Things I’m thankful for today:
- The best week yet at my new position.
- The strength to mow the yard this morning in spite of a nasty bout with sinusitis.
- Movie night last night with my smoking hot wife.
It’s no secret that Stephen King might be my favorite author. I hesitate to admit it because too many people already feel that way. It’s not original, too conformist, to say King is your favorite, but I can’t deny the way I feel. Besides, I came to him completely separate from all the hype that’s surrounded his career. When I first read The Stand in 1993, I had probably only known of him for a couple of years, as the author acquainted with the film Pet Sematary, which genuinely terrified me, and a handful of others. The Stand transported me to depths of fear, the macabre, fatalism, and an American nightmare built on the foundations of rock and roll and 1960s-70s disenchantment that really absorbed me. It was a language I didn’t yet understand as a 13-year-old but found somewhat familiar all the same. And I couldn’t believe my mother was letting me read it.
This week, almost twenty-five years later, I read Gwendy’s Button Box, which takes place during the decade in which King the icon arose and which he wrote so well, the 1970s. Gwendy is a typical American pre-teen girl, about to enter junior high school. She’s slightly overweight and concerned about it, thanks to school bully, Frankie Stone. In a healthy effort to slim down, she regularly runs the “Suicide Stairs” at the local park. One day, she’s approached at the end of her run by the mysterious Mr. Ferris, a gentle and seemingly benign fellow dressed all in black. (The connection to the King universe in this character should be apparent to any casual reader of his work.) Ferris gives Gwendy a “button box,” which is what it sounds like, a box with buttons on it. It has 7 buttons that each stand for a continent in the world and an additional black button, which, Ferris ominously intones, “ends it all.” There’s also a red button that can accomplish pretty much anything Gwendy pleases, although the implication is “be careful what you wish for.” (I may be inaccurate in my button count and what they all do. It was kind of unclear to me at that point, but that matters little in the book’s overall effect.) The box also has two levers, one that cranks out tasty little chocolate treats, the other, valuable silver dollars. It’s a box of delights and dangers, of great power and great responsibility. King and Chizmar’s novella, briskly paced, with brief chapters punctuated by illustrations, traces Gwendy’s life with the box through high school and into college.
The narrative toys with our expectations and fears. I think King especially enjoys playing with and contradicting what we expect to happen based on similar earlier stories he’s written, such as “Word Processor of the Gods” and basically any apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic work of his. I’m also reminded of George R.R. Martin’s “Closing Time,” where an amulet seemingly gives the bearer the ability to turn into harmless forest critters, until the chilling climax in which it’s revealed how the amulet’s power really works. But as I’ve said in other reviews, King seems to have softened up in his later years. That’s not to say he doesn’t have bite because he does. He reserves the right to bare his fangs any time he darn well pleases, but I think he’s also enjoying seeing how close he can get us to the edge without pushing us over, and that’s what he and Chizmar do here. I had my suspicions regarding what they were really up to, which were confirmed to my delight in the final chapter when Ferris comes back to see Gwendy. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it, but the novella effectively chills us along the way all the same, and there are possibilities of greater dangers to follow. Indeed, having unchecked powers in our hands and the possibility of unchecked wish fulfillment are more frightening than actually seeing the consequences borne out. In that way, much of the book’s suspense continues after you’ve read it, and it does what good horror and suspense are supposed to do–stir your imagination to go beyond what you’ve been shown. King is excellent at involving his readers as participants in his work. I’ve always admired that about him perhaps most of all.