Book Talk: Elevation (Stephen King, 2018)

SKE-1The last book I read by Stephen King shares a few similarities with Elevation. Both this and Gwendy’s Button Box were very short books that went against what I’ve come to expect from King (I finished Elevation in two sittings; probably could have done it in one) and both are set in the fictional town of Castle Rock. On the subject of the latter, I was surprised to see King returning to his classic locale after the apocalyptic destruction wrought on the town by a certain Leland Gaunt and his dark machinations. Even the inside of Needful Things‘ (1991) dustcover stated that it was the end for Castle Rock:

“With a demonic blend of malice and affection Stephen King¬† says farewell to the town he put on the map”

But that was then and this is now. As the opening of Needful Things says, we’ve been here before. There’s no reference to Castle Rock’s destruction in Elevation but there are at least a few tiny nods to previous stories (such as Cujo) that took place here. Retruning to the ‘Rock is like putting on that comfy pair of well worn-in and intimately familiar trainers.

The book centres on Scott Carey and his mysterious condition that sees him constantly losing weight despite remaining unchanged physically and in terms of appearance. The second main plotline is to do with Scott’s new neighbours, married lesbian couple Deirdre and Missy. Scott gets on with Missy but her wife Deirdre is cold and untrusting, harbouring unhappiness towards the locals and their stubborn, old-fashioned reluctance to accept homosexuality.

The book puts a lot of emphasis on people’s willingness or capacity to change. The town is stuck its ways and many of the inhabitants elect to either look down on Deirdre and Missy, make fun of their relationship or simply not make the effort to get to know them based on pre-existing prejudices. On the flipside, when Scott takes an interest in his new neighbours and attempts to build bridges and show that not everybody is so ignorant or unwilling to accept others, Deirdre repeatedly ices up on him and refuses to change herself, preferring to hold onto the idea that Scott is just trying to play the unwanted part of a white knight.

I have to admit that, when I was first getting into this book and meeting the characters, I did worry that Elevation was going to be too much of a social commentary with thinly-veiled messages about how we should all be more accepting. After all, my favourite Stephen King books are his classics from the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s where the plots were more about the supernatural and gory details. These days it seems that these once-central elements are sometimes mere vehicles for the writer to explore relevant, real life themes and issues, disguising these commentaries as stories. Sleeping Beauties was one such recent example that let me down because as much as I enjoyed the book, I didn’t appreciate the concluding message that seemed to blame men for all of the world’s problems. The book as a whole felt like it was inspired by female empowerment and real world events.

I’m sure that my impressions of Sleeping Beauties could have been totally wrong and affected by personal bias (given that I are man) but the fact is, I read books as a form of escapism and don’t ever appreciate it when they preach to me or try to keep my head grounded in reality. So I was wary about Elevation when the story of Scott Carey’s bizarre illness began to share space with Deirdre and Missy.

[side note: I am ultimately aware that it is a writer’s business where he chooses to take his craft and what ideas he chooses to explore, regardless of whether or not everybody agrees. That’s the beauty of art and free speech, baby.]

To be honest though, I needn’t have worried so much. Yes, there is a bit of a message there but this is more Stephen King doing what he has been doing for decades now and profiling traditional, small American towns and the more old-school, unyielding attitudes that still exist there. Obviously I’m not American and so I am unqualified to say whether or not King is accurate in this respect but it feels like he probably is. We have lots and lots of rural village communities here in England for example that hold onto their traditional values and resist social change in the same way so I can kind of relate.

All of this aside though, Elevation is a decent read and despite being another short book, it kept me interested right until the end, wanting to know what happens with Scott and his neighbours as well as his weight loss. I won’t go into spoilers here but I’ll just say that the ending is a bit of a let-down. Continuing the similarities with Gwendy’s Button Box, the finale is a bit of a weak payoff and it didn’t satisfy me, much like the book in general which was more of an appetiser than a complete meal. The writing is still classic King though so you’d be hard-pressed not to enjoy it if you are a fan of the author. Like Gwendy’s Button Box, it’s another case of a book being carried by the quality of the writing and the creation of likeable characters.

To conclude, I would recommend Elevation to Stephen King fans but maybe try to get the book cheap, rent it from a library or whatever. The cover price here in the UK is £14.99 which is steep for such a thin book which only spans 132 pages.

Book Talk: Gwendy’s Button Box (Stephen King/Richard Chizmar, 2017)

SKGW-1This is a book that I’m honestly struggling to write anything about, possibly because I reached the end and thought “Is that it?”. Yes, it was one of those sorts of books with an anti-climactic conclusion and no clear answer as to what the whole point was. It’s also very short and can easily be finished in a single sitting thanks to the brief chapters and ‘easy reading’ style . Gwendy’s Button Box is a straight-to-the-point novella that doesn’t labour on exhaustive detail or in-depth character exploration.

So far you will certainly be forgiven for getting the impression that I didn’t like this book but that’s not entirely fair. Gwendy’s Button Box was enjoyable and had the familiar, welcoming King ‘feel’ that I – as somebody who has read almost everything by the author – immediately appreciated. It just felt bare-bones and more like a short story from one of his many compilations rather than something that warranted a standalone book. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that many short stories by Stephen King are arguably more rewarding to read than Gwendy’s Button Box.

But let me try to explain.

Gwendy Peterson is an average, unremarkable twelve year-old girl. She wears glasses and is teased at school for her chubbiness so she spends the summer of 1974 running up Castle Rock’s “Suicide Stairs”, a set of rusted, zig-zagging steps that lead up the cliffside to Castle View park, in order to lose some pounds in readiness for life at middle school. One day she meets the mysterious Richard Farris, a suited man with an eerie MIB vibe who gives her a “button box”. Against all instincts, she accepts the box. This box dispenses small chocolates which suppress her appetite and help her lose weight whilst also seemingly improving life around her in general. It also dispenses mint, uncirculated silver dollars.

The box also has different coloured buttons on the top. Farris informs Gwendy that these buttons have immense power and represent the different continents of the world. Pushing them, it is implied, could destroy entire continents in an instant. The red button however is different.

“Whatever you want and you will want it, the owner of the box always does. It’s normal. Wanting to know things and do things is what the human race is all about. Exploration, Gwendy! Both the disease and the cure!”

Then there is the black button, described by Farris as “Everything”. We assume that this final button is a way to annihilate all of existence. Eagle-eyed or long-time readers of King’s books will recognise the “R.F.” initials of Farris’ name and link him to Randall Flagg, a recurring, name-changing entity of evil from the Stephen King “universe” so it’s obvious that the box is probably bad news in some capacity.

From there on, the book follows Gwendy through her teenage years and into her early twenties. Eating the chocolates appears to improve her life no end. She loses weight and blossoms into a beauty, gains popularity at school, earns high grades and experiences all manner of success. her life turns out to be perfect. Well, mostly.

Gwendy becomes extremely protective and obsessive with the box and keeping it secreted from her parents, ditto for the growing mound of extremely valuable Morgan silver dollars which would doubtlessly raise questions given their rarity and market price. Gwendy also becomes acutely aware of the massive responsibility that owning a box with such power brings. The responsibility to ensure that nobody else finds it, presses a button and wipes out an entire segment of the earth for example. Gwendy also becomes a stranger to her old friends once newfound popularity gives her new ones, gaining a sense of selfish entitlement along the way that sees her forgetting where she came from before the box’s magical gifts.

It’s a great premise for a story but it doesn’t ever become much more than that. The book speeds through the years, only stopping to linger on important, noteworthy events. It almost feels like a full-fat novel with everything bar the main plot points cut out and thrown away. Gwendy is a likeable character but nobody else in her life gets any real development and exist purely as unexplored support acts. The book also finishes on a flat note with a conclusion that is unexpected but only because it is so tame and lacking in an anticipated plot twist or explanation.

Farris, it seems, lives to give the box to random people and see what they do with the power. He tells Gwendy that the bad things that happened while it was in her possession weren’t really her fault and that many, many bad things have actually been averted by somebody else (with less morals and self-control) not having it in their grasp. But that’s it. There’s a distinct lack of overall payoff and the book feels as if it is a basic outline ripe for expansion or even a mere preview of something bigger. It’s almost like watching a strip-tease video and having the video cut out before the underwear is discarded.

What there is here is good – make no mistake about it – but if you have consumed all of Stephen King’s previous works then you may well find yourself frustrated and disappointed that Gwendy’s Button Box couldn’t have been more fleshed-out and gripping. Certainly, you couldn’t be blamed for deciding that it should have been part of the next short story compilation. This book left me wanting once I’d finished it and I’m still not really sure what to think about it. If you’re a King fan then I’d still recommend it but I’d also have to recommend restrained expectations.