Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

” … shows flashes of what King is great at; giving the strangest of ideas plausibility, digging into the tics and quirks of what makes us individual and all too human, putting his finger on the pulse of small-town life.”

 

A new release from Stephen King is always an interesting prospect. First, it tends to occlude other works in the horror arena; regrettably understandable considering the long shadow he casts. Then there’s the weight of expectation—will it match the highs of previous works? Will it be horror or one of his more mainstream works (something he seems to have been gravitating more and more towards, recently)? It’s human nature to form pre-conceived opinions, to make assumptions about a work, but it often feels as though King gets this more than others. And perhaps that’s a little unfair; surely each release should be judged on its own merits and not against previous books? But still, it’s difficult, especially to those who have read and loved much of what he’s produced, from the darkest of horror to the most heartfelt of emotive pieces.

And so to his most recent work, the novella Elevation, a book that’s already garnering quite a few mixed reviews.

The story opens with main character Scott Carey paying a visit to a casual acquaintance who also happens to be a retired doctor. The reason for this isn’t merely social; Carey wants to ask Bob Ellis (Doctor Bob as he’s still known) about a recent, strange weight loss he’s been experiencing. He explains to Ellis that he’s suddenly began steadily dropping weight with no apparent cause. After getting Ellis to guess—wrongly—his weight, he hops on Ellis’ scales (a hold-over from his previous life). And proves not only has he dropped to a weight that doesn’t seem consistent with his build and stature, but that he also weighs the same no matter what he’s wearing or has upon his person. After a conversation regarding Carey’s reluctance to go to a practicing doctor (“Because it would be in the system,” Ellis deduces) and promising to keep his friend informed, Carey leaves.

And that might be more than enough to begin a decent story about something uncanny and weird, as we follow the bizarre situation to its end. But King then throws in a sub-plot involving Carey’s new neighbours. Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson are a young married coupled, and the two women have just opened a new restaurant in Castle Rock that’s not doing terribly well. They also have a habit of going out jogging beside Carey’s property with their two dogs, who almost always go on Carey’s garden (sorry, lawn) to take care of business. Though he’s raised it previously, he’s been met with Deirdre’s assurances the dogs wouldn’t do this. When he finally has proof and shows her, it only serves to make the atmosphere between them colder. Here then, are the first of a handful minor issues with the novella. The two women are presented—at least initially—as thinly drawn stereotypes; Deirdre is cold, sarcastic, superior, and clearly has both a chip on her shoulder and is very defensive. Missy, when she appears, is nervous, flighty, seemingly scared of her own shadow, and apparently dominated by Deirdre. Add to this, is the objectification of the women. Much mention is made of legs, lithe bodies, their apparent attractiveness, and so on, at least from the point of view of Carey. It feels unnecessary, and crops up so much throughout it becomes very noticeable, jarring almost. This sub-plot is also used to take a few mild jabs at the current US administration. Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having politics in story (indeed, much fiction and art is driven by and informs political/social/cultural landscapes, is oftentimes necessary), here it feels a little clumsy and forced.

If this sounds as though the book is without merit, it’s not, not at all. Once the sub-plot of Deirdre and Missy is done (although it must be pointed out, it does take a straight man to help endear them to the town, though the chapter involving the race is an exhilarating one, a Thanksgiving 12k run aided by his astonishingly low mass), we focus back in on Carey’s predicament. His weight loss is accelerating and his decreasing mass affects his ability to perform even the most simple of tasks. With a looming countdown (if it continues on its current trajectory, he will soon hit zero, then possibly even negative figures), Carey must figure out what to do. But it seems there’s little he can do, other than vague hints at preparations and requests for Deirdre to assist him in his ‘final’ moments. It’s in these parts where the novella really shines. The characterisation—once it shifts into the close circle of friends—is rather lovely, if perhaps a touch sentimental (though there’s little wrong with that; it’s neither cloying nor unrealistic, simply sweet and touching). Even Carey’s relationship with his ex-wife’s cat throws up a couple of tender, quietly affecting scenes. Married with King’s effortless, easy prose, it shows there’s potential here for a deeply moving exploration of quiet courage and friendship under illogical and unavoidable circumstances. As it is, we get hints rather than anything meaty. Before we know it, the story is over, and we are left feeling its concept could have been explored in greater depth. This would allow for deeper emotion and for characters to truly come alive. Instead, we have, for example, the cipher of Bob Ellis’ wife, Myra, appearing only as the story nears its end. It would also have shown the friendship between seemingly disparate characters grow in front of the reader’s eyes.

Despite this, the novella still shows flashes of what King is great at; giving the strangest of ideas plausibility, digging into the tics and quirks of what makes us individual and all too human, putting his finger on the pulse of small-town life (though again, this could have been fleshed out so much more). It is, to perhaps make a bad joke, a little lacking in weight, a little too light to really make an indelible mark on the reader. It feels somewhat rushed and would, in this reviewer’s opinion, make a far more interesting novel. Nevertheless, it’s not terrible either. It is an easy read and a quick one, and there’s still much to enjoy. It simply feels a bit uneven. And addressing one of the other criticisms of the book; while it is, admittedly, not straight horror, it’s still in the realms of weird fiction, the uncanny. Again, given more room to breathe, the core situation could easily engender a sense of impending panic and desperation. A missed opportunity, then.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK), Scribner (US)
Hardcover: 160 (pps)
Release Date: 30 October 2018

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