October’s over, which is always a sad thing, but it was a great month for reading horror novels. Since I read a good number of them, I’m going to cluster them into reviews over the next few days, keeping the spirit of Halloween alive a bit into the month of November.
This will be the last of my Halloween reads for the year; next up, though? Noir-vember, where I take on crime thrillers old and new, and plunge into the shadows of human nature.
About once a decade, Stephen King breaks from his usual mix of novels and short story collections to release a quartet of novellas, and the results are often some of his most interesting work. There’s the break from horror that was Different Seasons, the brutal darkness of Full Dark, No Stars, the Vietnam trauma of Hearts in Atlantis – all of these collections give us a glimpse of King doing something different from his usual fare, and the results are often fascinating. (There’s also Four Past Midnight, but that’s one of King’s less interesting collections by a long shot.)
I say all of this because you can’t help but wonder if Elevation, the new novella from King, would work better as part of an anthology than it does on its own. Elevation is, as you’d expect from King, engaging, well-told, richly characterized, and compulsively readable. But it’s also incredibly slight, and feels like a missed opportunity that might have been saved by setting up in conjunction with other pieces or shortening it down to the short story length the concept seems able to sustain.
I say all of this with the caveat that I still generally enjoyed Elevation; it’s all but impossible for King to write something uninteresting, and Elevation has a great setup, as Castle Rock resident Scott Carey goes to see a doctor friend with a most unusual complaint. See, Scott is losing weight…sort of. Oh, he undeniably weighs less – that’s not in question – but what is odd is that Scott’s clothes don’t affect his weight. Nor do the handbells he shoves in his pockets. Or the actual weight of his body. No, Scott’s weight is going down steadily, no matter what the actual mass of that body might be. And at the rate it’s going, Scott might not have more than a few months left before that weight hits zero – and whatever happens then can’t be good, right?
All of this leads to Scott taking stock of his life and realizing that he may not have made much of a difference on this planet in his short time here, and coming to understand that maybe it’s time to do something. So Scott starts trying to make peace with his neighbors, a relatively newly arrived (by small-town Maine standards, that is) lesbian couple with whom he’s had some disagreements. But as Scott reaches out, he starts to see how the couple’s been treated by the town around them, and how prejudice is still so much a factor in a town he thought was better than that.
In lesser hands, Elevation could turn into either an after-school special about the importance of tolerance or a sappy story of acceptance. But King avoids that by letting all of his characters come to life, not as easy archetypes or symbols of their orientation, but as human beings who become friends. Yes, the plotting feels a little slight – more on that later – but as ever, King makes it work by turning this into a story about these people, not a story about all people.
The problem is, though, that that’s about all there really is to Elevation. At King’s best, he mixes those themes with the supernatural elements, letting them play off of each other in interesting ways. Here, Scott’s “ailment” feels almost arbitrary, an element that wouldn’t be much different than giving Scott any terminal disease and a short time left. (There’s a single plot element, involving a race, that wouldn’t work without it, but it’s something that the story could easily move around.) And while King’s intentions are good ones here, giving us a reminder of the importance of human connections and making the world a better place than we found it, King’s done this message in other books, and done it better, and with more impact. Elevation feels slight because there’s just not that much to it; it’s a story that King would have used as part of a character’s development in the background of something stronger, but he’s released it on its own and expects it to satisfy. Is it a bad read? Not in the least, but like Scott Carey, it’s even lighter than it looks, and that page count looks pretty light to begin with.