I am well aware that a dark fiction writer criticizing Stephen King is like a seven-year-old holding her paint-by-number drawing next to a canvas of one of the Old Masters and saying, “Your landscape looks like poop.” King was one of the first authors whose work I devoured, and his writing is one of the reasons I became such an avid reader and writer at a young age. He is an Old Master himself, one of the best story-tellers on the market, and I enjoy his short fiction—his short stories and novellas—better than his novels, for the most part.
While not the aforementioned “poop,” If It Bleeds falls far short of what King’s short fiction has proven itself to be in the past. I picked it up expecting another Full Dark, No Stars; another Different Seasons; instead, I’m questioning how many hours I wasted over the past few weeks reading it. Don’t misunderstand me: King’s ability to write is still very much there and thriving: I can’t think of another contemporary writer who is able to communicate verisimilitude in his settings, characters, and plot actions like King does. It’s his story-telling that falls short this time.
The second story in the quartet, “Life of Chuck,” starts off intriguing enough, in a world in the midst of total apocalypse. From there, King takes the novel approach of unfolding his story backwards, showing the reader how our final days—complete with some basic mass hysteria not unfamiliar in these times of pandemic and protest—evolved as the tale progresses. It’s a fun ditty, but overall, I was disappointed by the final act, which seemed less developed in comparison to the first two. The third story, the collection’s namesake, resurrects one of the most interesting characters in King’s arsenal, Holly Gibney (of The Outsider and Mr. Mercedes) as she investigates the possibility that another Outsider-like creature is masquerading as a television news reporter. A monster that sustains itself on the emotional pain of others is ambulance-chasing mass shootings to document the agonizing loss? The pieces seem to fit perfectly…except they don’t. Instead, “If It Bleeds” reads like a billboard advertisement for The Outsider with its nearly-constant passages of text rehashing what occurred there. If King’s editor had been wiser, he might have snipped all of that excess out, and what remained might have made a decent supernatural thriller.
Unfortunately, it seems that someone left the faucet running about halfway through this collection and much of what King is famous for—tightly wound, Everyman-centered storylines—washed away faster than Georgie’s paper sailboat. The fourth story, “Rat,” is so navel-gazing in its depiction of the psychological ups and downs of an author attempting to craft the perfect novel that the reader ends up with a sore neck. There are nods to “The Monkey’s Paw” and a dusting of King’s own “Secret Window, Secret Garden,” but in the end, the creepiness doesn’t overcome the overindulgence in narration pondering a writer’s word choice. King did the deal-with-the-devil better service in 2010’s “Fair Extension.”
What does work in the quartet, though, is the very first story, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.” Set in the iPhone’s toddler years, “Phone” follows tween Craig as he first forges a friendship with a wealthy but crotchety recluse, then mourns the man’s passing. He plants the Apple gadget in the dead man’s suit jacket while saying his final goodbye, but when he later texts the phone in a moment of forlornity, he receives a response. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” has been dismissed by some critics as being too sentimental and not “true horror,” but I respectfully disagree. In addition to being a modern ghost story, the tale is not unlike King’s other masterpieces, “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” both of which tackle real-life terrors but ground them in the beautiful guises of coming-of-age and great-escape plotlines. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” makes the collection worth reading, at least halfway, but if you’re looking for solid novellas from the Master of Horror, I’d push you instead to Four Past Midnight, with its “The Langoliers” and “Sun Dog,” Full Dark, No Stars, with its Western Massachusetts-librarian-turned-psychopath “Big Driver” (a personal favorite of mine, for good reason) and chilling “A Good Marriage,” or the masterpiece Different Seasons: arguably, the very best quartet by King.
I'm not adding a link here; if you can't locate Stephen King book, you're too far gone, my friend