, even at this late date.

IF IT BLEEDS concludes with “Rat,” which is my favorite story here for personal reasons. The premise is simple enough. A would-be novelist who has had some well-received short stories published takes a self-imposed sabbatical to a cabin his family owns to work on a novel. Work, he does, until he hits a wall that he has hit before in his previous efforts. A number of obstacles are thrown up in front of him until he obtains assistance from an unlikely source. Maybe. Or maybe not. What is certain, though, is that there is a cost for everything, as our erstwhile author discovers.

Be assured that IF IT BLEEDS is not a placeholder for King until he publishes some epic novel in the future. Each of these pieces contains some of his shiniest wordcraft. You will want to linger over it, but you will be compelled to read as quickly as possible --- and, as always, with the lights on.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 24, 2020

If It Bleeds
by Stephen King