I haven’t been great about reading lately, and have been even worse about reviewing. But as a loyal Constant Reader, I felt like this might be the book to jumpstart my COVID reading habits, and I was mostly right.
Similiar to earlier collections like Different Seasons, The Bachman Books, Full Dark No Stars, and Four Past Midnight, If It Bleeds is made up of four long-ish, unrelated stories (or novellas, if you’re feeling fancy): Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, The Life of Chuck, If It Bleeds, and Rat. Two of these seem awfully familiar, like old-timey King. One of the stories brings back one of King’s favorite characters, and ties itself in (I think) with the world of The Dark Tower. And one of the stories just might be my all-time favorite from King. High praise, indeed, seeing how much I love The Mist, The Jaunt, Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut, and Herman Wouk is Still Alive.
Let’s start with the familiar:
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is a fine, but not particularly memorable story about a young boy named Craig who befriends his elderly neighbor, Mr Harrigan, and goes to read to him after school for many years. They bond over books, and later, over the magic of the iPhone (first series!). And when Mr Harrigan eventually dies, Craig misses having him around so much that he sometimes calls Mr Harrigan’s phone, just to hear his voicemail message. And sometimes, the next morning, Craig will have an undecipherable (or is it? I honestly don’t know) return text message from Mr Harrigan’s phone. As Craig grows up, he thinks of Mr Harrigan less frequently, but still calls his number every once in a while, mostly when things aren’t going so well in his life. After trouble with a bully, Craig calls. And when that bully suddenly dies? Is it coincidence? Or does Mr Harrigan have some sort of power that he wields from beyond the grave?
Rat is definitely a story idea that Stephen King has played around with before. If you could trade something good in your life for something bad in someone else’s life, would you do it? And who would you pick to suffer the consequences of that choice? (Thinner and Fair Extension are similar stories that come to mind. Are there others?) In this instance, a writer — who never really lived up to his potential — gets an idea for a novel, and heads up to his cabin in the Maine woods to write. The last book he tried to write ended up with his house almost burnt down and leaving him very very close to a nervous breakdown. But this time will be different! Not his most original story, but still, never boring. And a bit rattling to read during self-distancing, as there are some flu scenes here that are a little bit creepy, which certainly added to the ambiance of the story. SIDE NOTE: I listened to this audiobook, and Steven Weber did a great job with this story.)
The title story, If It Bleeds, is a Holly Gibney story. I like Holly a lot as a character, so I was all in on this one, but from what I’ve read, not everyone is a fan, so YMMV. Back at home after the events of The Outsider, Holly becomes obsessed with a horrific (seriously, AWFUL) national tragedy, and soon becomes convinced that the perpetrator of this terrible crime is in some way related to El Cuco, the face-stealing monster that she and Ralph Anderson faced in Texas a few years ago. I was tense throughout the entire story — and my anxiety was at 11 for the last 50 or so pages. Good news for fans of this year’s HBO miniseries, as this novella could easily set up Season two.
SPOILERS FOR IF IT BLEEDS:
I’m doubling down on my theory from The Outsider that the monster is related to Dandelo from The Dark Tower. Chet Ondowsky could have been Dandelo’s first cousin, their traits were so similar.
This brings us to The Life of Chuck, which I think is one of the greatest things King has ever written. I don’t even really want to talk about it because I would hate to give anything away…but I will say that it wasn’t at all what I expected after the first few pages. The story starts in a not-too-distant time, when the world is breaking down. Disease, climate change, riots, and other natural and not-so-natural disasters are bringing us to the verge of the apocalypse. (Another story that was a bit chilling to read during our current global situation. Great timing, Uncle Stevie!). California finally falls into the ocean. The internet is barely working. Huge sinkholes open up, eating cars and making transportation almost impossible. And then, out of nowhere, strange billboards start popping up with a strange message saying “39 GREAT YEARS! THANKS, CHUCK!”.
Who is Chuck? And what has he been doing for 39 great years? The answer surprised me, and the road to that answer fascinated me. I look forward to coming back to this story someday, I know it will stay a favorite.
As a post-script, here is the song that was in my head the whole time: