STEPHEN KING IS STILL… HAVING FUN
A Book Review of Stephen King's HOLLY, by Ari Racing
We’re not that far from celebrating ten years since we met Holly Gibney for the first time. If you don’t remember, it was almost halfway through Mr. Mercedes when Janey Patterson tells Bill about this “weird cousin” who shows up for the first time at the hospital after Elizabeth Wharton’s passing. The first description we have states that Holly is “a spinster roughly Janey’s age but with none of Janey’s looks” and that she never speaks above a mutter and seems to have a problem making eye contact”. But that shy woman who was “supposed to be a walk-on character” turned into one of the most important characters created by Stephen King. Wouldn’t you agree? Putting aside The Dark Tower saga, for obvious reasons, if you know of another Stephen King main character that leads or co-leads in six books. Go ahead. I’ll wait. In 2020 Stephen King himself said (to Terry Gross on NPR) that Holly “just kind of stole the book (about Mr. Mercedes) and stole my heart”. Not a truer statement could be said since Holly ended up being one of the most important characters in Mr. Mercedes, and kept on growing in her leadership within Finders Keepers and End of Watch. And when we thought that was all, by next year, once again, we were reunited with Holly Gibney in one of the darkest books ever written by Stephen King: The Outsider. Did you think that was all? Wrong again. In those early days of the Covid pandemic, a new book by Stephen King hit the shelves. If It Bleeds, published in April 2020, featured four new novellas. The main one, the one that gave the book its title, featured a character we all knew very well by this time, a character that most of us Constant Readers already adored, like Stephen King does: Holly Gibney. If It Bleeds is not a sequel to The Outsider, but it’s in the same, dark, neighborhood as that book published in 2018, and I could not have embraced it more. In those tough days, a familiar voice such as Stephen King’s made me feel better. I liked Holly Gibney (a lot, actually) but If It Bleeds made me fall in love with her again, and I eagerly awaited for her return. Now, luckily, only three years have passed and Stephen King has brought her back in Holly, his new novel, published on September 5th, 2023. This book will be the first one where Holly Gibney is the main character of a novel and she surely deserves it.
Holly starts with an excerpt that was originally published by Entertainment Weekly (January 23, 2023). Jorge Castro, a university teacher of creative writing and Latin American Lit in an old city that’s hasn’t been kept up anymore but there are parts that are still pretty nice, and decides that the fine drizzle outside won’t stop him from his evening’s run. That turns out to be a mistake, the last one he’ll ever make.
Jorge is missing and you know why but the rest of the world doesn’t. Ten years pass by, we’re in 2021, the world’s population continues to move on, while surviving Covid’s pandemic, and a desperate woman named Penny Dahl calls Finders Keepers, Holly Gibney’s detective agency, seeking help to find her missing daughter. Holly isn’t sure if she should pick up the case. Her mother just passed away and she needs to stop and think about her future. But there’s something in Penny’s voice that makes her decide to help her. As she’ll soon discover, Jorge and Bonnie Dahl are not the only persons gone missing in this area during the last few years.
Not far from the place where Bonnie was seen for the last time, are where married octogenarian Professors, Rodney and Emily Harris, live. They are semi-retired academics and well respected… however… no one knows about the secret they keep in the basement of their big house filled with books, a secret that might be related to Bonnie’s disappearance.
Now take another look at the cover art. It begins to make more sense, doesn’t it?
When Stephen King started working on this story, he didn’t have the plot in mind but just one very clear scene: Holly Gibney, her mother’s passing, the Covid pandemic and the best friend we had in 2020 and 2021: the Zoom app. He started writing the story with that scene in his mind without knowing what else was going to happen but sure that he’d unveil and discover what lay ahead. The answer soon arrived when he read a tabloid’s headline that I won’t divulge here but would have probably made me sick and smile at the same time. From that moment on, the story was clear in King’s mind.
We know Holly, we saw her grow, evolve and improve through her adventures. And while her previous appearances showed us the most important aspects of her personality and life, there were questions in her life, and Stephen King answered several of them in this novel. Through the 464 pages there are parts of her story that act as interludes between those disappearances she investigates, and I found those pauses necessary because, if not, I’d not been able to put the book down. I consider The Outsider one of Stephen King’s darkest books, one of those that shows us that while he got a little perceptive after surviving his terrible accident, he still could have fun while scaring us, but this one goes a lot deeper. There are chapters in Holly that made me feel physically sick, where I said out loud “Come one, Stephen. You can’t be such an as*hole with ***** (a character I won’t name). I had to face that awful feeling of inevitable loss that King knows how to present so well (and that we hate so much).
But not everything is bleak and dark: darkness can also make us grin. One thing is for sure about Holly: Stephen King had fun writing it. He clearly enjoyed those passages with Rodney and Emily, with their conversations and plans, with health issues knocking on the door of their Victorian house every now and then. Politics are also present. Yes, you’re going to meet characters against vaccination, masks, and Trump supporters. Stephen King has always had strong opions about politics, since his college days, you may not like some of these passages, but it’s obvious that Stephen King had fun writing those parts of the story as well.
The Holly Gibney Universe (yeah, we can use that term from now on. Six books allows us) also brings back other characters from previous tales. Some earned more space, like Barbara, and other stories were not relevant in Holly, such as Jerome’s. Their fathers are barely mentioned and that’s okay. Every single character in Holly has the perfect space and that’s not a surprise. Stephen King has been a master creating characters since the 70s. Be aware that there are “spoilers” from all previous Holly Gibney appearances in Holly, so bear that in mind before reading this novel.
Last but not least is that this book is just demanding a Stephen King adaptation. A movie adaptation might be a better fit but if someone wants to expand the plot and characters, a streaming series would be as great. But please, nothing that’s below a Mature rating. This story deserves its darkness to be respected.
Stephen King is about to turn 76 and he’s still on top of his game. Holly is, once again, a perfect example that he’s hit his target, dead center.
This review will appear in the 2024 Stephen King Catalog Annual being released later in 2023.
You can see all the HOLLY versions we have to offer here at Stephen King Catalog.