If It Bleeds by Stephen King (Scribner, 2019)

Stephen King’s fiction is alluring to his “Dear Readers” because King reveals much of his personal memories in his writing; childhood mischief, favorite comic books, and authors he considers worthwhile reading. King presents nightmares any author might encounter with a disturbed fan when he decides to off a favorite character (remember Misery) or doesn’t write the ending his fans expect. King tells tales about authors who are suffering from “writer’s block.”  He does what good writers should do; write from experience. 

“Rat” is the final story of If It Bleeds, King’s newest collection of four novelettes and it is delicious to devour if one loves black humor. Drew Larson, a college English professor, has had minor success with publishing a few short stories, but he yearns to complete a novel.  Like many aspiring authors, Drew comes up with solid beginnings, but he can’t close the final page. “The first two efforts at long-form fiction had given him problems. The last try had caused serious problems,” we are told. And just what were those “serious problems,” and will they manifest themselves again, this time around?

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Drew has conjured a sure fire plot, and he knows that if he can just get away from the distractions of home, inspiration for this novel will guarantee that he finishes this one, a western, which has not been done in years. He is certain that he will not have “serious problems” away from civilization.

Put a determined writer in a cabin in the woods of Northern Maine, have the storm of the century bearing down on him as he comes down with a flu that rivals Captain Tripps. The winds are wailing, the electricity has gone out, and Drew begins to have weird conversations with a rat who fancies himself as a rodent replica of a genie with his magical wishes. King puts Drew into as tight a spot as possible; will he survive the storm without “serious problems?”

Once before, in an earlier collection of novelettes, Different Seasons, Stephen King put two characters together, a youth and an elderly man. “Apt Pupil” is one of King’s most riveting stories. In the new collection,  “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is also about a relationship between the  aging John Harrigan, who sold off his business holdings and moved to the quiet hamlet of Harlow, Maine to live out his remaining years in relative anonymity. 

        After hearing Craig read Scripture in church, Mr. Harrigan offers the boy an afternoon job reading to him, as he claims his eyesight is failing.  For spending after school hours, reading to Mr. Harrigan, Craig will be paid $5 an hour, which is in Craig’s mind the beginning of his fund for purchasing a scooter. 

Craig develops a bond with Mr. Harrigan, who is pleasant and nurturing to Craig. Mr. Harrigan has Craig read some classics to him, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to introduce the boy to great literature. Each holiday a grateful Mr. Harrigan  sends Craig a card, each signed Good Wishes from John Harrigan. Included inside the cards are a couple of $1 scratch off lottery tickets, at which Craig’s father always scoffs, calling Mr. Harrigan a “cheapskate.”

Craig replies to his Dad, “I like working for him,” I said. “And I like him.”

Aside from reading to Mr. Harrigan, Craig teaches Harrigan how to use the iPhone, with which Harrigan becomes obsessed. And, Mr. Harrigan’s phone seems to have special powers that enable communication between the boy and the man from very, very far away.

“The Life of Chuck” is a story that makes me wish I was still a teacher. The “Life of Chuck” is such a metaphorically rich tale, narrated in backwards order. We begin with “Act III” and end with “Act I.” Why is it necessary to tell the story from back to front? A class or book club could spend hours discussing the fascinating way in which King sets up the plot. Act III begins when Earth is disintegrating (California has sunk totally into the Pacific) but people seem to be more concerned about billboards that are appearing suddenly all over and read, “39 Great Years. Thanks, Chuck.”

Who is Chuck and why is he, lover of dance and rock and roll music, the source of inspiration to a dying planet? “The Life of Chuck” is an awesome tale.

For years my husband and I laughed every time we saw Ti-Hua Chang reporting a story for Fox news, and later for CBS. We didn’t laugh because Chang was a bad journalist; he was excellent. It was just that he seemed to lead every story in New York. “Ti-Hua Chang at the George Washington Bridge,” then “Ti-Hua Chang at the Empire State Building,” “Ti-Hua Chang reporting from Jersey City.” We thought that Ti-Hua had to have a magic carpet to transport him so quickly from site to site all over the metropolitan area.

 In the Author’s Note, King explains that the idea for the title story of the collection, “If It Bleeds,”  had been in his brain for at least ten years, but he couldn’t figure out from whose point of view the tale would come.   “I began to notice that certain TV news correspondents always seem to appear at the scenes of horrific tragedies. . . these stories almost always head local and national news; everyone in the biz knows the axiom, ‘If it bleeds, it leads.” (I can’t help but think that King got Ti-Hua’s broadcasts all the way up in Maine.)

In 2017, the thought finally came to King that he would bring back Holly Gibney, who made her first appearance as a minor character in Mr. Mercedes. Authors acknowledge that oftentimes a character takes on a life of her own, as did Holly. In “If It Bleeds,” Holly notices a peculiar thing about one of the t.v. reporters. In one broadcast, he seems to have a mole on his upper lip, but in later newscasts, the mole is gone. Why is that? Holly wonders, and she’s off to investigate. Is it just her imagination, or something more alarming? Remember, this is Stephen King we are talking about.

My dear brother-in-law, Ray, gave If It Bleeds to me for my birthday last month.  Thank you, Ray, for giving me a gift that I will re-read more than once.