There’s an oddly meta quality to reading Stephen King’s new collection, “If It Bleeds,” in the era of COVID-19. Although there is no literal plague in these pages, there is a notable thread of simmering anxiety woven throughout that feels very current.
In addition to the expected supernatural horror themes, the four novellas — “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” “The Life of Chuck,” “If It Bleeds,” and “Rat” — are undergirded, to great effect, with more earthbound fears: the uncertainty of old age and approaching death; the vampiric nature of the 24-hour news cycle feeding the public’s appetite for pain and disaster; the claustrophobia of being alone and ill during isolating weather; signs of the end times that would be disturbingly recognizable to even the most committed optimist.
The first and last novellas, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” and “Rat,” are thematically locatable within the Stephen King canon, dealing as they do respectively with the inner lives of children, and the inner lives of writers.
In “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” set in the early 2000s, 11-year old Craig is hired to read aloud to a reclusive billionaire in the twilight of his life, Mr. Harrigan, who has retired to Craig’s isolated Maine hometown. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, and when Mr. Harrigan gifts him with a lottery ticket that yields a $3,000 windfall, Craig decides to repay his benefactor with the gift of a first-generation iPhone, which he proceeds to teach Mr. Harrigan to use. Soon after, the old man dies, and Craig discovers that he has been bequeathed not only a fortune, but also the ability to contact Mr. Harrigan from beyond the grave, with not-unexpectedly gruesome results.
“Rat” is the story of Drew Larson, a writer crippled by the conviction that he will never finish a novel. When he is abruptly seized by a story he’s convinced will be the making of his literary career, he drives to his family’s remote cabin to write it, ignoring weather warnings and a particularly nasty strain of influenza. Snowbound and ill, he takes pity on a rat he finds nearly frozen to death on his doorstep. Later that night, the rat offers him a Faustian bargain that will enable him to finish his novel, for a price.
“The Life of Chuck” comprises three separate stories featuring the same protagonist, a bank executive, Charles Krantz, at three different points in his life — as a haunted orphan growing up in his Jewish grandparents’ Victorian mansion (“Act I: Contain Multitudes.”); as a young man on a business trip in Boston; (“Act II: Buskers”); and in a hospital bed, dying of a brain tumor, quite possibly, it’s suggested, near the end of the world (“Act III: Thanks, Chuck!”)
King presents the three stories in reverse order “like a film running backward,” as he writes in the Author’s Note, adding that it will be up to the reader to decide if that form succeeds or not. Unlike the other novellas in the collection, “The Life of Chuck” defies narrative categorization. Is it horror? Is it magical realism? Is it literary fiction? Or do each of the three stories carry their own identifier?
The jewel in the crown of “If It Bleeds,” however, is the titular novella.
Fans online are already touting “If It Bleeds” as “the new Holly Gibney story,” referring to the Lexapro-taking OCD private detective who made her debut in “Mr. Mercedes” and went on to become one of the stars of both the novel and the HBO miniseries of King’s 2018 supernatural crime novel, “The Outsider.”
In “The Outsider,” Holly kills a child-murdering supernatural entity in a cave in Texas, ending its spree. “If It Bleeds” finds Holly hunting down a new Outsider — different from the original entity, but just as dangerous in its own way, having taken on the identities of various television reporters over the decades in order to feed on the pain and suffering of survivors of disasters. The title of course comes from the phrase in journalism, “if it bleeds, it leads,” meaning the gorier the story, the more prominent a place it will find on the air.
In an age of 24-hour coverage of every imaginable societal cancer, “If It Bleeds” obliquely raises the question of audience participation in the narrative of suffering.
King's choice to have an Outsider masquerading as a television reporter makes for an adroit vehicle to showcase the trite nature of evil. Holly first confronts the creature in a public food court, for her own safety. When she finally meets the monster, it’s wearing a blandly handsome face, standing in for every other monster in the news that looked like someone’s dad right up until the moment it pulled off its mask.
If the collection has any sort of an Achilles heel, it might be King’s occasional tendency to overplay his hand when writing the ethnic, racial, or age-related idiom of certain characters. In “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” Craig often seems more a teenager living in the 1970s than in 2007 when the first generation iPhone was released. Chuck’s Jewish grandparents’ Yiddish-inflected dialogue, while pitch-perfect, might appear overdone to some readers accustomed to a lighter touch.
King’s work at its best is masterfully accessible, and so it is here in “If It Bleeds.” He has often referred to his work as the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, and while that might indeed be the case, it perhaps more resembles the work of a sculptor who uses an ax instead of a chisel. The resulting work shouldn’t be as refined or have as much depth and detail as it somehow does.
But even after 46-odd years, no one swings that particular ax like Stephen King.
By Stephen King
Scribner, 448 pages, $30
Michael Rowe is a novelist and award-winning essayist.