In recent times I have gone back to reading the works of Stephen King after a long hiatus due to a few less-than-satisfactory novels, so now I’m looking forward to seeing what I missed so far. The more recent The Institute and The Outsider seemed to mark the return of the old “King magic”, and when I saw that one of the short stories included in this volume featured the character of Holly Gibney, who also had a role in Mr. Mercedes (another happy find), I wasted no time in acquiring If It Bleeds.
The first story in this collection is MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE and from the very first pages I could see that it was indeed a “vintage King” sort of tale. Teenager Craig earns some pocket money by doing a few chores for eccentric neighbor Mr. Harrigan, whose habit of gifting Craig with lottery tickets finally pays with a huge win: to show his gratitude, Craig uses part of the money to buy an iPhone for Mr. Harrigan, whose initial disdain for technology quickly turns into fascination for the opportunities offered by the Web. At Harrigan’s sudden death, a sorrowful Craig decides to slip the phone into his friend’s jacket before the coffin is closed: what he would never have expected is to still be able to stay in communication with his old mentor – well, sort of, since this is a King story…
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone possesses the classic flavor of most of Stephen King’s narrative: first of all the story in set in a small town, peopled with the kind of quirky characters that are the author’s trademark; then there is the weird element of the phone calls going through even when the cellphone battery should be all but dead. Most important is of course the description of the world through the eyes of a growing teenager: King is one of the writers who can portray younger characters with both understanding and authenticity, and Craig is no exception, particularly in the poignant representation of his grief at the death of Mr. Harrigan, and the very human desire to hear the old man’s voice once again through the voicemail recording on the phone. Last but not least is an interesting consideration on our relationship with technology and the way it’s changing us – to use old Mr. Harrigan’s own words:
Thoreau said that we don’t own things; things own us. Every new object – whether it’s a home, a car, a television, or fancy phone like that one – is something more we must carry on our backs.
The second story, THE LIFE OF CHUCK, is a truly weird one and I struggled to understand it until the end, where everything became clear: for this reason I prefer to say as little as I can about it, since it must be appreciated first-hand. This tale is composed of three separate parts that move backward in time and focus on the figure of Charles “Chuck” Krantz, his too-short life and the way it affects the world. There is a definite surreal quality to this story, and not just because it retraces time from what looks like the end of the universe to a fundamental episode in Chuck’s life. The key to the whole scenario lies in understanding how our experiences contribute to the creation of the world around us and how they can influence it – even in ways we cannot imagine…
IF IT BLEEDS, the longest piece in the anthology, is loosely connected to The Outsider in that it shows the existence of a creature similar to the novel’s shape-shifting predator, one thriving on the pain and anguish brought on by tragedies – and when there are none to feed on from, creating them to satisfy its hunger. Private investigator Holly Gibney, now the head of the Finders Keepers agency, sets on a dangerous chase that might cost her her life.
My first encounter with Holly Gibney was in The Outsider and back then – before I read Mr. Mercedes, where her character appears for the first time – I was unable to truly appreciate her for lack of background information. Now that I know where she comes from and what makes her tick, I can say I enjoyed very much her personality, her constant struggle with the psychological problems afflicting her and her tenacity in overcoming them – not to mention her dogged determination in finding the creature and, if possible, freeing the world from the danger it represents, no matter the personal cost. Where If It Bleeds is a unique blend of horror and detective work, its true strength lies in the depiction of Holly and the double struggle with the investigation on this elusive and dangerous individual on one side and with her not-so-understanding family on the other. If nothing else, this story made it even more imperative that I read as soon as possible the other two novels following Mr. Mercedes, because I want to learn more about Holly.
The last offering is RAT, a story imbued with a strong sensation of deja-vu, in the sense that there is a very ominous progression in the journey of struggling writer Drew Larson whose previous attempts at a full-length novel have ended in misery and depression. One day Drew is struck by a fully-formed idea for a novel, and to be certain that no distractions will interfere with his creative processes, he retires to an isolated cabin in the mountains, where a huge storm and a dangerous bout of flu will threaten both his survival and his mental sanity.
Anyone familiar with King’s own The Shining will feel certain that the sinister line-up of circumstances is bound to create the “perfect storm” that will have nothing to do with the one raging outside the cabin and everything to do with the man’s reactions to the dread of writer’s block. Unlike Jack Torrance in The Shining, Larson is not besieged by his inner demons – apart, that is, from the terror of finding himself stuck again at a loss for the right words to express himself – but faces a weird encounter with the titular rat, and the possibility of striking a fever-induced bargain with unforeseeable consequences…
This collection represents the fourth volume in the journey of my “reconciliation” with Stephen King’s works, and the progression so far has proven to be quite positive. Let’s hope it keeps going strong 🙂