“No one will believe it really happened”
Stephen King doesn’t hide the identity of the murderers at the center of Holly Gibney’s latest case in the novel that bears her name. In 2012, Emily and Rodney Harris, professors emeritus at Bell College, tricked a colleague named Jorge Castro into helping them resolve a roadside issue. They drugged him and took him to a dungeon in the basement of their presentable home in a respectable part of town.
Why did the elderly Harrises kidnap him, why do they force him to eat something unpalatable, and what are their plans? Since Castro knows the identity of his abductors, it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be released. The popular consensus is that he packed up and left town abruptly, although his lover doesn’t agree.
In 2021, Penelope Dahl hires Holly to find her missing daughter, Bonnie Rae Dahl. Because Bonnie is in her mid-twenties, the police aren’t taking her disappearance seriously. Her bicycle was found abandoned with a note attached to the seat that indicates she left of her own free will. The police department is overworked and understaffed, the latter due to the coronavirus pandemic that is in full swing. The city is also reeling from the officer-involved death of a black man and its aftermath, reminiscent of many other similar incidents in recent history.
Holly Gibney, who was introduced in Mr. Mercedes and was most recently seen in the novella “If It Bleeds” in the collection of the same name, is the perfect character to drop into the middle of a pandemic. She is a self-confessed hypochondriac and germophobe who believes the virus could be on any surface she touches; however, she follows the science. She’s fully vaccinated, always wears a mask, refuses handshakes, wears surgical gloves when handling things and probably buys hand sanitizer by the gallon. She’s fully aware that the fact that she’s smoking again is a contradiction.
As the book opens, Holly is attending her mother’s funeral…on Zoom. Her mother was a supporter of the former occupant of the White House and a Covid denier, even though it was the virus that killed her. As I wrote in my essay Facing Reality, King captures a moment in history that might otherwise fade from memory. “When this is over,” Holly muses, “no one will believe it really happened. Or if they do, they won’t understand how it happened.” Years from now (hopefully), the pandemic will seem like a bad dream, but this novel will serve as a time capsule, reminding readers of greetings that involve which vaccine each person has received, whether it’s okay to remove their masks, awkward elbow bumps. Holly also touches on other current events: the January 6 insurrection, accusations of a stolen election, Black Live Matters and the #MeToo movement.
Holly’s colleague, Pete Huntley, who was Bill Hodges’ former partner in the police department, is quarantining with Covid. He is vaccinated, but the virus is still kicking his butt. Holly’s family loss and Pete’s illness mean Finder’s Keepers is temporarily closed—like a lot of businesses during the pandemic—but Holly can’t turn down the Dahl case, so she embarks on a solo investigation, occasionally calling upon her friends Jerome and Barbara Robinson for research assistance. Jerome is somewhat distracted because he’s turning his college research paper into a book. Barbara is also involved in a literary endeavor with a promising outcome. Still, despite these distractions, the siblings gather evidence and make connections—Jerome in a poignant pair of scenes involving the mother of one of the victims. Each person has a different piece of the puzzle, though, and it takes them a while to share their individual discoveries with each other.
Stephen King reads from Holly
King was inspired by a headline about a “sweet old couple” who had buried bodies in their back yard. There’s nothing sweet about the Harrises. Emily, a professor of literature, is a racist and a homophobe in physical decline, and Rodney’s colleagues in the life science department think he’s a mad scientist with radical opinions about nutrition. Readers have grown to accept that the subjects of Holly’s investigations may be supernatural entities, though. Brady Hartsfield, the outsider and Chet Ondowsky weren’t run-of-the-mill bad guys. Is this true of the Harrises, too? They kidnap people every three years (each crime is detailed in flashbacks), and readers gradually learn what they’re up to. They aren’t exactly master criminals but, because there’s no obvious victimology and no bodies have turned up, it’s not apparent that crimes are being committed. Holly starts to see a pattern but has a hard time convincing herself to trust her instincts.
Although the crimes at the center of Holly are heinous, there is also beauty in this novel. Several years ago, I wrote an essay for the Poetry Foundation dealing with King’s lifelong relationship with poetry. I think it’s something people don’t sufficiently appreciate. By his own admission, the poetry King has written and published isn’t at the same level as his prose, but there can be no doubt that his writing has been heavily influenced by his appreciation of poetry. While researching that essay, I was struck by how often poets and their works are quoted in his novels, and how many of his characters write poetry. More than that, in interviews, King has often been known to drop in poetic referenced.
In Holly, we meet Olive Kingsbury, a 99-year-old poet who has won awards and consorted with the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Barbara has been writing poetry as a way of dealing with her encounter with Chet Ondowsky from “If It Bleeds” (an experience that made Holly lose her taste for horror movies). While Emily Harris thinks Barbara is writing about her Black experience, Olive—who becomes Barbara’s mentor—realizes it’s about much more than that—it’s about coping with horror. Olive recognizes Barbara’s talent and the two have some fascinating discussions about the nature and purpose of poetry, some of it insightful, some of it delightfully profane—writing as a form of expressing pus and as creative defecation, for example.
As Holly pursues her investigation, she also has to deal with a new reality—something she learned after her mother’s death. She had a contentious relationship with Charlotte Anne Gibney, who bears the brunt of the responsibility for Holly’s emotional issues. The information revealed to her in the days after the funeral is a double-edged sword, simultaneously liberating and soul-crushing. The only way she can find to deal with it is to try to come up with the punchline for a joke where she is the main character.
The two actresses who have portrayed Holly on screen, Justine Lupe—who reads the audio version of this book—and Cynthia Erivo, are currently a decade younger than Holly was when we first met her in Mr. Mercedes. In 2021, Holly is in her fifties, which might require a little mental realignment for readers. She is deeply private, prays every night and has been a “meek mouse” for much of her life, with a range of idiosyncrasies. She has few friends—but the ones she does have are fiercely devoted to her—and she can be quite literal-minded. However, thanks to her encounter with Bill Hodges, she has discovered something she’s really good at. She isn’t a Poirot-like detective who deduces from abstract facts. She’s a dogged detective who follows the advice of Harry Bosch, one of her favorite fictional detectives: get off your ass and knock on doors. She wanders far afield to gather clues, from which she makes logical connections. When she’s on a case, she’s less timid, interacting with strangers in a way she finds difficult in her regular life. This is, after all, the woman who literally brought down Brady Hartsfield. People underestimate her to their own detriment.
Will we see Holly again? In a recent interview, King said he is currently working on a long novel that is nominally about her, but has many other characters, too. So, it seems the answer is: yes!
This book takes place in the reality where Carrie is a movie. Bonnie Dahl’s mother says her daughter was a prom queen, but “nobody dumped a bucket of blood on her.”
King repurposes “Thing One” and “Thing Two,” names used by Brady in Mr. Mercedes. There are a few nineteens (the first poem Barbara reads to Olivia has 19 lines). I was reminded of Elevation when Holly says, “Holy frijoles!” A minor character is called Randy Holsten, named for the guy who fields King’s requests for movie and TV rights.
I note this mostly because it was my favorite cereal—Holly eats Alpha-Bits in late July 2021, but that cereal was discontinued in May 2021 and had been reformulated before that to something that didn’t resemble the classic version at all. Billy Summers also enjoyed a bowl of this cereal, but that was in 2019.
 That novella was set in December 2020, but it made no mention of the pandemic because it was written before Covid, something King acknowledges in the afterword. King rewrote a subsequent novel, Billy Summers, to set it before the pandemic because it would have complicated his plot.