If it bleeds by Stephen King

A review

Once more, I place my feet in the comfortable if suspense-ridden slippers that are the embodiment of a new Stephen King book. I’ve had it on my shelf a while, hence the lateness of this review; but it’s not like the king of horror needs my endorsement. I simply write these as they seem a fitting conclusion to the reading experience.

IIB is a collection of novellas (or novelettes depending on your definition by word count,) much in the style of ‘Four Past Midnight’ or ‘Full dark no stars’ (which I still haven’t read yet.) These days, I tend not to dwell on the plot of King’s stories, I simply delight in the man’s narrative flow, his turns of phrase, his metaphors and bottomless well of sayings and folk wisdom. It’s these factors that reflect the way he writes and provide the attraction for me. Even his choice of place names and characters seem to be so right. For example, where else would you find names like Al Stamper, Aroostook County, Roy de Witt or Agelbemoo Lake? These may all be familiar names to some folk but, to me, living in England as I do, their colloquial strangeness encapsulate the feel of an SK story. We all know why King named the leading story as such, so I won’t go into that. I’ll get straight into my reaction to the tales.

Mr Harrigan’s Phone
This opener is a satisfying short narrated from the pov of a young boy who’s given the job of reading classic books to a retired millionaire. The youngster comes into some money as a result of winning a lottery, the ticket for which was given him by the millionaire. As a thank you, the boy buys the man a new iphone (when these devices first came on the market.)When the guy dies, the boy tries to contact him via the phone and … well you’ll have to read the story to find out what happens. This is a good tale – no better than that. I felt it stopped a bit short, as if King ran out of steam. There was a lot more that could have been mined from the characters, but then, maybe, he was going by the old adage: leave them wanting more.

The Life of Chuck
Probably the weirdest story in the collection, almost verging on Philip K. Dick territory. Three separate mini-stories told in reverse chronological order centring around the main character, Chuck. Once again, the themes – a ghostly childhood encounter, the joy of dancing, and the idea that everyone has a universe of possibilities inside them – lead the tale. Whether it satisfies you as a reader will depend on whether you see the structure as disjointed or a novel way of disturbing and provoking you. For me, it was OK but not great.

If it bleeds
The title story. I watched King read the intro to this story on youtube and felt it was an intriguing opener. It features one of his favourite characters to write – Holly Gibney. By his own admission in the story notes at the end, King finds her fascinating and wanted to dip into her ongoing story again. The tale features her encounter with yet another Outsider. I felt it was re-visiting territory he’d already covered in his book by the same name and, plot-wise, it was a story already told. However, the relationship between Holly and her mother and the heart-rending account of her uncle being taken into an old folks’ home help to redeem the story somewhat. That said, I was glad to finish this story and move on.

King saves the best until last. This is him at his classic best. When reading this I experienced that same vibe I used to get when reading ‘The Shining’, ‘Bag of Bones’ and ‘The Dark Half.’ There’s something about King’s stories featuring a writer as the MC that give you an insight into his own writing process. ‘Rat’ delivers on that front. The protagonist needs to write his first novel after having got several short stories published. It’s his last-ditch chance to commit a great story idea to paper, and he decides to spend a few weeks ensconced in a remote cabin to break the back of his book. An untimely storm and the contraction of a severe case of flu stymie the MC’s plans however. Then the rat appears – and offers him a faustian bargain. There’s no massively original twist in the story, just classic King delivery. Funnily enough, the MC’s story is a western and King’s outline of the story developing made me think, ‘What if King had actually written that story?’ It prompted me to pick up a collection of Elmore Leonard’s westerns as a follow-on to this read.

As mentioned before, King adds some story notes at the end and gives us a glimpse in to the factors that inspired the tales. These epilogues are just as absorbing as his stories, to my mind.

Should you buy the book? Of course. This is Stephen King, after all. How many more years has he got left to churn these out? Many more, I hope. If it Bleeds is not his greatest collection, but you won’t regret reading it. Not one bit


  1. Al says:

    Just finished it recently. I agree with your review, I really enjoyed it too. It was pleasantly weird at times.

  2. Julie Travis says:

    I haven’t read any SK for years, but I still see him as a master of pinning down human nature and characters. I saw him give a talk where he stated that he was soon going to retire from writing – and that was around 25 years ago! Do you think he should step back from it now?

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