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.
The four novellas that constitute If It Bleeds (Hodder, RRP£20) have elements of both disciplines, but the titular story is the standout. Private detective Holly Gibney, engaged in the banal business of searching for a missing dog, finds herself tracking the psychopath behind mass killings in high schools. There are serious issues treated in these stories, including the negative effects of technology and the thin dividing line between sanity and madness.
It picks up on King’s profound belief, explored in so many of his novels, that there are malign, shape-shifting forces in the world who thrive on the misery and pain of others. Here, the shape-shifter takes the form of a news reporter who is first at the scene of a school bombing. Watching the news on TV, private detective Holly Gibney can’t help thinking that the journalist appears to be feeding rather too eagerly for her liking on the unfolding horror around him. She decides to investigate. What happens next is way too predictable and not nearly nasty enough to raise a goose bump, even if King’s exploration of Holly’s character, through her relationship with her difficult mother, is nicely done.
Stephen King has made good use of the sometimes tricky novella form over his nearly 50-year career, often as a vehicle to explore ideas and styles that lie off the more familiar path of his horror novels. If It Bleeds brings together four new stories, all offering vintage King themes with their own particular twist.
King’s afterword confirms the suspicion that these tales weren’t tightly designed. “Stories go where they want to,” he shrugs, which echoes his book On Writing (2000): “Why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.” I like to travel as well, but it’s nice to have a destination in mind. Endings were never King’s forte, though his short stories have fewer ends to tie up, and it helps when, as here, the conceits aren’t engrossingly strong. You’ll fly through If It Bleeds, enjoy the odd pearl – an arthritic hand “like a driftwood sculpture” – then sit and wait for King’s next. It shouldn’t take him long.
..under normal circumstances, King is the last writer I’d reach for during an insomniac night. But these weren’t normal circumstances. I opened the book. The straightforward cadences of King’s voice, paired with his signature sit-down-and-let-me-tell-you-a-story style, were immediately soothing. And the stories he was telling — about the seductions and corruptions of technology, the extremes of beauty and depravity in even the most ordinary life, the workings of a universe we can never entirely understand — were somehow exactly what I wanted to read right now... Some might think finding the right book should be the least of our worries during a pandemic, but how else are we to while away our restless nights? As sirens blare outside my Brooklyn window and the headlines grow more apocalyptic by the day, I might start working my way through King’s backlist. He’s good company in the dark.