"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

If It Bleeds by Stephen King (2020) [50 Years of Stephen King]

If It Bleeds (2020) is the fourth collection of four novellas Stephen King has released in his career. Each collection of this type is its own animal, but the reader can be sure of one or more coming-of-age story and several horror tales.

Different Seasons (1982) I suspect is the most appreciated, and in hindsight seems less uneven than Four Past Midnight (1990) and Full Dark, No Stars (2010). King clearly has unique ambitions for tales he presents in these books.

Mr. Harrigan's Phone

"Mr. Harrigan's Phone" has moments that shock the reader as King makes inexorable connections that have irreparable impacts. It is an Answered Prayers story, and of course not all prayers get the answer expected. 

Retired magnate Mr. Harrigan's prayers are answered when he makes a connection with nine year old Craig, whom Harrigan hires to read to him after school.  Craig introduces Mr. Harrigan to the newly released Apple iPhone, and the old man is very taken with it. Ultimately, after Mr. Harrigan's death, Craig realizes through several crises that they still share a kind of link via their iPhones, and Harrigan still takes an interest in Craig's well-being. Craig feels compelled to call Mr. Harrigan's number at times of great need, and the results are truly uncanny.

....I made friends with Frank Jefferson, the paper's go-to IT guy, and one night over beer at the Madison Pour House, I told him I'd once been able to connect with the voicemail of a guy who was dead . . . but only if I called from the old phone I'd had when the guy was still alive. I asked Frank if he'd ever heard of anything like that.

     "No," he said, "but it could happen."


     "No idea, but there were all sorts of weird glitches with the early computers and cell phones. Some of them are legendary."

     "iPhones, too?"

     "Especially them," he said, swigging his beer. "Because they were rushed into production. Steve Jobs never would have admitted it, but the Apple guys were scared to death that in another couple of years, maybe only one, BlackBerry would achieve total market dominance. Those first iPhones, some of them locked up every time you typed the letter l. You could send an email and then surf the web, but if you tried to surf the web and then send an email, your phone sometimes crashed."

     "That actually happened to me once or twice," I said. "I had to reboot."

     "Yeah. There was all kinds of stuff like that. Your thing? I'd guess the guy's message somehow got stuck in the software, same way you can get a piece of gristle stuck between your teeth. Call it the ghost in the machine."

     "Yes," I said, "but not a holy one."


     "Nothing," I said....

The Life of Chuck

Chuck contains multitudes. And at age 39, Chuck is succumbing to cancer. But to the multitudes within, it seems that their reality is beset by inexplicable and entropic collapse. This is a tale of poignant and stoic maturity.

....There was another tie-up at the top of Main Street, and another close call. By the time he got home he had forgotten all about the billboard. He drove into the garage, pushed the button that lowered the door, and then just sat for a full minute, breathing deeply and trying not to think about having to run the same gauntlet tomorrow morning. With the bypass closed, there was just no other choice. If he wanted to go to work at all, that was, and right then taking a sick day (he had plenty of them stacked up) seemed like a more attractive option.

     "I wouldn't be the only one," he told the empty garage. He knew this to be true. According to the New York Times (which he read on his tablet every morning if the Internet was working), absenteeism was at a worldwide high.

     He grabbed his stack of books with one hand and his battered old briefcase with the other. It was heavy with papers that would need correcting. Thus burdened, he struggled out of the car and closed the door with his butt. The sight of his shadow on the wall doing something that looked like a funky dance move made him laugh. The sound startled him; laughter in these difficult days was hard to come by. Then he dropped half of his books on the garage floor, which put an end to any nascent good humor.

     He gathered up Introduction to American Literature and Four Short Novels (he was currently teaching The Red Badge of Courage to his sophomores) and went inside. He had barely managed to get everything on the kitchen counter before the phone rang. The landline, of course; there was hardly any cell coverage these days. He sometimes congratulated himself on keeping his landline when so many of his colleagues had given theirs up. Those folks were truly hung, because getting one put in this last year or so . . . forget about it. You'd be more likely to be using the turnpike bypass again before you got to the top of the waiting list, and even the landlines now had frequent outages.

     Caller ID no longer worked, but he was sure enough about who was on the other end to simply pick up the phone and say, "Yo, Felicia."

     "Where have you been?" his ex-wife asked him. "I've been trying to reach you for an hour!"

     Marty explained about the parent-teacher conferences, and the long trip home.

     "Are you okay?"

     "I will be, as soon as I get something to eat. How are you, Fel?"

     "I'm getting along, but we had six more today."

     Marty didn't have to ask her six more of what. Felicia was a nurse at City General, where the nursing staff now called itself the Suicide Squad.

     "Sorry to hear that."

     "Sign of the times." He could hear the shrug in her voice, and thought that two years ago—when they'd still been married—six suicides in one day would have left her shaken, heartbroken, and sleepless. But you could get used to anything, it seemed.

     "Are you still taking your ulcer medication, Marty?" Before he could reply, she hurried on. "It's not nagging, just concern. Divorce doesn't mean I still don't care about you, y'know?"

     "I know, and I am." This was half a lie, because the doctor-prescribed Carafate was now impossible to get, and he was relying on Prilosec. He told the half-lie because he still cared about her, too. They actually got along better now that they weren't married anymore. There was even sex, and although it was infrequent, it was pretty damn good. "I appreciate you asking."


     "Yes, ma'am." He opened the fridge. Pickings were slim, but there were hotdogs, a few eggs, and a can of blueberry yogurt he would save for a pre-bedtime snack. Also three cans of Hamm's.

     "Good. How many parents actually showed up?"

     "More than I expected, far less than a full house. Mostly they wanted to talk about the Internet. They seemed to think I should know why it keeps shitting the bed. I had to keep telling them I'm an English teacher, not an IT guy."

     "You know about California, right?" Lowering her voice, as if imparting a great secret.

     "Yes." That morning a gigantic earthquake, the third in the last month and by far the worst, had sent another large chunk of the Golden State into the Pacific Ocean. The good news was that most of that part of the state had been evacuated. The bad news was that now hundreds of thousands of refugees were trekking east, turning Nevada into one of the most populous states in the union. Gasoline in Nevada currently cost twenty bucks a gallon. Cash only, and if the station wasn't tapped out.

     Marty grabbed a half-empty quart of milk, sniffed, and drank from the bottle in spite of the faintly suspicious aroma. He needed a real drink, but knew from bitter experience (and sleepless nights) that he had to insulate his stomach first.

     He said, "It's interesting to me that the parents who did show up seemed more concerned about the Internet than the California quakes. I suppose because the state's breadbasket regions are still there."

     "But for how long? I heard a scientist on NPR say that California is peeling away like old wallpaper. And another Japanese reactor got inundated this afternoon. They're saying it was shut down, all's well, but I don't think I believe that."


     "We're living in cynical times, Marty." She hesitated. "Some people think we're living in the Last Times. Not just the religious crazies, either. Not anymore. You heard that from a member in good standing of the City General Suicide Squad. We lost six today, true, but there were eighteen more we dragged back. Most with the help of Naloxone. But . . ." She lowered her voice again. ". . . supplies of that are getting very thin. I heard the head pharmacist saying we might be completely out by the end of the month."

     "That sucks," Marty said, eyeing his briefcase. All those papers waiting to be processed. All those spelling errors waiting to be corrected. All those dangling subordinate clauses and vague conclusions waiting to be red-inked. Computer crutches like Spellcheck and apps like Grammar Alert didn't seem to help. Just thinking of it made him tired. "Listen, Fel, I ought to go. I have tests to grade and essays on 'Mending Wall' to correct." The thought of the stacked vapidities in those waiting essays made him feel old.

     "All right," Felicia said. "Just . . . you know, touching base."

     "Roger that." Marty opened the cupboard and took down the bourbon. He would wait until she was off the phone to pour it, lest she hear the glugging and know what he was doing. Wives had intuition; ex-wives seemed to develop high-def radar.

     "Could I say I love you?" she asked.

     "Only if I can say it right back," Marty replied, running his finger over the label on the bottle: Early Times. A very good brand, he thought, for these later times.

     "I love you, Marty."

     "And I love you."

     A good place to end, but she was still there. "Marty?"

     "What, hon?"

     "The world is going down the drain, and all we can say is 'that sucks.' So maybe we're going down the drain, too."

     "Maybe we are," he said, "but Chuck Krantz is retiring, so I guess there's a gleam of light in the darkness."

     "Thirty-nine great years," she responded, and it was her turn to laugh....

If It Bleeds

"If It Bleeds" is an entertaining take on both the vampire and occult detective story. Private investigator Holly Gibney and several others discover that at numerous high-casualty news events spread out across the U.S. in time and space, one local TV reporter keeps appearing. He is not the same man each time, but then again he is not a different man, either. 

....Jerome rubs a hand slowly down one cheek and in the quiet she can hear the scritch-scritch of his fingers on the day's new bristles. "Sophomore year at Harvard I took a philosophy course. Did I ever mention that to you?"

     Holly shakes her head.

     "It was called—" Jerome makes finger-quotes. "—'The Problem of Evil.' In it, we talked a lot about concepts called inside evil and outside evil. We . . . Holly, you okay?"

     "Yes," she says, and she is . . . but at the mention of outside evil, her mind immediately turns to the monster she and Ralph tracked to his final lair. The monster had gone under many names and worn many faces, but she had always thought of him simply as the outsider, and the outsider had been as evil as they come. She's never told Jerome about what happened in the cave known as the Marysville Hole, although she supposes he knows something pretty dire went on there—a lot more than made it into the newspapers.

     He's looking at her uncertainly. "Go on," she tells him. "This is very interesting to me." It's the truth.

     "Well . . . the class consensus was there's outside evil if you believe in outside good—"

     "God," Holly says.

     "Yes. Then you can believe there really are demons, and exorcism is a valid response to them, there really are malevolent spirits—"

     "Ghosts," Holly says.

     "Right. Not to mention curses that really work, and witches, and dybbuks, and who knows what else. But in college, all that stuff pretty much gets laughed out of court. God Himself mostly gets laughed out of court."

     "Or Herself," Holly says primly.

     "Yeah, whatever, if God doesn't exist, I guess the pronouns don't matter. So that leaves inside evil. Moron stuff. Guys who beat their children to death, serial killers like Brady fucking Hartsfield, ethnic cleansing, genocide, 9/11, mass shootings, terrorist attacks like the one today."

     "Is that what they're saying?" Holly asks. "A terrorist attack, maybe ISIS?"

     "That's what they're assuming, but no one's claimed responsibility yet."

     Now his other hand on his other cheek, scritch-scritch, and are those tears in Jerome's eyes? She thinks they are, and if he cries, she will, too, she won't be able to help it. Sadness is catching, and how poopy is that?

     "But see, here's the deal about inside and outside evil, Holly—I don't think there's any difference. Do you?"

     She considers everything she knows, and everything she's been through with this young man, and Bill, and Ralph Anderson. "No," she says. "I don't."

     "I think it's a bird," Jerome says. "A big bird, all frowsy and frosty gray. It flies here, there, and everywhere. It flew into Brady Hartsfield's head. It flew into the head of the guy who shot all those people in Las Vegas. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, they got the bird. Hitler. Pol Pot. It flies into their heads, and when the wetwork's done, it flies away again. I'd like to catch that bird." He clenches his hands and looks at her and yes, those are tears. "Catch it and wring its fucking neck...."


"Rat" is one of the funniest (or perhaps drollest?) tales King has written. Of course it is about the writing life. 

Drew Larson, tenured professor of creative writing, fails miserably every time he tries to write a novel. His obsession with finding the right word, of not "losing" the right work, creates only ruin when it comes to long-firm composition. (Shades of E.I. Lonoff).

So when Drew gets an idea for a serious literary western, he convinces wife and kids he can get a running start on it in the solitude of their cabin in the wilds of northern Maine. There Drew faces a "storm of the century," a terrible flu, and the side effects of cold medicine. After a great start on the novel, the words start to go.

Until, at the height of the storm and his fever, Drew meets his savior.

....the rat was looking at him, its pink paws now curled against its furry chest.

     What the hell? Drew thought. It's only a hypothetical question. And one inside a dream, at that.

     "I guess I'd take the deal and make the wish," Drew said. Dream or no dream, hypothetical question or not, he felt uneasy saying it. "He's dying, anyway."

     "You finish your book and Stamper dies," the rat said, as if to make sure Drew understood.

     Drew gave the rat a cunning sideways look. "Will the book be published?"

     "I'm authorized to grant the wish if you make it," the rat said. "I'm not authorized to predict the future of your literary endeavor. Were I to guess…" The rat cocked his head. "I'd guess it will be. As I said, you are talented."

     "Okay," Drew said. "I finish the book, Al dies. Since he's going to die anyway, that seems okay to me." Only it didn't, not really. "Do you think he'll live long enough to read it, at least?"

     "I just told you—"

     Drew raised a hand. "Not authorized to predict the future of my literary endeavor, right. Are we done here?"

     "There's one more thing I need."

     "If it's my signature in blood on a contract, you can forget the whole deal."

     "It's not all about you, Mister," the rat said. "I'm hungry." He jumped onto the desk's chair, and from the chair to the floor. He sped across to the kitchen table and picked up an oyster cracker, one Drew must have dropped on the day he had the grilled cheese and tomato soup. The rat sat up, grasping the oyster cracker in its paws, and went to work. The cracker was gone in seconds.

     "Good talking to you," the rat said. It disappeared almost as quickly as the oyster cracker, zipping across the floor and into the dead fireplace.

     "Goddam," Drew said.

     He closed his eyes, then sprang them open. It didn't feel like a dream. He closed them again, opened them again. The third time he closed them, they stayed closed....


30 June 2020

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