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Holly (2023)

Part dark satire about those who “do their own research”, part drama with a strong theme of writing and poetry, part detective thriller with a theme of aging, this is King the commentator and terrifyer rolled into one. 

She even has her own novel now, having started out as a supporting character in Mr Mercedes. After the Bill Hodges trilogy, the socially awkward but now significantly happier Holly Gibney carried on in The Outsider and If it Bleeds, and now this. 

But in typical King fashion she is nowhere to be seen at the start of the book, set in 2012. Instead we meet a man who we are told won’t live much longer. Then we meet the elderly couple who abduct him. Academics and, apparently, evil. Reading 1793 in parallel makes his troubles seem somewhat tame in comparison but there’s no doubt that he’s in trouble. Being forced to eat raw liver is not the end of it, this we already know. 

Then Holly appears, attending a Zoom funeral in the midst of the pandemic, trying to find solace in the fact that “Trump’s gone” but prophetically fearing a 2024 comeback. This time-hopping continues, sending us back to 2015 once we’ve learned that Holly has lost her mother and that King really doesn’t like Donald Trump. And so it goes. The abductee of 2018 is different, managing to get under their skin. We also see this particular episode from the perpetrators’ perspective. Given the obvious pattern, and seeing as how Holly is hired for a missing person case in 2021, it’s not a stretch to guess that Bonnie Dahl, a young librarian, is that year’s victim. But perhaps there’s hope for Bonnie, at least? After all, Holly is on the case. One certainly hopes so upon finding out why the Harrises do what they do. 

Holly is simply put a perfect reminder of why I never really tire of the King. Each dialogue echos of the real world, the locations feel like snapshots from said world, which somehow makes it interesting with and without killers. Holly’s approach to everything, part OCD, part genuine attention to detail, is printed on every page. Her general unease in many situations contrasted with her work skills and her interactions with her few but close friends (like the Robinsons, established in previous stories) remain interesting and awkwardly endearing. Besides the case, Holly also has to come to terms with what should be great news but also reveals uncomfortable truths. Interspersed with the present are also numerous flashbacks to a childhood under the thumb of a mother given to belittling her daughter at every turn. 

The elderly couple can be as thoughtful and loving toward each other as they are careless about others, which is brilliantly creepy. The glimpses inside their thoughts are not ones into mental hellscapes but rather reveals oddly practical mindsets, not without quirks but certainly not focused on creating suffering for others. They are, above all, utterly selfish in the most concrete way imaginable. The suffering and murder are just byproducts. 

Jerome’s visit to the mother of the youngest victim also deserves special mention. King can write well about anything but the way he writes about addicts is peerless. Jerome’s sister Barbara also becomes something of an occasional main character in a book with a sub-theme of poetry. Her meeting with a very old poet is more King than any horrific scene you can think of. The King who delights in honest exchange between different equals and finding the exact right lines. Some of his characters, like the keenly observant Olivia, may be ‘too good’ but they are meant to be, to inspire. 

“Do you understand that you are good at this?”

One sub-theme is race. For example Black people getting shot by the police, a topic almost as symptomatic of the early 2020s as Covid. The whole book feels like a snapshot from a time very recent but so dramatic it already feels like history. 

Like any detective story, it involves a great many meetings with possible witnesses or other information sources. Each interview, almost, contains the element of Covid. Is the subject vaxxed and masked, are they sceptics or downright scornful? 

The premise, taken to a twisted extreme, could be: what if an elderly couple who still love one another decide that it’s their right to do anything to counter the toll of time, to stay sharp and smart and alleviate the ails of age? Their only true loyalty and empathy are for each other. And then make their victims real. King real. 

Old age is a theme again, of course, with Olivia’s creaky energy and no-nonsense dedication providing a more inspiring example. In King’s world, decent people say rude things and mean well while bad people watch their language in public. 

It works. It always does. 

Holly is, just like Mr Mercedes, a detective story where we know whodunnit. The Agatha Christie kind of twist can be found in his work, notably Joyland, but is rarely the most important part. The most important part here is … all the themes he manages to combine in it, plus friendship, suspense and horror.

And it contains the phrase “scimitar smile” which would be a great name for a band if I’ve ever heard one. 

Fairy Tale (2022)

“Good people shine brighter in dark times”

In keeping with a small, new theme for King, Fairy Tale presents a first-time writer. Not a hitman, though. This story starts, this writer decides after some initial hesitation, with a new bridge and the death of his mother in a small town. With a father turning to alcohol in his grief, little Charlie has to grow up quickly. King captures it all in a first-person narrative that rings as true as pretty much everything he writes. But there’s also a miracle. At least, Charlie decides that it’s a miracle, and now he has a promise to keep. To God, no less. 

I’m not sure how many recovering alcoholics King has written about by now,  and here it may be a minor theme, but it’s clear that AA, their sayings and their approach, mean a lot to him. Anyway, a chance to pay back comes in the form of a grouchy local in need of help.  This passage reminds me of Mr Harrigan’s Phone but the direction of this story is something else entirely. Mr Bowditch is a recluse with a bad temper and an old but loveable dog. When he ends up in a hospital he has to trust Andy with a secret that turns out to be bigger than just a secret fortune in gold. 

King patiently builds up their friendship with little fanfare but some genuinely touching moments along with some funny ones. Mundane tasks associated with age and illness mixed with mysteries. And at a certain point, after the old man inevitably passes away, the comparatively commonplace gives way to something else. The narrator even announces it clearly. 

“This is where your disbelief begins.”

Spoiler alert: There is a well and a world at the bottom of it. This world is the source of  Bowditch’s wealth but also a great responsibility for its new owner. There is an old city which seems deserted but isn’t.  There are dangers. And the greatest danger may be that the wrong people in our world find out about it. Reminds me of a novel I wrote once. On the other hand, that novel owes a great deal to The Talisman

References to classic fairytales are plentiful and hardly subtle when the curtain opens, so to speak, and the book’s theme is laid bare. The people he meets first in the world of Empis seem nice enough but cursed, gray-skinned and being slowly distorted. There is even a princess, it seems, silenced by some evil power in the cruellest way. He can speak to them but more modern words simply can’t be uttered. It’s not forbidden, it’s just that:

Info wouldn’t come out.”

The remnants of a royal family, whom he meets one by one on his journey, give him more information about what has happened to Empis. The chief goal of said journey, by the way, is to save the dog from old age with the help of a sundial.  

I’m not thrilled about the explicit references to fairytales or more modern tales like The Never Ending Story. That sort of thing usually works better when inferred. But King’s world gradually takes on its own shape. There are plenty of characters to introduce. The deaf and thus loud Claudia is an instant favourite. The long trek to and through a not-quite deserted city offers foreboding and a clingy atmosphere of dread, not quite ruined by the almost cartoonish giant at the centre. This sequence becomes increasingly thrilling in a horrific kind of way and you could almost say that this is where the story comes into its own. It’s reminiscent of The Waste Lands (the third Dark Tower instalment) in some ways, but more in tone than story. 

A hopeless situation allows King to relish in colourful misery. And there is an encounter with an evil but polite character which, again, reminds me of something I wrote once. And here too, rich information about the world is provided by fellow prisoners. Cliches abound generously – gladiator-like games, a secret prince – but now there is a confidence and drive to the story which I didn’t always find at the beginning. 

Prince he may be, but Charlie does not view himself as particularly noble (less so than the reader is apt to) and draws in the darkness inside him when the situation becomes vicious enough to require it. 

This is not a Dark Tower tie-in, even with lines like “there are other words than these”, but the mood is often similar, especially in the darkest (no pun intended) parts. In place of a tower, there is a Dark well and its purpose is pretty much the opposite. This is, as the title says, a fairytale, and after a start which I at times found less than enchanting, it becomes quite a thrilling one. Before the end, King even has time to include som rather Lovecraftian elements to cap an imperfect but colourful story. 

Written during Covid’s reign, a story to make the writer happy, it’s no surprise that Fairy Tale is absolute escapism. Come to think of it, those years are already starting to feel a little unreal to me. 

If it Bleeds (2020)

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. 

Billy Summers (2021)

This novel is a somewhat unusual for King in being written in the present tense (third person limited). Writing about atypical people is pretty typical of King, though. From the very first paragraph, the titular character is introduced as an intuitively intellectual, well-read man who pretends to prefer comic books. He’s also a former soldier, nowadays gun for hire. One with principles, insisting on being informed before accepting a job:

“Is it a bad person?”

Aiming to retire, he’s offered the classic Last Job, this one featuring a man in his own line of work but without the principles. Typical of King is also the ability to provide exposition in the form of a long dialogue, but making it feel like vivid storytelling. No exception here. The catch, if catch it be, is that he will have to spend some time in a small southern community until the job is due. Sounds almost like an inverted 11.22.63, right?

Everything has been prepared for him including a cover story where he is supposed to be working on a book. Can he actually write one, perhaps even his life story, on a probably bugged computer, in a way that doesn’t reveal him as a thinking man? As well as socialise with neighbours and new acquaintances, and the woman from the accounting firm in the same office building, without getting too close, for months? And maintain an additional fake identity in a plan hidden even from his employer? That’s the plan anyway. Oh, and can he trust his employer?

”Writing is good. He’s always wanted to do it and now he is. That’s good. Only who knew it hurts so much?”

Billy may be playing his ‘dumb self’ but King offers tidbits of learning to the reader in the form of what Billy only thinks. Billy may also act humourless but King has fun describing people and settings, as always. It’s entertaining right out of the gate.

Firmly placed in our times with the occasional Trump diss and references to Netflix shows (Ozark!), it has that King sense of realness one has come to expect. Unsurprisingly, sections of the book Billy is writing is also included, initially in childishly but engagingly written sentences, short on commas but long on tragedy. Does the story matter, he asks himself, even if no one reads it? Yes, he decides.

“Because it’s mine.”

The event which could be the finale of a different book happens before the halfway mark, and it’s suitably pulse-raising. After this, though, there’s plenty more story to tell. Because, as he’s started to suspect long ago, Billy himself might be a loose end. Also, he hasn’t finished his book.

King being King, he is often very straightforward in his writing. The story is the main thing, right. But he’s also the King that will write:

“There’s a certain breed of fast-dealing small-city sharpie who believes that no matter how deep the shit is, someone will always throw him a rope. These are the broad-smiling firm-handshaking hustlers in Izod polos and Bally loafers who could have come with self-involved optimist stamped on their birth certificates.”

A period of waiting leaves time for more looking back, on Billy’s time in Iraq for instance. Here the chapters get longer, and the ‘dumb self’ is no longer writing them. As is often the case, King seems to have studied up on a topic (or several) that he can’t possibly have personal experience of well enough to write about it credibly. In this case, it’s the subjects of sniping and the Iraq war that are portrayed with a level of detail that can hardly be guesswork. The jargon, the fatalism. The details you rarely hear about but which sound true when you do.

But in the present, his fundamental decentness soon lands him in the ‘mother of all messes’. Trying to be a little better than he strictly has to be, while still acknowledging the alternative, complicates his situation considerably. And potentially starts a friendship. Which is exactly the mistake he made with his recent neighbours. Still, you hope for him. Billy really is a good-ish guy. And a killer. He is “stuck with himself and must make the best of it.”

Suddenly he is responsible for another human being. Panic attacks and pandemic foreshadowing. And someone to read his book.

“He wants to thank her for crying, but that would be weird.”

But there are also scores to settle. And mysteries to unravel. The ‘why’ of it is in some ways what I expected, but more complex.

Some two thirds in, Billy Summers is a perfect book. But so was The Institute at that point, and the ending didn’t really live up to the setup. Will it be different here? Yes. Actually. Without failing to reference the type of action movies that this narrative is reminiscent of, but steering clear of their cliches but not foregoing the excitement, King gets everything right. It’s expertly written but Kingly honest. It’s all story but no bs. It’s a modern tale of a chivalrous knight. And very aware of itself.

“Every character in a story must be used at least twice.”

When, near the end, Billy’s book about his past becomes the story of the present, switching from third person present tense into first person past tense, it feels entirely natural. And after that, there is still one more bold literary move left. A perfect one.

And the ending is not only good, it’s one of King’s finest.

Later (2021)

“You tote your own burden in life”

laterLater is the third King novel published under the Hard Case Crime imprint. Like Joyland, it’s written in the first person by someone trying to make sense of something that happened. This one, however, is set in the modern era, with smartphones and all. 

As a kid raised by a single mother, Jamie Conklin discovers he can communicate with the dead. The ghosts usually move on in a little while, after becoming inaudible. He is told by his mother in no uncertain terms to hide his ability, which is presented in a mildly comical scene involving their deceased neighbour.

“They have to tell you the truth when they’re dead. I didn’t know that at the age of six; I just assumed all grownups told the truth, living or dead.”

Mrs Conklin is a literary agent fond of four letter words and wine. In the stock market crash of 2008, she loses most of her money. But when the writer of a series of books about the Roanoke settlement that have so far ensured them a steady income suddenly dies, Jamie’s desperate mother has an idea …

Yes, it’s partly another King book about writers. And yes, he has found another fresh angle. And the Roanoke settlement is an interesting topic worthy of a series of historic novels. It’s also funny, sympathetic and genuinely entertaining. At least at first. The roster of characters include a police officer named Liz who happens to be his mother’s lover. She gets wind of his gift and he tries to explain, not knowing what kind of person she will turn into. 

“You get used to marvellous things. (…) There’s too much wonder, that’s all. It’s everywhere.”

There is terror here as well, though. A serial bomber named ‘Thumper’ is maiming and killing people at random and, desperate for a break, Liz thinks his ability may be useful here. But meeting a dead murderer is much worse than the ‘normal’ ones. And what if they don’t fade away? What if they hate you and decide to hang around, perhaps even making dark but deceitful prophecies? 

So yes, it’s a horror story. A very Kingish one with little embedded flashes of wisdom and a main character with integrity. At 260 pages a short one, as King novels go , but with room for a reference to IT (‘the ritual of Chüd’), a terrible possibility and a dramatic final stretch involving Liz, a drug dealer and his opulent villa. 

And perhaps many readers foresee the final twist. I must confess I did not. It’s a pretty bold one, and still quite low key. As Jamie puts it, it seems “laughably unimportant” compared to the ominous shadow looming over the epilogue. Ominous but not hopeless. 

Later is eerie and thrilling but not profoundly disturbing. It’s also comfortably familiar, as King as it gets. He even quotes himself:

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

Full Dark, No Stars (2010)

”The stories in this book are harsh,” King says in the afterward. And they are. Like Different Seasons and Four Past Midnight, this is a collection of four novellas – or rather three of them with a shorter story included as a bonus – all of which represent the darker side of King. That is, they don’t just tackle horrific subjects – which is, admittedly, pretty typical for King – but they do so mainly without the consolation of hope, friendship or bravery he just as often will add. They are also, with one exception, thrillers without any supernatural elements. 

(For some reason, I tend to read King’s collections over time, making sure to finish the novels while they are reasonably new. In this case, I managed to take ten years to read through all four.)

“I remember thinking: This night will never end. And that was right.”

1922 is a first-person account of a horrendous crime, told by a man who wants the reader’s sympathy but doesn’t hold back. It’s a rural noir full of deep insight and keen darkness. It’s not a fun read, but superbly written. It’s a story you finish out of a sense of duty rather than suspense and one of King’s very darkest. 

“Most were ladies of the sort who do not attend public occasions without first donning hats.”

Big Driver is certainly no children’s story, but starts off brighter, with a generous dose of humorous observations about life as a semi-famous writer, with a main character fond of talking to her TomTom navigator and her cat and regularly doing speaking engagements. Reading it a decade after publication, I’m struck by how quaint the parts about her GPS feel. The harmless introduction makes the horrors to come (realistic but extreme) doubly shocking. At first not unlike The Gingerbread Girl but ultimately very different, it takes a thinking man’s Death Wish turn. Vivid, thrilling and with a streak of dark humour that almost makes it a relief to read after 1922. 

“What could I wish for? I have everything I want.”

Fair Extension is a wicked, short tale of making the wrong choice and happily seeing someone else pay the price. It’s a story about good fortune vs bad one, and the evil little person that may live in all of us. I don’t like it much and I don’t think I’m supposed to. 

“Tonight the dark was populated by Bob’s harem.”

A Good Marriage, finally, tells of how Darcy Anderson’s orderly but somewhat dull life instantly falls apart at the discovery of a horrible secret. The explanation that follows is presented in a jocular and almost nostalgic fashion, a man gently trying to convince and seemingly earnest, making it no less horrifying. And then she has a choice to make. This is noir of a different brand than 1922, and in some ways even darker. In other ways not. 

The afterword is, as always, well worth reading. One of those fascinating reminders of how seriously King takes his craft. 

The Institute (2019)

IMG_2657An airplane, a request that somebody give up their seat for a government agent. Tim
takes the offer and embarks on a hitchhiking trip, leading to a small town in South Carolina where there is work to be found for a former police officer such as himself. As a “night knocker”.

America. Nobody writes it better. 

”They exchanged the desultory conversational gambits of mere acquaintances.”

As is common with King, the protagonist is an unglamorously decent person who treats others with respect and sees the good as well as the bad in strangers. Ordinary human interaction is the subject matter for much of the beginning of the book.  

Less ordinary is Luke Ellis, a hugely gifted twelve-year-old. He is barely introduced before he is abducted by shadowy agents and finds himself in a windowless replica of his own room. 

We’ve been here before. These are classic King elements, now condensed to acronyms like TK and TP, in a setting bringing both ‘The Shop’ and the dutiful creatures trying to break the beams in the Dark Tower series to mind. The Institute comes across as a dilapidated but brutally run holdover from the Cold War, dusty but deadly. As for the people running it, we are offered multiple perspectives and allowed an inside view into an organisation that the children they hold captive can only guess, or perhaps telepath, about. It is familiar ground but made more fertile by current events. Of course King gives Donald Trump a little swipe in passing early on, and it won’t be the last. As for a big theme of the book, imprisoning children, it is more than a swipe. 

As for the technicians and doctors working in this hidden prison, they might consider themselves working bees only doing their jobs, or perhaps even doing Important Work, but when King lets a character muse that they may be ‘damned’ he’s clearly not letting them off the hook. Personal responsibility in the face of orders from above is another theme highly relevant for our times. 

The kids themselves, preteens and teens, bond in their confusion and temporary shared misfortune. Temporary, because after a while they move on to another part of the institute. Taking steadily darker turns, The Institute feels painfully real when describing the often crude methods employed by indifferent or even contemptuous adults to get ‘results’. But when the attempts to increase his skill set to telepathy actually seem to work and Luke successfully hides this fact, he may have an edge. Especially when joining forces and minds with a few others. A thrilling escape attempt is the obvious next step, replete with the ordeals King usually provides for his protagonists. Success must never be cheap. The details about train yard logistics offered around the halfway mark are less thrilling, however, but it is endearing how King still finds new topics to research for his books. Keeps him young, I guess. 

The scenes from the perspective of the people in charge of the Institute are both depressing and chilling, especially in “Back Half”. Where children are broken down and sent on. Where a grimy sign might dutifully proclaim: 

“Remember these were heroes”

Dark. But there is also a sense of classic King adventure here, with a young protagonist facing perils that would give grownups pause – not unlike The Talisman. 

Some two thirds in, The Institute has grown into the perfect thriller. Equal parts hope and fear, in two parallel story lines. The kindness of strangers and the petty greed of ‘stringers and uncles’. It’s a book demanding to be filmed, much like Under the Dome before its pitch black finale. Will this too veer into “too much darkness” or hold the course, a reader might be forgiven for wondering. For thinking “please just let these kids find a way to get out before …” Even if the work of the Institute should actually turn out to be vital. 

I won’t spoil but I will say that there is the kind of chaotic shoot-out of which King is sometimes a bit too fond. But it doesn’t end there. Far from it. 


Don’t miss the moving afterword about King’s longtime research assistant, Russ Dorr. 

Elevation (2018)

“The incredible lightness of being”

A short story published in the form of a book, one might say. And why not. King has previously published short novels bundled into collections, as if they were short stories. The man can do what he likes.

Elevation is Thinner, but exactly the opposite in every way. Like the protagonist of Kings’s dark Bachman tale, Scott Carey is becoming lighter. Not exactly losing weight but simply applying less and less pressure on the scales. It is, of course, impossible which, of course, won’t stop King from writing about it and making you believe it. 

In keeping with his desire to keep up, King makes his sympathetic protagonist a web designer and has obviously done some research, though not on as detailed a technical level as in Mr Mercedes. Castle Rock is here presented as a normal town with well-todo people and a golf course. A town people from elsewhere would gladly visit for a charity race. ’Inside view’ and ’The Night Flier’ flutter by as references. The story also involves a newly arrived lesbian couple running a restaurant but having a hard time with the conservative locals. 

The weight mystery is mainly a positive experience for Scott. The “Turkey trot” running competition becomes an occasion to surprise the town with an impressive performance, enhanced by a profound joy brought on by just about everything around and inside him. His heart, “that sturdy little engine”, the sound of running feet on a covered bridge. Even as a strange impending doom draws near, he’s having the time of his life and making new friends. You’d be forgiven for cynically wondering when everything is going to turn bad. 

Will it? I won’t say more than that it’s a story not only about a strange phenomenon but about friendship and reconciliation as well. Touching and heart-felt, Elevation may not be a Real novel, but it’s a more memorable story than many thrice as long. It’s also unironically message-y, pointing to a better way in a divisive time, and, dare I say it, uplifting. 

But of course he sneaks in one overt jab at a certain president.

“(…) which would have been bad – even Trumpian – diplomacy”

The Outsider (2018)

”Do you always know who did it when you sit down to write?”

A terrible crime has been committed in Flint City. Ralph Anderson, one of the town’s three police officers, has a prime suspect and decides to make the arrest a public affair. The popular Coach Maitland, uncomprehending, is brought away in cuffs in the middle of a game, in front of a big crowd and his family. He is just as stunned as Anderson is sure of his guilt. It’s a perfect, vivid example of building conflicting loyalties in the reader. What is one to believe? 

As events unfold, interspersed with witness protocols that certainly points to Maitland being the head suspect, this sense of ambiguity only deepens. Along with his family he seems a victim of a terrible mistake, but if guilty of the vile crime he is in fact a monster. What is one to believe…?

It’s one of those books that grab you from the get go and pulls you in, skipping between the various victims of the obscene crime, including the family of the murdered boy, whose suffering has only begun. Those parts offer some of the book’s best prose, wise, unexpected and moving perspectives on tragedy and grief.

“They watched without talking, each in his own way exploring the edges of the hole that had appeared in their lives, so as not to fall in.”

But the suspect and his family also draw sympathy in their plight. Here, everyone is a victim. The tragedies of The Outsider are manifold. The crimes destroy surviving family members and people’s good name. It’s the final insult added to the injury, how seemingly innocent suspects become the object of hatred and anger. 

The sudden introduction of elements that seem otherworldly do little to lessen interest but may prompt the reader to wonder what kind of book they are reading. The answer will become clearer with each chapter. Genre aside, it’s most definitely a solid page-turner. It hooks you. It’s also damn spooky. The phrase ’straws for eyes’ alone is enough to give one shivers. But like any detective story worth reading, it’s also an excuse to send people around, meeting other people, asking questions from witnesses and incidentally painting little portraits of life outside of the limelight. And King is, of course, very good at that. 

In its attention to detail, The Outsider can occasionally also get … tedious. There are times when points are belaboured. Like the last Hodges book, it’s also a bold mix of the pragmatic and the supernatural, and may not be to everyone’s taste. For my own part, I’m frankly not exactly sure how I feel about it. But meeting Holly Gibney (from the aforementioned Bill Hodges books) again is great, and King once more excels at portraying a character inherently nervous and uneasy about human interaction, but very brave. Around her, a band of unlikely friends will form, bringing Bram Stoker’s Dracula to mind in more ways than one. 

At the end of it all, The Outsider is more akin to Doctor Sleep than Mr Mercedes. It’s a both moving and harrowing story with a thrilling climax. Whether or not you entirely “buy it” may be a matter of taste. 

Joyland (2013)

“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”

The melancholia instantly leaps off the page in this tale of youth, broken hearts and a rickety amusement park in North Carolina called Joyland. King’s knack for transporting you to a place and time, and a mood, is on full display. Written in the first person perspective, it recounts a summer and fall in 1973 during which Devin Jones, “a 21-year-old virgin with literary aspirations”, works as a carny while trying to get over a girl. 

”Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”

The writing is sympathetic and atmospheric, clear and uncomplicated; ‘this is what happened and how I felt about it’.  The start, where Devin visits the park for a job interview, is like an inverted version of The Shining. Nice people, spring around corner. 

Spring turns to summer, work begins, and to a large degree this is a story about a good summer. One of those summers that shine in retrospect. New friends, a fascinating place. Even ‘wearing the fur’, dressing up as the park’s canine mascot to amuse the kids, suits Devin. Ominous comments from the fortune teller and a broken heart notwithstanding, this has all the makings of a great experience. 

But there’s also the actually haunted horror house and the horrific tragedy that occurred there. And Devin’s inability to forget the girl and move on. He thinks staying on at the amusement park after summer will help with that.  A seaside amusement park in the fall. How very Morrissey. 

Devin wants be changed by facing something otherworldly and courts an encounter with the apparition said to be haunting Joyland. In Devin’s befriending a young boy with a serious illness and apparent telepathy, the writer introduces another subject typical to King, but it’s toned down and actually not what you’re likely to remember best about the book. That would probably be the colourful portrait of the amusement park and its characters and the depiction of youth itself.

This is prime King. Wise, empathetic, crude, poetic, lively and eerie. Near the end it delivers themes more in keeping with the Hard Case Crime label (an imprint under which The Colorado Kid was also published),  but at this point it’s clear that King was never interested in writing just a murder mystery. Big surprise. It is ‘thrilling’ in surprising ways alongside the expected ones. Will a good deed work out for the best? That kind of way. 

The finale, with its echoes of a scene from a famous movie not named here, and the touching epilogue confirms that this book really, really needs to be filmed. Done right, it would be wonderful.

As is the book. I would in fact describe it as the perfect antidote after reading Revival (published in the same year). There are some common themes (looking back from the sad vantage point of old age being among them), and Joyland has its share of violence and chills, but it also offers hope and beauty. Call me crazy, but I prefer that. 


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