If It Bleeds by Stephen King

“AMAZING!” ~ slavish fan

“King at his best.” ~ slavish reviewer

“Loved! But the cover sucks.” ~ some dork from goodreads

Before you get mad, I’m not here to drag the King. I read almost everything he wrote up until 2010-ish. Needful Things, Pet Sematery, and Different Seasons are among some of my rare re-reads. I’m possibly the only person out there that really loved Duma Key. And King writes some of the greatest short stories and novellas out there. Apt Pupil is relentless horror on so many levels. The Road Virus Heads North is a master class in punishing suspense in the short form.

But he’s not incapable of mediocrity. Cell, anyone? He’s also a frequent idiot on Twitter, but whatever. Boomers gonna boom. Never meet your heroes. (Also, I haven’t read any of The Dark Tower books. Shut up, I don’t care.)

Now for the review! I picked up If It Bleeds because of the clever cover. I like animals all up in each other. It’s fun. Like the cat-rat version of turducken. Without the third thing. I don’t know what that would be. Maybe a fish or a lizard.

Now the review, for real this time. I was ready to settle into the comfy pair of slippers that is a Stephen King book and If It Bleeds did not disappoint. This book is very King-y. Four novellas containing all his greatest hits. Folksy olds. Poignant moments of loss. A child’s world existing just below the line of adult sight. And, of course, a struggling writer.

I’ll go through one at a time and give my thoughts.

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

A ghost story for the digital age. Young boy earns a few bucks each week reading the newspaper to a retired finance industry titan. Eventually the old man dies, but not before the boy teaches him how to use an iPhone. Life goes on, but in some ways stays rooted in place where it begins to sicken and rot. It’s a story about grief. In a sense, all the novellas in this collection are about grief, but Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the most explicit, and it sets the tone nicely. Also harkens back to the advent of the smart phone with a certain nostalgia and horror. This story felt the most fully realized of the four, but the novelty of tech doesn’t make it a novel King story. If an AI was programmed to generate Stephen King stories, this would be one of them.

The Life of Chuck

This one reads almost experimental, like a China Mieville novel. Told in three acts in reverse order, or from the inside out, or from the top down. I don’t know really. Chuck is born, he lives, he dies, and the world he carries within dies with him. I can’t say more than that without spoiling because this one isn’t a thriller chiller. It meanders, and does so delightfully. As a whole the story doesn’t quite take shape the way you sense King wants it to, but that’s why it’s my favourite of the four. It takes a risk and does something King doesn’t normally do. It surprised me.

If It Bleeds

You get the feeling the other stories are just blubber padding out the headliner. I didn’t read The Outsider. I hear it’s good. Maybe I should read it because this one was just okay for me. The premise is cool, a face shifting monster orchestrates a middle school bombing and Holly Gibney is on the case. This is what happens when an author loves his characters too much. This story is indulgent. King tries to get our hearts to bleed for Holly, but I didn’t feel it. She’s basically perfect with a few quirks. He loves her too much to give her actual flaws. It was a fun read, but nothing that resonated on the level I know King is capable of.

The Rat

I’m just going to say it. This story was some dumb shit. A recycled mish mash of Bag of Bones, 1408, and The Secret Window and probably any story where King is clearly writing some externalized version of himself. Writer is having trouble writing. Writer goes to cabin. Writer experiences a strange. Writer makes Bad Deal. Consequences. I kept waiting for King to subvert his own trope, but he doesn’t. If I had to guess, I’d say this was a trunk story he hauled out to meet a page count that would justify a $38 hardcover.

Overall, I enjoyed this collection, and with the exception of The Rat the stories were entertaining. The Life of Chuck was nearly brilliant, and I give King credit for taking that risk, considering the rest of the stories play it incredibly safe. Maybe the cover says it all? We’ve got the cat and mouse (or rat), which is clever if familiar. What’s missing is the third ingredient that surprises and makes the whole thing memorable. If It Bleeds is not bad, Constant Reader, but it’s no turducken.

3/5