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 #14 – Such Times

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

I’ve always loved those lines, and they’ve never been more apt. Such times indeed, and so true. We all have to decide what to do with the time that is given us.

So, of course, we’re totally wasting it. And I’m not talking about the last couple of months, trapped in our homes and clinging to sanity with alcohol and Netflix. Nobody is going to begrudge a little demotivation and aimlessness right now. It’s an unusual and uncertain glitch in the matrix.

But it will end and there will be a new normal. What will you do then? Try to wiggle back into your old life? Because, really, who’d want to live in those boring old times, doing the same thing day after day, year after year, living on the dying carcass of global free market capitalism? 

Well, regular people, I guess. And there’s no shortage of them. In fact, in an informal poll where I browsed both Facebook and Twitter for a six and half hours every day for ten years, it was obvious that a majority of social media users, which is to say everyone on the entire planet, is so bored and boring and unenlightened they’ve outsourced their life to a drinking bird. Like clockwork, the bird dips and another meme blasts forth, another tweet is retweeted, and the noise cloud that is our reality gets slightly noisier.

Of course, at the moment, most of this is complaining or fist shaking. Life is shit. You’re making my life shit. Don’t you know you shouldn’t do this? That you can’t do that? And now, because people are nasty, we have snitch lines. Is this the fucking Spanish Inquisition? If you see a few people walking down the street, less than two meters apart, don’t fucking call the cops. Don’t write letters to the editor. Don’t complain about it on Facebook. Look, I get it, I do. Every time I wander out to the park for some fresh air, there are milling groups of people with t-shirts that say “Oh no, the Economy” or “Cull the Weak.” Every time I go to the grocery store I see people going the wrong direction down clearly marked aisles. Makes me wish I’d brought the woodchipper. But I smile and wave and maneuver far around them. I don’t call the cops. Or complain. At least about that, complaining about complainers currently consumes most of my free time.

Damn the irony.


Right. Interesting times, which doesn’t have to be a curse. I’d posit that if you pull your head out of the social media Khazad Dum, you’ll notice there’s a damn remarkable world both inside and out worth writing about.

And I’m not talking about poetry.

Please do not write personal plague poetry, or as Lola so elegantly puts it, “Poetic observations of a nature so shallow they appear to be fathomless.” I’m not saying it’s impossible to write decent poetry about living in your kitchen, baking bread, and calling the cops on some poor neighbor who happens to break the two-meter rule, but… yeah, it is. Same goes for plague prose. Give it time. Give it a year or two. If we need to flatten the curve on ANYTHING, it’s to make sure everyone doesn’t write about the exact same thing happening to everyone, regardless of how much nightmare fuel is being poured on the fire. You think the emergency wards are taxed now? Wait until everyone is forced to read about the horrors, or possibly pleasures, of social distancing, or about what happened to all the toilet paper.

No.

There are far better uses for that pent-up wellspring of emotion, both now and into the new normal. Whether your life is currently a smoking crater, or not, you’re experiencing something novel that hasn’t happened in a hundred years and probably won’t happen like this again. There’s a lot of passion out there, generated by wanting to see other people punished for doing things you don’t understand aren’t technically against the law. Capture that passion. Capture the fear. Capture the determination to make them pay by killing or torturing them in your next story.

Let that passion infuse your work.

When this does end, don’t flush that passion away and go back to your old life. You only have so much time, you know, and you’ve probably wasted enough of it writing poetry.


Detonation #12 – Subversion Recursion

Navigating Life in a Literary Minefield


Readers expect if they pick up the twenty-second volume of their favourite thriller series it’ll be more of the same, a creaky wheezing corpse dragging itself forward with rotting fingerbones. These sorts of books are where the money is. The boilerplate of the industry. Month after month, year after year, these books are churned out assembly line style for the public to ingest, absorbing three sad calories of literary enjoyment, before shitting them into the trash or closest used bookstore. 

It’s an ugly cycle. At some point people started buying these books based on firehose marketing and celebrity endorsements and in response more books were written to cater to those buying tastes, ad infinitum. It’s not a secret, far from it, authors know there is a certain magic formula that if they are talented enough, or lucky enough, to master, they can join the ranks of the serializers.

Not just the serials either, the entire mass market oozes sameness. The books look the same, the titles sound the same, the plots are indistinguishable except for the anti-hero’s cup size and eye colour — blue steel or smoky aluminum. Writing by rote. Writing by formula. Everyone wants to be the next James Patterson or Steven King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin. Rich and famous, with terrible movie adaptions and mansions full of dirty money sex dungeons.

Hmm, that actually doesn’t sound so bad. Where the hell was I going with this again?

Oh right, total lack of imagination in the pursuit of sell out success.


The ability to conjure ideas from the billion facets of existence and assemble them into unique works of music, art, and writing is a superpower with unlimited potential, so it really grinds my gears when writers, who have the entire universe of possibilities to play with, take the same old tired elements and assemble them in bloody identical ways. Sure, they may brighten or darken the paint some, and give the work a clever name and twist the marketing, but it’s typically a clone of a seminal work, and a shittier one at that.

Stories in a particular genre and sub-genre are going to have similar and even required elements. A murder mystery, by definition is going to have some sort of murder and quite possibly a mystery. A thriller should thrill. Noggy loves heist stories. Lots of people love zombie or werewolf stories, half the world either loves or hates vampire stories, traditional or glittery. There are haunted house stories, cosmic horrors, cryptids, occult detectives, you name it. Some sub-genres are narrow, some are wide, but they instill a little order to chaos that is the literary landscape. As I mentioned, there is an expectation that if you pick up a book in that sub-genre it should actually, you know, not be false advertising.

That’s not what my little rant is about though. What I am talking about are overused tropes and by-the-number formulaic bullshit. 

Sure, it’s easy to write yet another school for bizarre weirdos novel, packed with bullies and not-so secret secrets and angry, clueless teachers — sorry teachers, you know how it is. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Does every supernatural detective story, mine included, need to pay homage to a certain hard drinking, chain smoking, trench coat and fedora wearing reprobate from the 30’s? Does every epic fantasy novel have to involve an orphan from a purged royal family who grows up to be an assassin with legendary abilities because their father was king of the horny gods? Does every single heist series have to start with a book that’s entirely about putting a misfit, yet oddly exceptionally uniquely talented crew together?

FUCK NO.

Subvert those tropes. Do it!

We already discussed in a previous episode that if you want to write, you need to read. Period. And it often helps to read the sort of stories you want to write. Subverting tropes requires intimate knowledge of them. You need to know where the boundaries are and what you can twist, and hollow out and fill with explosives, and, in the end, completely break.

Does your haunted house story require a gothic New England farmhouse complete with a vengeful revenant left over from the original occupant’s penchant for baby ear soup? Nope. There are a thousand elements ripe for subversion. And I’m not talking easy ones like making the house a brownstone apartment in Manhattan and the ghosts aliens. Who says the house needs to be a regular house? And who says the ghosts have to be regular ghosts? I’m not saying write a story about a construction site porta-potty possessed by ghost pepper hot wings, but I’m also not, not saying that.

Find an angle, run naked with it. You know you can. Don’t be afraid that you’ll never get published by the big five, or one of their imprints, and get that sex dungeon. Write weird, terrible shit, that has its own unique soul and flavour, and take that unoriginal WIP, wrap it in a tarp and stash it under the Aztek’s trunk liner next to the trencher and gasoline in anticipation of the next wolf moon and a satisfying internment.

It’s for the best, it really is.


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