Of all the places in Stephen King’s Maine, his constant readers may be most familiar with the town of Castle Rock.
In 1991’s Needful Things, perhaps for fear or returning to the same well once too often, King put Castle Rock out of its misery, destroying the town in a literal fireball fueled by the hidden greed and jealousy of its outwardly upstanding citizens.
But, as evidenced by his 40-year dance with the Dark Tower epic, his current Twitter obsession with Donald Trump, or even his own career – he famously announced his retirement in 2003 – King has a problem letting things go.
12-year-old Gwendy Peterson is spending the summer of 1974 running up and down Castle Rock’s famous ‘suicide stairs’ in a quest to shed some weight before she enters the horrific hallways of middle school. One day, at the top of the steps, Gwendy is called to a bench by a man in black, who tells her, ‘We ought to palaver.’
The man in black – named Richard Farris – presents Gwendy with a box. Adorned with buttons and levers, the box seemingly holds the keys to Gwendy’s happiness, her future. But, Farris cryptically warns her, the box may also have the power to bring catastrophe.
What follows next is a breathless tale of curiosity and paranoia that is as gripping as it is brief. King has evolved as a storyteller over nearly 50 years. While his work has always been engrossing, the verbose darkness of his early tales has given way to a pithy directness that is no less captivating. King has never been a better writer than he has been in the last 10 years.
In Gwendy’s Button Box, not a word is wasted. Short, punchy sentences chronicle young Gwendy’s life, a life of joy, sadness, fear and terror. The years fly by as Gwendy grows up, loses weight, becomes popular and falls in love.
But, this being a Stephen King story, the bad must come with the good, and the box and its buttons always loom in Gwendy’s thoughts, revealing how fragile her hold on happiness truly is. King and Chizmar don’t need to say much to add a thin veneer of unease at the edges of Gwendy’s seemingly idyllic life:
“And for a while, everything is all right. She thinks the button box goes to sleep, but she doesn’t trust that, not a bit. Because even if it does, it sleeps with one eye open.”
If that passage doesn’t give you the shivers while reading Gwendy’s Button Box, there are others that will do the trick. Darkness is never too far away, threatening to tear apart Gwendy’s world. When it does, it won’t surprise you like a punch to the gut. Instead, the foreboding will slowly twist at your insides, tightening the unease until your fears (and Gwendy’s) come to terrifying life on the page.
Gwendy’s Button Box marks a welcome return for Stephen King to Castle Rock. It’s comforting to this constant reader to know that the town still has some dark stories to tell. Other fans should hope that King uncovers more of them soon.
Gwendy’s Button Box is the perfect summer dose of Stephen King. It’s a quick read, good for an afternoon on the beach, or a night when the clouds burst in a surprise thunderstorm. It’s a worthy entry in the master of horror’s short-form catalog.
+ The Box – King is great at drawing horror and suspense from the mundane. The paranoia the box evokes in Gwendy transfers seamlessly to the reader as the story unfolds.
+ Its length – While great as a novelist, many say King is best writing short stories and novellas. Count me as one in this camp.
+ A return to Castle Rock – I’m glad King has uncovered more horror in this sleepy little town.
– I’m not sure of Chizmar’s impact on the story. It read like a King work through-and-through. It’s not really a negative, but I’m still curious about Chizmar’s own narrative voice.
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