Reading Stephen King for me is a type of therapy; one that is good for the soul and mind. When I get a new book from him it’s like sliding on a pair of comfy slippers, pouring myself a hot steaming cup of coffee and disappearing for a while into the world and characters he’s created, all my troubles seem to drift away. And with If It Bleeds, the same can be said. All the stories are good, but some are better than others, but in those that fall short there are still things which set them apart and show the sheer brilliance of King’s work.
This is a collection of four short novella’s the longest of which is If It Bleeds (the title story) which I enjoyed immensely, more on that later.
The collection opens with the story Mr Harrigan’s Phone – it was a story that was dripping with nostalgia, something that King writes so well, but this was also heightened by the fact that we had King writing about what he excels at, which is a young protagonist. The themes of the story are of technology and the advancements of such tech, that we are unsure where it will all end (it reminded me of how I felt when I too held the first Apple Phone), and how our lives from that moment on have been changed (for better or worse) with having a link to everything we need to know in our pocket. The young protagonist befriends an aging neighbour and they strike up an odd friendship, and later in the story he gives Mr Harrigan a new Apple iPhone and his life changes forever. The themes that King incorporates in this story are brilliant and brutal splicing perfectly the magic of technology but given that old King twist that we so love.
The following novella The Life of Chuck was a bit of a disappointment for me. It was a story of a life told in three parts and in reverse. It was a great concept but fell a little flat, and in my opinion it’s because the first part is stunning. The first part is an apocalyptic tale that was created masterfully, it was cinematic and the horrors were real and palpable, and it is some of the best apocalyptic writing I’ve read. If the story had stayed in this world and this timeline it could have been turned into a novel itself (the world building was fabulous). The following two parts just went down hill for me, it felt a little too disjointed and they didn’t really link to the first; there was no echo or growing of unease that you would expect to see considering the last part was leading to some apocalyptic cataclysmic event. If some of this was sewn in earlier it could have been the thread to keep the story together – but it didn’t, and I feel the overall effect of this suffered from the hugely original opening part – honestly it was quite brilliant and got me very excited but the other two parts didn’t live up to the bursting out of the gates of part one.
Then we move onto the largest novella in the collection and the title story If It Bleeds. Let me just inform you that If It Bleeds is spoiler rich, so if you haven’t read the Bill Hodges Trilogy yet (Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers and End of Watch or The Outsider) make sure you read those first otherwise this novella will spoil your enjoyment of all of those books. If It Bleeds is a wonderful story following the continued story of Holly Gibney one of King’s favourite characters, the title story of this collection is so good that it could have been turned into a novel in its own right and is in my opinion worth the cost of this book alone. We follow Holly as she goes on the case of tracking down another form of an Outsider – a vampiric type of monster that has got itself front row seats at many tragedies, feeding on the carnage, the despair and the grief of those who are less fortunate. It’s such a rich novella that you just lose yourself in the world that King spins and Holly is just a joy to read and you can tell that King has such a hoot writing about her. I hope that King will give Holly a further outing as I can tell you from reading this that the Finders Keepers agency is a keeper in my opinion (some hate King detective writing – I on one hand love it), it’s like a gritty version of the X-Files and there is so much scope to do more.
If the beginning of this collection stutters, if sure ends with a bang, as following If It Bleeds we get the story Rat. I have a penchant for stories about writers (being a writer myself I love to see how other writers approach things and seeing the connections with my own creativity) and with Rat King really gets into the mindset of what it is to be a writer and struggling with the process – the inner turmoil, the anxieties and fear of the process. Rat is a really strong story and has a very Poe like conclusion.
If It Bleeds once again shows that there is no slowing down from King, he is continuing to churn out works that set him apart as one of the greatest storytellers of our time. His imagination knows no bounds and although there was a stumbling block here with The Life Of Chuck the first part was some of the best apocalyptic writing I’ve recently read. But the jewel in the crown is the title story If It Bleeds and you need to get this collection just for that. It was phenomenal!
If It Bleeds is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available here.
Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his son Owen King), the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, the Bill Hodges trilogy End of Watch, Finders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, and shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award). Many of King’s books have been turned into celebrated films, television series and streamed events including The Shawshank Redemption, Gerald’s Game and It. King is the recipient of the 2014 National Medal of Arts and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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