Stephen King’s new collection of previously unpublished novellas, “If It Bleeds,” is scary in a way he may never have imagined.

Cover courtesy of Scribner’s/Simon & Schuster

Oh, the novellas contain familiar tropes – a haunted memento, a slow-motion apocalypse, a shape-shifting mass murderer and a deal with a devil. But what’s most unsettling about “If It Bleeds” is something subtler than these big-ticket horrors, something that speaks to a new kind of darkness in the world.

The volume opens with “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” in which a young boy makes friends with a retired millionaire who hires him to do minor chores. A late convert to digital technology, Mr. Harrigan is so enthusiastic about his iPhone that young Craig secretly has it buried with the old man. When Craig is tempted into making a postmortem phone call, he makes a connection that might have been better left alone.

Take a familiar object, add an element of the occult and presto! the story almost writes itself – at least if you’re Stephen King. Many of his previous short stories follow this pattern, including “Ur,” about a supernatural Kindle, “Uncle Otto’s Truck,” about a mysterious motor vehicle, and “The Word Processor of the Gods,” about, well, you can probably figure it out.

“The Life of Chuck,” the second selection in the novella collection, is a little less predictable in plot and structure. Arranged as three stories that move backward in time, the novella spotlights Chuck Krantz, a buttoned-down accountant who reveals an unexpectedly funky side when he spontaneously starts dancing to the drumbeats of a busker on the streets of Boston. Like another recent King short novel, “Elevation,” “The Life of Chuck” emphasizes the little joyful victories in life. It’s a heart-tugger, and a very effective one.

In “Rat,” English professor Drew Larson wants to write a novel while sequestered in a remote Maine cabin. Would you be surprised to learn that he experiences writer’s block and starts to go a little crazy just as a winter storm comes barreling in? That’s when a talking rodent makes him an offer that seems almost too good to be true.

There is many a Faustian bargain to be found in fantasy literature and folklore, but King brings sufficient inventiveness to this latest example to make it worthwhile, especially in its final, twisty pages.

As for the title novella, it is big and ambitious and stars King’s current favorite recurring character, Holly Gibney. In his Author’s Note, King writes, “I love Holly. It’s as simple as that. She was supposed to be a minor character in ‘Mr. Mercedes,’ no more than a quirky walk-on. Instead she stole my heart (and almost stole the book).”

“If It Bleeds” is a follow-up to one of King’s better recent books, “The Outsider,” in which Holly played a supporting but integral role. The new novel expands the mythology of El Cuco, a shape-shifting being that feeds on the pain, fear and misery of those who suffer or witness violent death.

As “If It Bleeds” opens, Holly, now an owner of a successful detective agency, thinks she spots something familiar about the suspect in a school bombing. She focuses her attention on Chet Ondowsky, the first television reporter on the scene, who exemplifies the old journalistic saw “If it bleeds, it leads.” Before too long, Holly sets off alone to determine whether her suspicions are correct. It is a big step for her, given the feelings of inadequacy and isolation that were drummed into her by her family.

A solid supernatural cat-and-mouse thriller with a dollop of well-observed domestic drama, “If It Bleeds” earns an extra shot of scariness thanks to its time frame. The action specifically takes place in December of this year. There is no pandemic. No sheltering in place. No social distancing. No second term for Donald Trump, apparently.

“If It Bleeds” is a scary reminder of how fast the world can change, how vulnerable we all are to the unexpected. When he finished writing the book in March 2019, King, like the rest of us, had no inkling how different the world would be a year later, no idea how anachronistic the title story might seem, how close to the superflu in his early work “The Stand” we might actually be.

Bad things happen to the characters in “If It Bleeds,” just as bad things happen to people in our timeline. But even through the horror, there’s a lot of hope and gratitude on display in the book as a whole – in strong intergenerational friendships, in the wonder of human consciousness, in the power of storytelling. Most of all, Holly Gibney shines through as an example of courage and compassion, facing up to what she fears and protecting those she loves.

King has done some of his best work at novella length, especially in his first collection, “Different Seasons,” from which came “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” The stories in “If It Bleeds” don’t quite hit those high-water marks, but they supply plenty of creepy entertainment at a time when even a horror story can provide a welcome distraction from reality.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mlberry

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