Late last year, I thought to myself it’d been a while since I last read something by the author who once was my favorite: Stephen King. Since he’d just released a new novel, Billy Summers, one I’d seen some rather positive press for, I picked it up from Walmart, although with some trepidation. It had been some time since King had written anything that captured my attention the way my favorites of his have; I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to make it through Under the Dome, for example, with me not even able to stomach sitting through the entirety of the audiobook, AKA the method of reading it that requires no effort on my part besides paying attention. (Reading has a tendency to tire me and/or my eyes, so I incorrectly thought that might be the saving grace with a book so damned long.) But I wanted to give him a chance, went in completely blind, and… left wishing I was, in fact, blind, that way I wouldn’t have had to lay eyes upon some of these storylines and turns of phrase.
To kick things off with this review (that won’t go towards my total, but I had to get it off my chest somehow, seeing as I wasn’t part of last year’s CBR), let me throw this quote out there for you (emphasis my own):
He didn’t tackle Bob Raines while Bob Raines was kicking his sister and stepping on her and crushing her fragile chest on which no breasts would ever appear.
This is part and parcel of one of the problems endemic to this book: the undercurrent of misogyny. Female characters exist seemingly only to die or to be reduced to sex on two legs. Even his sister, murdered brutally in front of him as a child, has our main character lamenting the fact that she will never grow a pair of freaking tits. That’s how he’ll remember her: a girl, not yet a woman (with knockers). What the actual honest to god fuck?
For the next best example of this sexist codswallop, we have Alice Maxwell. Fair warning, this is where I descend into super spoiler territory, because I can’t bring myself to hold back anything while I lay into Billy Summers. If you wish to remain unspoiled, you might as well skip to where I start talking about If It Bleeds, the book that really does count towards my Cannonball total. With that warning out of the way, let’s get to it.
Alice is a girl, originally thought to be a teenager (this is important, as it adds yet another layer of ick to the proceedings) by Billy, who’s dumped out of a van by three boys right outside of the apartment Billy is holing up in at the time. She’s been brutally raped, with bruises on her neck and breasts, and… how about I spare you the graphic details that King indulged in so often describing it and leave it at “alarming amounts of bleeding in her nether regions.” After some waffling about whether or not he should risk poking his head out of his safe house to grab her nearly unconscious body out of the puddle (Oh, did I forget to mention it was raining too? King spared nothing when setting the scene here, but he certainly does spare a lot when speaking of her trauma and recovery.), Billy goes to be her damned savior.
Except how this goes down is, well, with Billy’s pants going down. Yes, we see some sort of, I don’t know, slapstick routine (that’s being mighty gracious of me) that involves Billy’s pants slipping right off his ass as he drags her limp body inside, his dick just flopping about as he goes. Don’t worry, though, Alice isn’t with it enough to be further traumatized by this and assume this man was the one who violently molested her. Nor does she properly come to when he decides to undress her completely and slide into bed right next to her, naked. He only intends to warm her up, though, honest. He isn’t stripping this girl of indeterminate age and investigating the extent of her trauma for any sexual reason. No, no. That he wakes up with an erection, while next to her naked body, isn’t anything to be read into at all. It’s fine; she doesn’t even wake up in time to see it.
She does come to soon enough to rightly question why the actual hell she’s naked, battered, and in a strange man’s bed, though. Except don’t you worry your pretty little head, reader (or Alice): her and Billy are set to become the unlikeliest of buds. She even comes to the realization that he’s that guy who murdered a man just the other day and gets over it lickety split. You know, because he’s such a stand-up guy. And they band together to go after the men who actually did this to her, ending with Billy straight up sodomizing one of them, among other things. That, and some panic attack hacks (be it a song or putting a wet towel over your face) are all she needs to become whole again… and ready to join him in his efforts to get back at the people who hired him for the hit, then tried to hit him and run off with the other half of the money.
Oh, and did I mention that, all the while, Billy has to take the cold shower approach with this barely-legal (early 20s) girl that’s young enough to be his daughter? Or that she picks up on this and offers him a handy (among other things) that he turns down, before running off to secretly choke the chicken in said shower? Yeah, don’t you realize that she comes to legitimately love this man who she knows is a murderer, and who she rightly confused for her attacker for a while, telling him at every opportunity? Only she doesn’t love him enough for more than a kiss or a handy. You know, because that’s what friends (or siblings; she reminds him plenty of his dead sister) do for one another: they offer them some “relief.” And I’ll just end this particular rant here, because I could go on (and on, and on, and on…).
Suffice it to say, Billy’s relationship with Alice, and practically every woman in this story, is problematic to the max. He’s forever checking for wedding rings, thinking about booty calls, etc., even with women older than him. He has a one-night-stand with a woman who clearly has a drinking problem, which feels rapey in its own right, even if she was apparently down for it prior to getting blitzed. He has to comment at length on their looks. Yet none of these women get much involvement with the story itself, aside from Alice. They’re there to fill the cast out, and give him something to turn over in his head while we pad the book out.
Billy Summers could have been have this length if not for nonsense like this. He’s hired for the hit, then there’s a bunch of repetitive thumb twiddling before it’s suddenly time for him to do the job, and then we’re back to that same repetitive thumb twiddling while we wait for him to strike out after those who wronged him (and Alice). This might work better if the nitty gritty of it all was any better. For example, his getaway plan after shooting the man is to disguise himself as the guy whose only reason for existing in the story is to be hella gay and run through the ensuing fracas like that. He doesn’t even happen to land on the same outfit the guy winds up wearing that day, but it all works out anyway. His method of hiding afterwards is another identity that’s just him in a pregnancy belly with a wig and fake mustache. Keep in mind he can’t even think far enough ahead to realize his wig would look extra fake if he went out in the rain without an umbrella; thankfully Alice is there to clue him into things like that.
Fixing these issues wouldn’t make this a good story, but at least it would be over faster, and not be mostly periods of boredom with dry-heave worthy moments peppered throughout. Maybe if King had narrowed the scope a lot more, keeping the autobiographical (with names changed) story Billy writes (his cover as he waits for the hit is an author there to write a book) to his pre-war days, where it feels more personal and intimate as he talks about his rocky upbringing and how it made him into the man he is today (complete with a mother who spends the whole time getting shit on by everybody for being a terrible mother, only adding to the list of female characters who are treated questionably), rushed things along more to get us to the hit, and then to get to his revenge, and removed the inappropriate friendship (and then some) with Alice, we might have the makings of a forgettable, yet not offensive, story. Still, that’s only a very tentative maybe. Billy Summers might have an okay foundation on which to build a story, but for all we know it’s built upon a fault line and so no attempts at whittling it down to something less awful would be survivable either. Whatever the case may be, this is possibly the worst Stephen King book I’ve read to date, and I think I’ll find myself looking back on it and raging at random points in time for quite a while.
After all that, I wanted some sort of palate cleanser, and I thought If It Bleeds might be that for me. I got this for Christmas and I thought, even if an individual story fails, I’ll soon be onto the next one and that’ll keep it from leaving as sour a taste in my mouth as Billy Summers. To that extent, I was right. That being said, I can’t be much more positive than that about this one.
Starting with “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” we have the beginnings of something interesting: an iPhone that somehow and gets cell reception (even though surely nobody’s still paying for its phone plan) forever, and allows our main character, Craig, to communicate with his dead employer. But, just as we learn the true extent of what this means, King cuts us off with a noncommittal ending. However, it remains the brightest spot, even if I find myself getting angry over it randomly like I did with Billy Summers (except in this case for what could’ve been, not what was).
Next up is “The Life of Chuck,” a three act story told in reverse. I found myself confused afterwards about how all of this tied together, and I guess the explanations I saw others give online make a modicum of sense… but I still can’t help but roll my eyes at them. King seemed to want this to be his “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” and he comes nowhere near hitting so high a mark.
After this is our title story, “If It Bleeds,” bringing back into the fray a character from the Bill Hodges trilogy I couldn’t make it past the first book of, and a separate novel I never cared to read (The Outsider): Holly Gibney. King goes for horror here, but to me it feels more like Goosebumps than anything resembling his usual forays. When he wrote that this creature found something “tasty,” instead of any number of less silly sounding words, I had to groan, and it was just a bunch of that. Maybe I sound stupid taking issue with his word choice there, but stuff like that really did take me out of the story and prevent me from taking any of the horror or stakes seriously. Throw in some more Trump references (I forgot to mention all the stupid, needless ones we got in Billy Summers) that needlessly date the story and feel shoe-horned in, and I just was waiting for this one to be over.
Lastly is “Rat,” another in the long line of stories King has written where the main character is also an author. This particular author has only written short stories and flamed out (pun intended) so miserably on his first try at a novel that he became an accidental arsonist, in essence. But this time it’s going to be different, he says. The descriptions of what writing is like for him feel authentic, and they aid in making the story relatable and making me care for our main character, Drew; that being said, the supernatural element that gets introduced is so freaking wackadoo and dumb that it ruins the story for me. Up until it’s introduced, I found it passable; afterwards, it was in the same league as “If It Bleeds” for me, too weak an attempt at horror for me to take it seriously in any regard.
To sum up then, we have one story that starts well, but feels like it ends the race as it’s just begun; one that’s high-concept and try hard, yet doesn’t meet the lofty expectations King must’ve had for it; and two that feel, at best, like some middle-ground between Goosebumps and Stephen King, too silly and/or childish to ever be anything even verging on properly eerie. Overall, that means there’s really not enough to prop If It Bleeds up into something I can recommend or so much as like. Perhaps King has lost his magic. I’m sure I’ll get a better idea at some point this year by reading more of his newer works, but I think I’m all Kinged out for now.