Stephen King has returned to his familiar style of masterful storytelling in the form of short fiction. If It Bleeds is a collection of four novellas. Longtime fans are treated to King’s familiar style of speculative fiction1 that extends beyond the genre of horror, such as fantasy, psychological thriller, psychosis, and the supernatural. Key attributes of his work are the foundation in everyday life and astute observations of the human condition.

The If It Bleeds quartet is less of the macabre and more about what dwells in the ordinary. Instead of battling monsters (with the exception of shapeshifters in the book’s namesake), we’re faced with more day-to-day concerns, such as mortality, consequences, mental wellbeing, complicated relationships, and fear of the unknown. Each story comes with its own unique twist (but you’ll find no spoilers here).

Some of King’s finest works have arisen from novella form. For example, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”, “Apt Pupil”, and” The Body” are short stories from the collection Different Seasons. Each was adapted into award-winning films (respectively, The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil, and Stand By Me).

At the heart of King’s stories is a philosophical message. Through his demonstration, or absence, of empathy, he poses a question. What if we treated each other with a little more kindness and understanding?

  1. A genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements. Definitions from Oxford Languages.

1. Mr Harrigan’s Phone

The first novella has a simple plot: A small-town boy helps out his elderly billionaire neighbour with odd jobs and they strike up a friendship. What could be timeless, occurring within any decade, is instead timestamped by technology. The simplicity of the story is juxtaposed with the complexity of having access to nearly limitless information. “Mr Harrigan’s Phone” has a supernatural overlay reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. However, the theme explores the ways in which we bridge differences and feed the need for a lasting connection.

“Mr Harrigan’s Phone” has been adapted into an excellent Netflix film. Watch the trailer here.

2. The Life of Chuck

The story was my favourite of the quartet. It’s told in three parts, and in reverse, narrating different aspects of the same story. The concept of self and the universe are cleverly interwoven. “The Life of Chuck” reminds us of our own fate, and of those that are close to us. How we impact upon each other, both in everyday life and on a scale that’s beyond what we can conceive.

We contain multitudes.

Note: This seems to be a reference to the following quote:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

3. If It Bleeds

The old adage, “if it bleeds, it leads”, references the preference given to graphic, salacious and sensationalised topics in the news media. The centrepiece story, and namesake of the novel, takes the concept to an even darker level.

In this sequel to The Outsider, Stephen King’s beloved Holly Gibney returns to face her demons of both the real-life and supernatural kind. Holly is an eccentric investigator with unique quirks that suggest she is a savant and on the autistic spectrum. In a 2020 NPR interview, King said “I just love Holly, and I wish she were a real person. […] She just walked on in the first book she was in, Mr. Mercedes, and she more or less stole the book, and she stole my heart.”

Holly Gibney has been a recurring character in Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch, The Outsider, and If It Bleeds. The latter story can stand alone but it does help to already be familiar with the character and backstory. There are a number of references to the previous books.

Holly not only faces challenges of the supernatural kind but also navigates complexities of a personal nature. Chasing after a murderous shape-shifter seems to be fairly on par with confronting her difficult mother.

While I wouldn’t rate If It Bleeds as well as the other three novellas, it is great to see King indulge in his own interests and develop this ongoing character. I’m sure this won’t be the last we see of Holly Gibney.

4. Rat

Could this story be a glimpse into Stephen King’s own creative mind? “Rat” appeals to anyone suffering from a mental block. In fact, due to the familiar setting in self-isolation during a disease outbreak and a terrible storm, it may be relatable to many of us. The situation is timely and poignant, however King couldn’t have known the 2020 pandemic was looming when he wrote If It Bleeds.

Drew is a struggling writer who has never completed a book – until now. Inspiration has struck so he must act immediately before his ideas and motivation fizzle out. No matter what obstacles threaten to impede his book, he is determined to get writing. He becomes consumed by the task at hand… but at what cost? Will his mystery guest help or hinder his situation?

Isolating, hallucinatory and claustrophobic, “Rat” explores the dark side of the artistic and creative process.

What are your thoughts on If It Bleeds by Stephen King?

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