Book Review: If It Bleeds by Stephen King

It's been a while since I read a Stephen King book. Typically, I read a couple of his books a year, sometimes more. Lately, I've been so busy reading other work and writing my own that I've drifted from my Constant Reader status. I was starting to wonder if I were moving on in my tastes and losing interest in his work. His last few books, while good, didn't grab me the same way he used to.

I picked up the audiobook for If It Bleeds mostly because I had some extra Audible credits I forgot I had. And learned that I haven't outgrown my love for King's work after all. Listening to this audiobook was like falling back into old, comfortable patterns. Snuggling into a warm blanket and drinking coffee on a Sunday.

If It Bleeds features four novellas and while I enjoyed all four, I question the collection. I couldn't sense any reason these four would be grouped together except that they were all written by King. I tried to find some connecting theme or idea, but any patterns I picked up on only applied to a couple of them. The collection is definitely still worth reading; I just would have liked something connecting the stories.

1. Mr. Harrigan's Phone

Stephen King is famous for his horror, but for me, I prefer his coming of age stories, like IT. King can capture the uncertainty of growing up like no other. On one level, this story is about a haunted telephone, but what's really about is a young boy growing up and the impact death and loss can have on a person. The book focuses heavily on changing technology and this is where King lost me for a bit. Listening to Craig, our narrator, describe the technology of the early-mid 2000s to a modern audience was laughable. Many of us are much older and have seen bigger changes in tech than one iphone to another. I think a bit of King in real life might have been slipping through. However, the loss Craig suffers and his reactions are spot on and had me tearing up in my car as I listened.

2. The Life of Chuck

A story told in reverse demonstrates King's masterful way of not just telling a story with engrossing characters, but his ability to play around with form and experiment with something new after all these years. The sum of the parts didn't entirely come together for me the way I would have liked personally, but the story was still impressively written and moving.

3. If It Bleeds

The eponymous story is clearly the standout of the collection. I suspect it may even be the reason this book exists at all. King, as he mentions in his afterword, loves Holly Gibney and it shows. The care and detail he gives to her life and her growth are unlike any of his other characters. The story is a chilling sequel to The Outsider, but what really makes this story shine is Holly herself. I first encountered her in Mr. Mercedes and was happy to encounter her again in The Outsider. I thought it would end there, but finding her here was a delight. 

4. Rat

I think "If It Bleeds" is probably the best story in the anthology, but Rat is my personal favourite. Not sure if it would work as well for a non-writer, but listening to a detailed description of someone trying (and failing) to write a book was fascinating. It made me reflect on my own process and actually helped remind me that instead of worrying about the perfect word, it's more important to get that first draft done. I could also pick out the areas where the character went wrong. He has been unable to finish a novel, even to the point of having a breakdown over his last attempt. As I listened to King describe his hyperfocus on choosing the perfect word and the perfect font, I could see that he was ritualizing writing too much. Sometimes you just gotta give up on having the perfect place/time to write and just throw words down. It's something I learned in university. Too many people "need" certain things to study. I survived by grabbing moments and doing what I could when I could.

What really sold this story to me though, was the folklore element of the tale. I can't discuss it too much without spoiling the story, but the plot of this one reminded me of a fairy tale - which I love.


There are two narrators for this one who both do an excellent job bringing their stories to life. My only criticism is that "If It Bleeds" should have been narrated by a woman since it is told entirely from Holly's perspective.

Overall, another great collection from Stephen King.


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