“I Contain Multitudes”
What is a novella? In some quarters, it’s defined as a long short story or a short novel. But this is the Stephen King Universe we’re dealing with, where “The Langoliers,” coming it at over 90,000 words—a length many writers would find appropriate for a novel—is considered a novella because it was bundled with three other works of similar length. On the other side, some often consider the four entries in The Bachman Books novellas because they are bundled in similar fashion when, in fact, all four were originally published as standalone novels.
During his live reading of the first chapter of the novella “If It Bleeds” on YouTube last week, King described the book If It Bleeds as a collection of three novellas and a short novel. The four works, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” “The Life of Chuck,” “If It Bleeds,” and “Rat” come in at 85, 60, 187 and 85 pages respectively.
The original King novella collection, Different Seasons, was notable in that three of the four stories had no supernatural elements. The same claim could almost be made about If It Bleeds, although with some caveats. Strange things appear in every story—a dead man avenging the protagonist, a room where people see visions of impending death, a shapeshifting scavenger, and a talking rat that grants wishes—but an argument could be made that in at least two stories, and maybe three, the existence of the supernatural is, itself, speculative. It could also be based on assumptions made by the characters or their delusions. About the fourth story, though, there is no question.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reminds me a little of the setup for Revival. Nine-year-old Craig meets an adult who will have a profound influence on his life. Both stories take place in and around Harlow, Maine, and church is at least a catalyst for the first encounters in both tales. Here, it is Craig’s ability to read complex Bible passages that brings him to Mr. Harrigan’s attention. Harrigan is a more benevolent version of Max Devore (Bag of Bones), a wealthy businessman who divested himself of his company and retired to the quiet Maine community. He hires Craig to read to him a few hours per week and to do occasional chores.
Since his mother’s death three years ago, Craig has been raised by his father, a kind man who has Craig’s best interests at heart. After ascertaining Harrigan has no unsavory designs on his son, he encourages the odd friendship. After an unexpected windfall, Craig decides to give Harrigan a gift—one of the new iPhones that has recently entered the marketplace, even though Harrigan is an avowed Luddite. The phone introduces Harrigan to a world of possibilities that has been passing him by since his retirement. But what possibilities does it raise after Harrigan dies and Craig slips the phone into the man’s coffin? Craig believes he can communicate with Harrigan beyond the grave. Can he? I leave that to you to decide!
The most unusual story in the collection is “The Life of Chuck,” a tale told in three acts, but in reverse. In the opening (third) act, the world is winding down. One might even say it is “moving on.” There are plagues and wildfires, the internet is failing, vital medications are growing scarce, infrastructure is collapsing, and great swaths of California have tumbled into the ocean. Life is going on in as much as possible, but people are growing to accept that the end is near. They’re in the final stage of grief. No one knows what caused things to fall apart so completely and rapidly. The only clue is a series of mysterious appearances by a man named Chuck, who is showing up on billboards, in graffiti, in commercials (on NPR, of all places), on Netflix and, finally, projected into windows across the crumbling city.
In the subsequent acts, King takes us back to two different periods in Chuck‘s life. First, a vignette where Charles “Chuck” Krantz—in Boston for a conference—encounters a drumming busker and has a magical moment where he dances with a beautiful young stranger, to the applause and admiration of a growing crowd. In the final (first) act, we see Chuck as a boy, orphaned and raised by his grandparents in a house with a mysterious locked room at the top. As a young man, he finally enters it and must decide how he will deal with what he discovers.
King has written frequently about the possibility something created by an artist can take on a life of its own—paintings that come to life or allow people to travel within them, for example. Here he takes that concept to its logical conclusion: what happens to the complex world created inside someone’s mind—not just an artist’s mind, but anyone’s—when he dies? People are going to want to talk about this story after they read it!
King seems to be refining his concept of the Outsider. Pennywise (and his distant cousin, Dandelo) come from some other place—either in our reality or from another world. While Pennywise doesn’t mind sinking his teeth into someone, he draws most sustenance from strong emotions of suffering and fear. The vindictive spirit of Sara Tidwell merged with a malign entity to create a powerful, destructive force in Bag of Bones. We have “Mother” from Revival and the namesake of The Outsider, an entity that sows misfortune and dines on the misery that ensues.
“If It Bleeds” is a direct sequel to The Outsider. It’s funny that the only story with an unequivocal supernatural element evolved from Mr. Mercedes, a straight crime novel. However, as the series progressed, inexplicable things began to happen, causing Holly Gibney to be open to the possibility there are things in this world most people refuse to acknowledge.
So, when Holly sees something that reminds her of her experience in the cave at the end of her adventure with Ralph Anderson, she wonders if that entity might not have been the only one of its kind. Ralph is away on vacation with his family, so she decides to investigate on her own, recording her thoughts and discoveries for Ralph in case she doesn’t survive the ordeal.
During two sessions with a therapist, she revealed everything about the original Outsider. Naturally, the therapist thinks it’s a delusion, but Holly doesn’t care. Instead, she asks him to talk about her delusion at conferences and write about it in academic journals. All she asks in return is that he notify her if someone else reports a patient with a similar delusion. Her efforts pay off—she is put in touch with an elderly man who has been tracking an Outsider for decades. Although this entity has been feeding on misery, the man, Dan Bell, a former cop and police sketch artist, never thought anything needed to be done. The entity, to his mind, was analogous to a hyena or a vulture—part of nature’s garbage collection system. Only when he realizes it is now causing misery rather than merely feeding on it does he come to believe action is required.
Taking on a supernatural creature isn’t Holly’s only task in “If It Bleeds.” She is also compelled to visit her mother, with whom she has a fraught relationship, because her uncle has Alzheimer’s and needs to be moved into a care facility. We learn quite a bit more about Holly and her upbringing in this story, and also get to see how much she has grown since she first met Bill Hodges all those years ago. Finders Keepers has developed into a thriving business, allowing them to move into more spacious quarters downtown. Her partner, Pete Huntley, is an unimaginative former cop who is of no use to her in her current situation, but she is aided (inadvertently) by Jerome Robinson, who is taking a gap year from Harvard, and his sister Barbara.
One interesting detail about this story is the fact that King set it in December 2020. The world of this coming December will be very different from the one this story, no doubt; however, although there are a few passing references to the President’s shenanigans, neither King nor his characters comment about the presidential election that would have taken place a few weeks before the story begins.
In “If It Bleeds,” King subtly explores a recurring theme in his work: that though there may be evil in the world (whether it be outside evil or inside evil), there may also be a force for good that wants people like Holly to succeed. Ka, if you will.
In the final story, “Rat,” King explores the creative process. The main character, Drew, teaches creative writing at a university. He has published six short stories in twenty years, one of them in The New Yorker. He has always wanted to write a novel—he’s almost choking on the need to finish one—but has three failed manuscripts. During the most recent effort, he suffered a nervous breakdown and almost burned the family home when he incinerated the manuscript. So, naturally, his wife is alarmed when he announces he has a new idea for a novel. This idea, he informs her, arrived fully formed. He can see the whole story. It will be like taking dictation.
To get a jump start without distractions, he decides to spend a few weeks alone at his late father’s cabin, which is located in familiar King territory: TR-90. Although”Rat” was written long before the coronavirus outbreak, it contains a lesson now familiar to everyone: wash your hands and don’t touch your face when dealing with someone infected with a virus. Drew’s last stop before going to the cabin is at the only business in the unincorporated township, to stock up on groceries. The proprietor passes on his flu to Drew during their transaction. At least Drew practices social distancing and self-isolation.
At first, Drew is on fire. He churns out 18 pages a day for three days. Then the illness starts to kick in and he begins to second-guess himself. His problem has never been a lack of ideas, and it’s not the writer’s block suffered by a previous visitor to TR-90, Mike Noonan. With longer works, Drew gets paralyzed by the overwhelming range of possibilities, so much so that he agonizes over choosing the exact right word or figure of speech. He’s losing his selective perception, even in his thought process. Every word seems to have a better one hiding behind it.
King is often asked where ideas come from, a question he addresses in the Author’s Note at the end of the book. (Usually he says, “I have no idea where the idea for this story came from.”) However, while portraying Drew’s relationship with the creative process, he seems to be drawing back the curtain on his own, demonstrating how ideas spring to life and the way writers view the world—both the one they are creating and the one they are living in. He refers to a fictional Jonathan Franzen lecture about the difficulty in transferring even the clearest of ideas onto the page, and alludes to the tension between literary and popular fiction.
Drew’s self-isolation becomes enforced when he decides—to his wife’s chagrin—to refuse to evacuate in the face of an impending storm. When the eponymous rodent enters the story, it becomes a fable. After doing a good turn for the creature, he is offered a Faustian bargain. Does he really converse with a rat that can grant him special favors or is he suffering from a delusion that is the product of mental instability and fever? Maybe it doesn’t matter. After all, it is the tale, not he who tells it.
- The opening and closing stories are both set in Maine, so familiar locales appear, including Harlow, Gates Falls, Castle Rock, Shawshank Prison, TR-90 and the Royal River. Although John Cullum does not appear, Drew passes Cullum’s Camp in “Rat”. There’s also a place in TR-90 called Farrington’s, reminiscent of Warrington’s from Bag of Bones.
- There is an interesting crossover between the first and last stories—the character Roy DeWitt, a friend of Craig’s father, now runs the general store in TR-90, much to Drew’s misfortune. Both stories also mention the novels of John D. MacDonald, who wrote the introduction to Night Shift.
- Although “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reminds me somewhat of Revival, the Al Stamper who appears in the story must be a different person from the one in that novel.
- There’s a cameo appearance by Mr. Rabbit Trick in “If It Bleeds.” That was the name of a story created by a very young Stephen King, as recounted in On Writing.
- Another cameo appearance is a passing mention of Dorrance Marsteller, that curious individual featured in Insomnia.
- In “Rat,” the storm dubbed “Pierre” is also referred to as a “Storm of the Century”.
- While discussing tabloid publications, Holly mentions Inside View and their coverage of the story of the Night Flier.
- Part of “If It Bleeds” takes place in Pittsburgh, specifically at the Monroeville Mall, a filming location for both Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.
- Of Kubrick’s version of The Shining, King has often said, “It’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it.” In “Rat” he refers to a “car with a powerful engine and a broken transmission.”
- Does the cupola in Act I of “The Life of Chuck” remind anyone else of the top of a certain tower?
- Does the mystical number 19 appear in this book? It does indeed, several times, in various guises. Add up the numbers on the security code at Holly’s office building. A 91-year-old-man (19 backwards, natch) lives at 19 Lafayette St. and Marty Anderson’s ex-wife lives at 19 Fern Lane. Holly’s message to Ralph Anderson goes out on December 19.