What is Stephen King known for? Horror Fiction. Suspenseful mysteries. I bought If It Bleeds in the hope that I would not get nightmares from reading it. And I didn’t, because this collection of stories proves yet again that King is a masterful writer in any genre – he can send chills down your spine without depicting shock and horror. His writing is a demonstration of “How To Write Like A Pro”: polished, flowing, rich and nuanced text that is a pleasure to read, coupled with devilishly clever plots and sneaky twists in the stories.
If It Bleeds consists of four longish stories, and a helpful Author’s Note, which I’m glad I read afterwards, and not before:
- Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
- The Life of Chuck
- If It Bleeds
Each story seems to be relatively straightforward, but what makes them particularly good is the twist in each story. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, the phrase “a twist in the tale” was first used in 1910, and subsequently the technique of giving a story an unexpected turn became common in literature. But the degree of toe-tickling surprise depends on which tale-twisting technique the writer uses, and how unexpected it is. In these stories, all the twists are clever, startling and thought-provoking. You’re happily reading along, aware that the scene set by King looks normal, and then, wham!, he hits you with a weighted wet sock of a twist.
Sometimes, the stories are not very thrilling or scary, but more like Science Fiction – meaning that the theme is intellectual rather than visceral – and in those instances King alters the reality of the stories to something alien. I did not expect this from him.
Here is what each of the stories are about and what the plot twists entail:
1. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone – Be careful what you wish for
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is the story of a boy, “Craig”, who, for some years, does jobs around the house for the old and very wealthy, “Mr. Harrigan”. He gets paid well by Mr. Harrigan, and in return he shows the old man how things like smartphones work. Mr. Harrigan is wise and quickly catches up with modern technology – that’s why he made a lot of money and is called the “grand high poobah”. The only person he can stand to have around him is Craig. “I like working for him,” Craig says. “And I like him, Dad”, but he cannot explain why the old codger has grown on him.
Craig grows up and runs into trouble with a bad guy called “Kenny Yanko”. When he is feeling really down and needs someone to talk to, Craig calls Mr. Harrigan’s mobile phone number. And it rings. And he gets an answer.
OK, there I’ll stop. But the twist in this tale will make your skin crawl.
In this book King does not focus on the traditional features of the Supernatural or Horror genres – and there is not much of the usual things such as cemeteries, blood, gore and things that go SCRRREEEEECH!!!! in the night. Instead, he describes events that seem quite ordinary, until something really strange happens, like the ring tone of the phone that Craig calls. When events unexpectedly flip from normal into abnormal like this, it gives the reader pause to wonder at what it could mean. What could go wrong? Oops. A lot. Just wait ’til you read the ending.
Plot twist: Deus ex machina
In the first decade of the years 2000, mobile phones were simple, clunky and seemed to be indestructible. The old phone in this story is the tool of a deus ex machina – the god in the machine, a mysterious power that controls the world.
The question is what Craig will do with this strange information that he has stumbled on. And that’s where the twist in the tale comes in.
“I called Mr. Harrigan, and in the dark earth of Elm Cemetery, in the pocket of an expensive suit coat now speckled with mold, I know Tammy Wynette was singing.” (p. 87)
2. The Life of Chuck – It’s not the world you know
In this story, “Marty Anderson” is confronted all over town by an enormous billboard filled with the face of a man called “Charles ‘Chuck’ Krantz”, and the text with it reads “Thanks for 39 great years”. It must be some sort of farewell or retirement dedication, not that Marty or anyone he knows has any idea who this “Chuck” is. In the meantime, the world is going to hell. The very planets and stars are exploding and the world is in a mad dystopia with sinkholes opening, gridlocked traffic from thousands of fleeing refugees, coastlines sinking into the sea, terrible weather, fires everywhere and the earth’s rotation slowing down. One can only wonder at what these adverts are doing at this time and why the dull-looking accountant type, Chuck, has taken on celebrity, or god-like, status.
“The day Marty Anderson saw the billboard was just before the Internet finally went down for good. It had been wobbling for eight months since the first short interruptions. Everyone agreed it was only a matter of time, and everyone agreed they would muddle through somehow once the wired-in world finally went dark – after all, they had managed without it, hadn’t they? Besides, there were other problems, like whole species of birds and fish dying off, and now there was California to think about: going, going, possibly soon to be gone.” (p. 91)
Plot Twists: Anagnorisis and reverse chronology
Anagnorisis is the discovery or recognition of the true identity or nature of a character. So, in this story, we do find out who Chuck is. But King combines this twist with reversing the chronology of the three-part story: it starts with Act III: Thanks, Chuck!, then Act II: Buskers, then ends with Act I: I Contain Multitudes.
These stories are not about Marty though. At the end of Act I, Marty and an acquaintance have this conversation:
“‘Maybe it’s Chuck Krantz’s fault,’ Marty said.
Yarbrough looked at him in surprise, then laughed. ‘Back to him, eh? Chuck Krantz is retiring and the entire population of earth, not to mention the earth itself, is retiring with him? Is that your thesis?’
‘Got to blame something,’ Marty said, smiling. ‘Or someone.'” (p. 105)
Of course the reader, an innocent being led up the garden path, has no idea how meaningful this comment is. At the end of Act I, Chuck an old man, is in hospital, and dying. His family is around him, caring, crying, waiting, and remembering the man he used to be. It is important to keep in mind that Chuck is dying, because this has bearing on the plot twist.
The end of Act I has a short, sharp closing line, which, like death, leaves nothing more to be written. What it is would reveal too much of the plot. Let’s just say that I was so taken aback by that statement I could not stop reading, despite my Liberfinisphobia.
At the end of Act I, Chuck’s brother, sitting at Chuck’s deathbed with his wife and children, makes a comment that is a clue to the final plot twist;
“”‘The human brain is finite – no more than a sponge of tissue inside a cage of bone – but the mind within the brain is infinite. Its storage capacity is colossal, its imaginative reach beyond our ability to comprehend. I think when a man or a woman dies, a whole world falls to ruin – the world that person knew and believed in.'” (p. 112)
Relating Chuck’s life in reverse, in Act II, Chuck’s life is described when he was a young man, and how he loved to dance. He had a real talent and a deep love for it, but he had to have a serious career. So no more dancing. King takes us from Chuck, retiring, to Chuck, as a young man and in his prime. This section is actually quite moving. I could see it in my mind’s eye the moment when Chuck and a perfect stranger do cool moves to the music of a sidewalk busker, and, for a moment, stopping time.
Act I: I Contain Multitudes
Act I: I Contain Multitudes, is about Chuck as a child, the ghosts in his grandparent’s house, and Chuck’s ability to see the future. The small boy Chuck, puzzled by the tragedies in his family and full of child-like questions, asks his teacher what the lines in the poem, Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman, that they have studied in class, means.
Song of Myself is a 52-part, epic poem that depicts one man’s world and all the aspects of the world and of humanity, which became famous particularly for this one, brilliant line in it:
Extract - Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman (Part 51) The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them, emptied them, And proceed to fill my next fold of the future. Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening, (Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.) Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
“I am large, I contain multitudes” is clue to the core of this story as well as the plot twist.
As the teacher explains to Chuck, every year that someone lives, the world inside their head will get bigger and brighter, more detailed and complex. So what is Chuck’s world and in his mind? Is it only the world of a company man, a pen-pushing manager, a husband and father? Or is it also his own private worlds of mystery, dancing, music, wonder and child-like hopefulness?
And what will happen to these worlds when the bip-bip-bip from the monitor at his hospital bed stops, and he is dead?
I will leave that the reader to figure out. But it is an excellent – and quite sad – anagnorisis plot twister.
PS – If the theme and subject of this story does not grab you, read it for the lively details of songs, musicians and bands in Act II – and go look them up on the Internet.
3. If It Bleeds – It’s not blood, it’s news
All you need to know about this story, is that it is based on the old expression in newspaper publication, which is, “if it bleeds, it leads”. This means that, if there is blood involved in the news report, it will be placed on the front page, above the fold of the paper, as the lead story. The original term was “lede” (noun, singular) not “lead” (verb, present tense). The “lede” originally referred to the strip of metal used for positioning the actual metal type (letters) in the frame of a page layout, from the days when printing was done with moveable type using metal letters and punctuation.
The story is set in the year 2021, and has flashbacks to earlier years when a detail-oriented, precise private detective, called “Holly Gibney”, begins to notice a TV reporter who always seems to be first on the scene of a disaster – whether it’s a bomb or an earthquake. This person seems to get a kick out of reporting the misery and pain of people caught up in disasters and he feeds the pipeline of “bleed” stories that will make the front pages or the top of the TV news hour. “Bleeding” news to him is like blood to a vampire, pardon the pun. Holly, having suspicions about this man that are more disturbing than she wants to admit, and fearing that people will think that she is crazy, gets to the root of this mystery over a long period, somewhat reluctantly.
What follows, you have to find out for yourself. King depicts people’s obsession with sensation, suffering, big bad news, and drama. If one person gets a thrill from reading about someone doing a stupid or surprising thing, and wants more of the same, what would happen if entire populations of people are like that? If the world runs on supply and demand, who supplies the events involving blood?
Plot twist: A cliffhanger
This is a long story: Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is 88 pages, The Life of Chuck is 64 pages, and Rat – the last story – is 64 pages long. If It Bleeds is 190 pages. Unlike the other stories, it is more like a typical Stephen King tale of the supernatural with traditional horror elements such as spectres with glowing eyes and drooling fangs, conspiracy theories and mysterious deaths. While the flashbacks keep the reader puzzled and builds the narrative frame, it is a less thrilling read because it takes longer and the tension builds more slowly.
The ending contains a cliffhanger plot twist, but the denouement is not quite what you would expect. King’s story makes you wonder about what constitutes bleeding, headline news in people’s internal, private lives – what is it exactly that makes people sit up and take notice?
4. Rat – What you do when you have writer’s block
When famous authors explain their creative process, exactly how they conceive, structure, write and polish a novel, it is worth paying attention. In this anthology, King explains his sources of inspiration and the themes of the stories in the Author’s Note at the end. It is very useful information, and explains all the stories. So if you like being mystified and thinking about a book long afterwards, do not read his Author’s Note. It is proper disambiguation.
This is the process that he depicts in the last story in the book, Rat. Rat is also more in King’s traditional supernatural/horror style, but not very. It is subtle. The rat in question is a small moment of madness of the main character, writer “Drew Larson”, and not an epic event of terror. It is a small rat, encountered during an odd, small incident. Which leads to an odd, low-key plot twist in the last few pages.
Plot twist: Peripeteia
Peripeteia is the sudden reversal of the protagonist’s fortune, which emerges naturally from the character’s circumstances, meaning that Drew would do anything to overcome his writer’s block and style problems, and does do something and does have a reversal of fortune. But it is a subtle reversal of fortune which promises to become very bad indeed. Particularly for a person like Drew who makes his living with words – words like “rat”.
An easy read, but only on the surface
The stories in the anthology seem, at first reading, to be clear, simple and easy to appreciate. But they also make you wonder about complicated subjects, such as the nature of reality and how the time-space-continuum works.
King’s skilled use of language, his clever plots, engaging structures, interesting characters and entertaining plot twists are tools that he successfully uses to make his readers think about life’s mysteries. That appeals to readers across the board and ensures engagement and appreciation by the majority of his readers. A clever approach, that, but it is to be expected from a professional, successful author like Stephen King.
I will not be hesitant in future to read Stephen King’s new books. The Stephen King Embargo that I had ever since I endured misery while reading his novel Misery (1987), is over.
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