Book review

‘If It Bleeds’ reaffirms Stephen King’s skill, creativity

By BILL SHEEHAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: May 1, 2020

Stephen King’s affinity for the novella form goes back to the early stages of his long, prolific career. In 1982, King published “Different Seasons,” a quartet of long stories that contained some of his finest work, and eventually led to some memorable film adaptations, among them “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Stand by Me.” Since then, at roughly 10-year intervals, King has produced three similar volumes that have allowed him to play with a wide variety of themes, scenes and settings. The latest of these, “If It Bleeds,” contains four new, exceptionally compelling novellas that reaffirm his mastery of the form.

King, of course, has made good use of virtually every mode of storytelling: short stories, screenplays, novels, multivolume epics and what he referred to as his “novel for television,” the miniseries “Storm of the Century.” But the mid-length narrative suits his talents particularly well, permitting a degree of expansiveness while maintaining a controlled, disciplined approach to the material at hand. The results are stories that cover a surprising amount of emotional territory but can still be read in a sitting.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” for example, is yet another reflection of King’s sometimes baleful fascination with technology and its effects on our lives. At the heart of the story is the relationship between Craig, the adolescent narrator, and John Harrigan, retired billionaire and borderline Luddite. As their uneven relationship develops, Craig gifts the older man a cellphone. The gift is designed to facilitate “normal” communications, but — this is, after all, a Stephen King story — those communications darken and change, connecting the world of rural Maine to the unknown world beyond. At its deepest level, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is about the lasting connections we sometimes make despite seemingly insurmountable differences.

“The Life of Chuck” gets my vote as the collection’s most original story. It opens on the image of billboards bearing the portrait of a middle-aged accountant named Charles Krantz. Each billboard bears the words: “39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS, CHUCK!” Who is Chuck? And what is the story behind those billboards? In time, we learn a good deal about this character as the story, constructed in three acts, moves backward in time to Chuck’s early life. The result is a slightly surreal, wholly engaging narrative about dance, music, mortality and acceptance, and about the bedrock notion that all of us, like Chuck, contain multitudes.

“Rat” returns to one of King’s recurring subjects: the problematic nature of the writing life. His protagonist, Drew Larson, is a struggling writer who has produced a half-dozen short stories, and has tried and failed three times to finish a novel, each failure bringing with it a greater degree of psychological damage. “Rat” recounts Drew’s final desperate attempt to bring a novel to completion. Isolated in a cabin deep in the woods of Northern Maine, he learns once again that art is a double-edged sword, one that can lead to exhilaration, despair and — in extreme moments — madness. An unpredictable, often hallucinatory narrative, this is one of King’s definitive explorations of the dark side of the creative impulse.

The centerpiece of this volume is the title story. By far the longest story in the book, “If It Bleeds” is a fully developed short novel with multiple ties to King’s recent fiction. The protagonist — and true hero — is Holly Gibney, the damaged, savant-like young woman who first appeared in 2014’s “Mr. Mercedes,” and who played a pivotal role in King’s 2018 novel “The Outsider.” “If It Bleeds” is, in fact, a direct sequel to “The Outsider,” though it contains enough relevant detail to stand on its own.

As in “The Outsider,” when Holly and a police detective tracked down an ancient vampiric creature, “If It Bleeds” finds her battling a similarly daunting monster. This time, though, she must do so on her own. Watching her overcome obstacles, among them her own fear, her troubled past and the disbelief of others, is one of the central pleasures of this book.

Holly is that rarest of creations: a wholly admirable person. King’s affection for her is evident on every page and adds a measure of emotional weight to the narrative. Holly has now appeared in five of King’s novels, and I fully expect to see her again. Her latest appearance adds a welcome grace note to a collection filled with startling, sometimes unsettling pleasures. In “If It Bleeds,” King continues to draw from a rich and varied reservoir of stories. At its best, his work remains deeply empathetic and compulsively readable. May he never run dry.