I read my first Stephen king book in the early 80s – Pet Sematary, not long after it was published in paperback. I adored it. Since then I’ve read every book he’s ever written. Whilst it’s fair to say that he’s had good periods and not quite so good periods, even the lesser stuff he’s written is still better than the very best output of some other bestselling authors.
If It Bleeds is a collection of four novellas. This is the format to which I’d say King excels. Some of his finest work has been written at novella length – Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Children of the Corn, The Body (filmed as Stand By Me), The Mist, 1922, etc – so I went into this book with high expectations. King’s last couple of novels have been okay. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Outsider, but the previous few featuring Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney were decent takes on the supernatural crime novel.
Which brings us to the title novella. If It Bleeds, the third story in the collection, features the return of Holly Gibney, this time starring as the central character. It’s a solid enough tale, well written, but adding very little to Holly Gibney’s character or background. King seems to love this character, and I’m not sure he’s done with her yet. If you’ve read The Outsider, it’s almost an extension of that. Decent enough but nothing ground-breaking. I’d give it a 4/5.
Mr Harrigan’s Phone is the opening novella of the book. I thought this was excellent. Whilst there’s nothing new in the plot, Stephen King has the uncanny ability to make anything incredibly readable, even something that in a lesser writer’s hands would be a cliché. This story felt like it could have appeared in one of King’s earlier collections, which I mean as a huge compliment. 5/5
The Life of Chuck is the second novella. This one is told in three sections, played out in reverse like a film running backwards. It’s a rather tragic story but one with a great deal of emotional depth and intrigue. From the reviews I’ve read so far this novella seems to have been most people’s least favourite, yet I thought it was brilliant. Again, there’s not too much ground-breaking with the story but the style elevates it to something special. Sometimes King’s prose is near magic, and in The Life of Chuck he pulls that out. I was thinking of this one for days afterwards. 5/5
Rat is the final novella in the book. Yet again, there’s not much massively original about the story, yet it’s told with King’s usual verve which makes it incredibly readable. Having browsed the synopsis I was expecting more of the Faustian pact plot than was actually there, which is good because it meant that the rat’s involvement, which whilst important, wasn’t the main point of the story. It gives a great insight into the creative mind of the author and the central character’s almost obsessional drive to write his first novel. The section set at the remote cabin in the woods was wonderful, reminiscent of bag of Bones or Misery. Again, I had a blast reading this. 5/5
In summary I loved this collection. Having the title novella as a Holly Gibney story was a smart move. I suspect there may be a few people who read the Bill Hodges trilogy or The Outsider who enjoy crime but wouldn’t be interested in reading horror and so have never picked up any of King’s older titles. This book acts as a fine gateway into the darker stuff of Stephen King, and might surprise a few readers who were expecting something quite different to what he delivered. I can’t imagine anyone not enjoying something from this quartet of tales so it comes highly recommended.