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

Detonation #13: Schrodinger’s Trunk

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

There are writers that never waste a word they’ve written. Once they start a project, sooner or later, they will see it finished and published. These people exist, we all know who they are, and if you happen to be one of them…

I’m not sure where you got the outsized self-confidence it takes to believe everything you cook up is worth eating… but I’m not here to yuck your yum, I just don’t think I’m talking to you.

For the rest of us, once you’ve been at this a while, you will have generated a large body of discarded work colloquially referred to as trunk stories. You know the ones I’m talking about. Stuff we started and didn’t finish. Stuff we finished but couldn’t sell. Some of it is plain shit. Some had perhaps more-than-shit potential but blew up on the launch pad. Some of it was desperately trying not to be shit, but the harder it tried the shittier it got. Whatever the reason, the trunk is where they go to die. Except that’s not exactly what happens.

We think of a lot of the junk in our trunk as potential. We reserve the right to pull these stories out one day, blow the dust off, rework, and maybe get them published. You could say these stories are neither dead nor alive, or more accurately they are both dead and alive. They exist in a state of quantum superposition until you lift the lid and observe them.

So, the question becomes: is it worth a possible Raider’s style face meltening to break the seal on that ark and see what all is going on inside your personal writing hell?

Consider the following case study.

Lola Silkysocks has got it in her dotty little head that she wants to pull one of these dreadful novel remnants out of mothballs and have another go at it. As always, she turns to her accomplice Noggy Splitfoot for feedback.

Lola: Did you read the first chapter?

Noggy: Um, yeah…when did you say you wrote this?

Lola: That bad?

Noggy: You’ve definitely grown as a writer.

Lola: Is it salvageable?

Noggy: Wait, you’re serious about this? I thought we were just sharing shitty old drafts.

Lola: You’re such a bastard—are those sirens? Where are you?

Noggy: *engine roar* No time, Silkysocks. Meet me at the rendezvous point in half an hour. Bring a shovel.

Lola remains unsure. There’s a lot to like, even love, about that novel. The premise, the characters, even the writing in certain places is good. Like really good. But there’s a lot that’s fucked too. Jumped up dialogue, info dumps, thready world building, leaning too heavily on tropes. But that’s not the bit that’s really broken. In fact nothing is broken. It’s doing exactly what a first draft is supposed to do: sucking with the cyclonic force of a Dyson upright. Those flaws are all fixable. And if it were that simple, we’d all be the writer I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Nothing would be unsalvageable

Where is that dividing line between set aside and trunked? Hard to say, and probably different for everyone. For me it’s when the writing feels like a shed skin. The writer I was back then is not just grown, but kind of gone. I can see where I’m trying so damn hard to be clever, I can read a passage and know what book I was reading at the time that inspired it. I can see these things and even see how to fix them, but it would always feel like trying to slide back into that old skin.

Sometimes it isn’t like that. Sometimes a story just wasn’t ready to be written at the time you started it. The idea too fragile and complex to be rushed. Your skills not developed enough to execute properly. Sometimes years go by before that story pokes its way out of the trunk and opens itself up. Sometimes that story is a skin you needed time to grow into.

There’s a lot of metaphors flying around this essay, it’s confusing, and I don’t care. There’s something about potential. The allure of imagining all possibilities, all at once. Until you open that lid, your stories are everything they never were. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to re-evaluate old work. But what do you have to gain by collapsing that wave function?

If we’re being honest, probably not a lot. I mean, there’s a reason you trunked that story in the first place. Schrodinger’s cat was most likely dead before he dumped it in the box and lifting the lid is only going to let out the smell.

But the curiosity is killing me…

Coming Soon…

The Seventh Terrace

The Seventh Terrace is delighted to announce the upcoming release of the deranged, debauched, cosmic-horror-by-gaslight novella STARSEED by Steve Passey writing as Dio Cornito.

And for those with a taste for noir, our pulpy crime imprint Tiny Sledgehammer proudly presents END OF THE LOOP by Brent Nichols. What you don’t know, or can’t remember, will definitely hurt you.

If you like ’em short, sharp, and scintillating, look for these two novellas coming atcha in 2020.

Detonation #11: Keeping Your Muse Lubed in the Time of Contagion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Welp, the world’s on fire, folks. Like really this time. If you’re not there already, it’s likely a matter of when and not if you’ll end up locked in your hovel, let out once a week to drive the Aztek to the feed lot for your family’s alfalfa ration. God willing, the liquor stores will deliver.

And lest you think we don’t take this seriously, let your Auntie Octoclot assure you. WE TAKE IT FUCKING SERIOUSLY.

Amazon is going to clean up, and the rich will emerge richer than ever. You think this plague is the great equalizer? Think again. Maybe you’ve got it worse than most. Chances are you still have it better than some. Those inequalities are immortal, but you aren’t. Statistically you’re likely to survive, but a shit ton of people are dead, and a lot more will follow. This is a crisis.

So, in a time of economic death rattles and social distance (which we know you’re doing as best you can because you also take it fucking seriously) the question becomes…

How do we get through this?

Art is needed now more than ever. It’s the balm we’re all desperately seeking to escape or at least soften this reality. But wow is it hard trying to stay inspired when your theoretically homeschooled kids have gone feral, you’re trying to work from home, or scrambling for any work at all, separated from your friends, and suddenly cellies with a partner whose middle name you actually forgot in the last twenty years.

Let’s talk about creative process. Right now, your muse is probably drier than a Death Valley creek bed. She needs a little lubrication and you may have heard that everything is material, but you can’t just grease her gears with any old gunk. A prime example would be The News. There’s staying informed, and there’s gorging on catastrophe causing an overgrowth of doom and wiping out all your healthy creative flora.

A case study:

Lola and Noggy attended a gift exchange last solstice where Lola ended up with a dubious (and expired, she would later find out) bottle of g-spot stimulating lube. How was she to know it was a joke?

Noggy: You’re not gonna actually use that are you?

Lola: Well, it doesn’t taste too bad. Kinda like toothpaste. What could go wrong?

I don’t want to frighten you. This story ends happily, thanks to Canesten, but Lola learned a lesson that day.

The wrong lube will only crank your creativity up long enough to burn it into a pile of yeasty ashes. So, for fuck’s sake, stay informed, but don’t cram a world’s worth of toxic news in your pussy. I forget where I was going with this. It’s been a weird couple of weeks.

Lola: Nog, I have to tell you a story.

Noggy: Not if it’s about your vagina.

Lola: All my stories are about my vagina.

Noggy: You know other people can hear you, right?

In fact, Lola respects her vagina a great deal. It works hard and she tries to give it everything it needs to be happy. Your muse deserves the same consideration. So, lube her up with something nice, something that will last, that’s compatible with your creative chemistry.

Read the books you’ve been meaning to get around to, listen to the amazing quarantine concerts being livestreamed, take one of those cool virtual tours every museum on earth is throwing online, go for a run at night. For the love of Gary, don’t poison yourself when there is so much delicious creative nourishment to be found so easily.

I think we’re going to look back on this pandemic as a time of great tragedy but also of great discovery. Moments like this are defining. So, stay healthy, stay slick, and who knows what you’ll slide into.

***

P.S. Hang tight, critters. We’ll get through this together, 2 metres apart.

xo

Sarah & Rob

Detonation #10: The Side Piece

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield

Warning: Explicit language and mature themes. If you’re offended by such things, you might want to venture elsewhere.

***

Gather round spawlings, and let Auntie Octoclot tell you a tale of two novelists. A pair of faithless whores who barely get past writing the prologue before their eyes are wandering. Before they’re burning through a string of short stories, some very short, some they don’t even bother to name before slipping away and crumbling back into bed with their novels. It’s disgusting, really.

Or is it?

What is it about these slutty distractions encountered in the periphery of our novel writing journeys? Why isn’t one project enough? Where is the harm in stepping out on your novel?  Glad you asked, as I hereby offer the following arguments in defense of the much maligned side piece.

Novels are long and monogamy is boring

Let’s just say it’s a good thing each of my tentacles doesn’t feel entitled to know what crevices the others are exploring at any given moment. But when it comes to writing, your novel is in fact well served by occasionally dripping your quill over a fresh sheet of vellum.

A case study. Noggy and Lola are best friends. Imagine them locked in a room together for a year. They’d run out of things to say and Lola would zip the nose hole on Noggy’s gimp mask shut in his sleep. Or what if this wasn’t a dystopian dungeon world and they were permitted to come and go, spend time with other people, and still hang out in the dungeon whenever they both want? Isn’t that a more gratifying relationship in the end? RACK rules apply.

Saying you can only work on one project at a time is as ridiculous as saying you can only have one playmate at a time. But srsly, Nog + Lola = BFF

Procrastination can generate a robust body of work

It’s truly astonishing how clean your house gets, how orderly your filing cabinet, and how much other writing you can produce when you’d rather do just about anything than work on your fucking novel.

Noggy: Did you work on your fucking novel?

Lola: Erm…no.

Noggy: You made me promise to bludgeon you with a garden weasel if you didn’t work on your fucking novel.

Lola: I did, but so ardent was I in my fucking novel avoidance that I wrote three bitchin’ short stories.

Noggy: A promise is a promise.

Lola: You’re at Home Depot right now, aren’t you?

Noggy: You’re lucky the weasels aren’t out until Spring.

Not all ideas are shelf stable

A brilliant story idea is not like a can of condensed milk pushed to the back of the pantry. You can’t come back in a year expecting it to be as vibrant and magical as it was freshly squirted outta the creative udder. Some ideas you need to use right away before they spoil.

Noggy: Wanna help me drink a bottle of insanely expensive Japanese whisky?

Lola: You said I wasn’t worthy

Noggy: Yeah, but I opened it a year ago, thinking I’d finish it when I finished my novel. Now it tastes like socks, and somebody needs to drink it, even if it is you.

Lola: I’ll be right over…

Art is a process as much as it is a product. That process is rarely linear. As an artist the last thing you want to liken yourself to is a factory cranking out ‘art’. So redraw your novel writing maps to allow the occasional detour of a short story, essay, or even a goddamn poem(if you must). The finished novel is a worthy final destination, but the side piece turns that journey into a winding, recursive, messy, metaphor-mixing ride you definitely don’t want to miss.