Book Review: If It Bleeds (Stephen King, 2020)

Year: 2020 // Format Reviewed: Hardback // Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK) // Pages: 369 // ISBN: 978-1-529-391534

“In January of 2021, a small padded envelope addressed to Detective Ralph Anderson is delivered to the Conrads, the Anderson’s next door neighbours. The Anderson family is on an extended vacation in the Bahamas. Printed on this envelope, in large letters, is DO NOT FORWARD. HOLD FOR ARRIVAL.

When Ralph opens the package, he finds a flash drive titled If it Bleeds, presumably referring to the old news trope which proclaims ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. The drive holds a kind of report, or spoken word diary, from Holly Gibney. The final words are from an entry dated December 19th, 2020. She sounds out of breath.

“I have done the best I can, Ralph, but it may not be enough. In spite of all my planning there’s a chance I won’t come out of this alive…””

It’s been a few years since we had a short story collection from Stephen King so If It Bleeds was very welcome indeed. That said, I went in warily given that some of the author’s recent standalone short stories (Elevation, Gwendy’s Button Box) have fallen a little flat with me personally, leaving me hanging with – what I considered to be – abrupt, unsatisfying conclusions to their tales.

First thing’s first though: the blurb on the back of the book (as quoted above) is a bit misleading and I feel that I should address it for anybody who hasn’t yet picked this book up. First of all, it gives the false impression that the entirity of If It Bleeds is one big follow-up to 2018’s The Outsider, failing to mention that the titular story is actually one of four short tales. Secondly, Ralph Anderson – The Outsider‘s lead character – doesn’t actually feature in If It Bleeds. I get why the publisher focused fully on marketing this book as the next chapter in the Mr. Mercedes saga, including name-dropping multiple characters already known to the Stephen King faithful, but I thought it was worth mentioning that If It Bleeds is actually just the headline act of a four act show.

Starting off with the main reason that many will purchase this book, If It Bleeds is indeed the next part of the ongoing Mr. Mercedes ‘series’, although it is more of a direct follow-up to The Outsider than the preceding Bill Hodges trilogy. The glue that binds all of these stories together is, of course, Holly Gibney, who is still running her own private investigation company as we saw in The Outsider. If It Bleeds is Holly’s first solo story, which sees the endearing investigator stumble upon the existence of yet another eery, supernatural predator – another ‘Outsider’. The story itself is compulsive reading (as all of the books featuring Ms. Gibney have been guilty of), but the real draw of If It Bleeds is being able to catch up with old friends again, including the recurring supporting cast of Jerome, Barbara, and Pete. There are also plenty of references to events past that make all of these books feel like one continuous series, even if The Outsider and If It Bleeds are somewhat separate to the Bill Hodges trilogy.

Holly herself undergoes plenty of personal development throughout If It Bleeds, and she has a lot of interaction with her controlling mother which encourages said development. In classic Stephen King fashion, her personal battles run parallel to Holly’s pursuit of the latest Outsider creature, but both plotlines ultimately cross over in a satisfying way towards the story’s conclusion. It’s perhaps only correct then that the marketing gurus chose to focus on If It Bleeds alone because this is easily the best of the four stories here. It’s extremely moreish and I was genuinely disappointed that it couldn’t have been a longer, standalone book. I’m sure that we haven’t seen the last of these characters though – King seems to enjoy them as much as his audience – so I’m not too worried.

Thankfully the other three stories hold up on their own merit, even if they must live in the shadow of If It Bleeds. The opener, Mr Harrigan’s Phone, was my favourite of the supporting acts. It begins in 2004 when nine year-old Craig starts helping out retired billionaire businessman Mr. Harrigan, forming a friendly bond with the man. Fast-forward to 2007, and Craig becomes the proud owner of the brand-new iPhone, a gadget that he can’t get enough of. Mr. Harrigan however – a man with a somewhat luddite attitude towards new technology – isn’t having any of it. Four times a year, Mr. Harrigan sends Craig a two-dollar scratch card and, in 2008, one of the tickets finally comes in for Craig, netting him three thousand dollars. As a gesture of thanks to Mr. Harrigan, Craig buys him an iPhone of his own, which he initially rejects before Craig demonstrates the power of the internet and instant access to real-time business information. As the story progresses, a chilling supernatural thread – that follows Craig through his adolescent years – is introduced but, without spoiling the story, it didn’t really seem to go anywhere. What DID resonate with me, and got me thinking (always dangerous), were the philosophical questions raised about the effect of technology on society, the consumption of instantly-accessible information, and how it would change us all.

“”We may be looking at a huge mistake here, Craig, one being made by people who understand the practical aspects of a thing like this – the ramifications – no more than I do. An economic earthquake may be coming. For all I know, it’s already here. An earthquake that’s going to change how we get our information, when we get it, where we get it, and hence how we look at the world.” He paused. “And deal with it, of course.”

“…if I were the Wall Street Journal…or The Times…even the damn Reader’s Digest…I’d be very frightened by this gizmo.” He picked up the iPhone again; couldn’t seem to leave it alone. “It’s like a broken watermain, one spewing information instead of water. I thought it was just a phone we were talking about, but now I see…or begin to see…””

Additionally, it’s pretty cool to be cast back to a time – the mid-2000’s – that doesn’t feel that long ago, and to be reminded of how much simpler things were, even then, before the iPhone blew up and technology/social media really got us all – as Mr Harrigan would say – by the balls…and squeezed.

The Life of Chuck was the weak link for me. It tells the story of a man’s life in three acts, starting at the very end, travelling in reverse. Each act feels completely different though, and somewhat disjointed when put together as a whole. That said, each part is excellent as a standalone mini-story, and I really enjoyed the twist at the end of the first act that explained the crazy apocalyptic events unfolding for a group of characters that you assume are going to be the main cast. The third and final act sort-of ties it all together, although the new supernatural element introduced here felt slightly unnecessary when the story was being told in reverse. It IS clever though, and was certainly a different way of telling a story. I have a feeling that I might enjoy The Life of Chuck a little more the second time around.

Bringing up the rear is Rat, the latest in a long line of Stephen King tales that focuses on a writer, no doubt drawing inspiration from the author’s own life experience. This story was the closest one of the four to the classic, old-school King flavour of the 80’s that I wish we saw more of in the modern era. It tells the story of Drew Larson, an English teacher with a few published short stories, who dreams of being able to finally go the whole hog and successfully complete a novel. His previous unsuccessful attempt ended in a mental breakdown so it’s no wonder that his wife is absolutely not in favour of Drew heading up to his father’s old cabin, alone, in the remote woodlands of North Maine, so that he can seize the opportunity when a crystal-clear inspiration for a Western strikes him like a bolt from the blue. What happens next has shades of Poe’s The Raven, as Drew comes down with a bad case of the flu, his inspiration begins to run dry, and a powerful storm traps him in the cabin. A rat appears to him and offers him a macabre deal: the ability to finish his novel in exchange for the life of somebody close to Drew…

“The rat cocked his head, as if unable to believe a supposedly smart man – a college English teacher who had been published in The New Yorker! – could be so stupid. ‘You were going to kill me with a shovel, and why not? I’m just a lowly rat after all. But you took me in instead. You saved me.’
‘So as a reward you give me three wishes.’ Drew said it with a smile. This was familiar ground: Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, the Brothers Grimm.
‘Just one,’ the rat said. ‘A very specific one. You can wish to finish your book.’ He lifted his tail and slapped it down on the manuscript of Bitter River for emphasis. ‘But it comes with one condition.’
‘And that would be?’
‘Someone you care for will have to die.’

I really enjoyed this one. It was psychological, and the isolated nature of the cabin paired with Drew’s obsession, and his fever-induced delerium, had shades of The Shining. Plus, I always enjoy a deal-with-the-devil scenario, where a desperate protagonist makes the mistake of bargaining with dark forces, only to find that they have been hoodwinked by said force(s).

All in all, If It Bleeds is a most enjoyable collection of short stories. I would happily recommend the price of admission for the titular story itself, but all four are worth your time. True, I may have been a little critical of The Life of Chuck, but even so, these stories are – in my opinion – the best short stories to have come from the pen of Stephen King in a good while. A very strong collection indeed.

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