Named after a saying about gory news, this collection contains four longer stories. There is a pattern of this, going all the way back to Different Seasons. Every other collection, roughly, contains novellas. This one, perhaps even more than King’s later work in general, has a theme of ageing and death. Perhaps not as the main subject of each tale but it keeps recurring.
The first tale, Mr Harrigan’s phone, is about a rich man in a small town and a boy who reads to him. It’s reminiscent in tone of other latter-day King tales of youth, with its straightforward prose and nuanced characters. The old businessman gets an iPhone and immediately sees problems and possibilities his young friend hasn’t even thought about. When he dies, the story takes a turn from the mundane towards the spooky and the coming-of-age-y, not unlike the short novel “Later”. With this perfect summation of profound relief.
“I let out a breath it felt I’d been holding for two months.”
The Life of Chuck starts with a strikingly casual description of a world falling apart. Most are in a state of laconic acceptance. In the midst of it all someone is publicly celebrating someone named Charles for “39 great years”.
“Death brings philosophy to ruin,” someone puts it, but there is also a sense of mystery here, of awe at the relevance of a single life. Told in chronological reverse, this is a story where every sentence seems to matter. Of little moments of perfection and the inevitability of an end. Perhaps one of my favourites among all of King’s short stories of recent years.
The titular and longest story begins with a message from Holly Gibney from the Bill Hodges books to Ralph Anderson, whom she met in The Outsider. According to the message, her life is at risk and she warns him about picking up where she left off. Like Mr Mercedes, the actual story starts with a seemingly random act of violence; a bomb in a school. Holly finds herself pondering an unlikely suspect. An elderly uncle and her troubled mother (whom she loves but does not like) provide more down to earth subject matter. Like a visit to a nursing home which I find more interesting than the murders. I must be getting old.
Like the last Hodges book in particular, there is patient attention to details, trivial as well as more interesting. Like The Outsider, it posits the existence of impossible things. I like the characters but I didn’t fully buy The Outsider and when the links start to appear, a sense of detachment from the story sets in. Which is ironic, since this is what King usually triumphs at. As Holly puts it:
“Because I can believe the unbelievable.”
Sometimes I can’t. But with writing like this, it’s hard to complain:
“He holds out a hand which arthritis has turned into a driftwood sculpture.”
It is of course well written, with the solid research King always devotes to his detective-ish stories but I don’t fully buy it. But that confrontation at the restaurant is wonderfully tense. And, above all, the story is mostly about Holly.
Rat, the final tale, starts in equally familiar King territory: with a writer. Drew Larson has a few short stories, one of them celebrated, under his belt when the building blocks of a whole novel jump into his head. It needs to be written in his dad’s deserted cabin in “TR-90”, another familiar spot for King fans.
King skilfully brings the simple cabin life to … life, in its depressing but cozy lack of glory, and even manages to add some new thoughts on writing, impressive regarding the number of stories he has already dedicated to the topic.
“Reality was deep, and it was far. It held many secrets and went on forever.”
An oncoming flu and a ditto storm breaks his flow after a few days of great writing and a recurring problem of his returns: having too many words to choose from, the self-doubt and the gnawing questioning of each choice until “every word seemed to have a better one hiding behind it, just out of sight”. In the midst of misery, Drew gets advice from the unlikeliest of places. And is offered a deal. It does not quite turn into Fair Extension, but I could have done without this addition to what is otherwise an engaging story.
Gripes like this aside, all in all a solid collection.