[Spoiler Note: I have done my best to review the book without revealing spoilers. I think I’ve succeeded, but if you want to go into the story completely blind, you may want to skip this blog entry.]
Stephen King has been my favorite author since I read Misery close to three decades ago. While he’s a good short-story writer and I love his doorstopper-esque novels, I think he’s at his leanest-and-meanest in the novella form. From The Bachman Books to “The Mist” to the classics from his Different Seasons collection (“The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” being the best two, but “Apt Pupil” and “The Breathing Method” hold their own as well), King has proven he can pack one hell of a punch in limited space.
But even the masters get stuck sometimes, which was the case with the new King/Chizmar collaboration, entitled “Gwendy’s Button Box.” In the brief conversation at the end of the audiobook version, King admits to having a bunch of work done on the novella, but not knowing how to finish it off. Enter Rich Chizmar, founder of Cemetery Dance Publications. Chizmar has published numerous works by King in both CDP’s magazine and book imprint, so the two have a long-standing relationship. King mentioned the novella to Chizmar and offered to let him fill in the gaps; the rest, as they say, is history.
So how is the finished product? While I don’t think it rises to the level of any of the aforementioned classics, the story was an entertaining look at both stewardship and temptation, and in that capacity the duo accomplished what they set out to do.
The tale opens on twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson as she jogs up a cliffside — using a walkway called The Suicide Stairs — on her way to the park. At the top of the staircase she pauses to catch her breath and sees a man in black sitting on a bench. The gentleman, named Richard Farris (discerning King fans will notice the “R.F.” initials from previous stories), offers to give Gwendy a box with numerous buttons and levers on it. The man in black shows her that the box has nice surprises in it, such as one lever that produces delicious chocolates and another that offers up rare coins of significant monetary value. However, Mr. Farris is less informative as to the function of the buttons on the box, only giving Gwendy the vaguest sense of what they are for. Intrigued by the chocolates and coins (and an overwhelming sense that the box was meant for her), she agrees to take possession of the box until Mr. Farris returns to collect it from her.
What follows is a decade-long look at Gwendy’s time with the box and how it changes her life, both for better and worse. By story’s end there is no explanation for what the box represented or how it came to be; rather, it’s more of a commentary on a good person stewarding something mysterious and whether or not temptation will be too much for the owner to handle…
…and this is where I think readers may have problems with the book. First, Gwendy was masterful when it came to controlling her desire to find out what the box was fully capable of; as such, readers never get to see its potency in action. If Gwendy was the “point,” it would have been interesting to read about a “counterpoint” that didn’t exert as much willpower during his or her tenure. The other concern I have is that some readers will see the box in the same way they saw the gist of King’s The Colorado Kid – something has happened, but there’s no explanation and no “story” to go along with it. In this case, the ambiguity works on some levels. I don’t need the story to be wrapped up with a pretty little bow. If there’s a box in existence, and it does strange things, I’m able to accept that fact without a long-winded retelling of its genesis. But I do bring up this point because The Colorado Kid was a divisive book among fans, some people liking the untold mystery and some people hating the lack of a true “story.”
In the end, I give “Gwendy’s Button Box” a 7 out of 10. While I’m happy Rich was given an opportunity to finish off King’s novella and I was able to read new material from two fantastic authors, the story didn’t break any new ground and in some ways leaves readers wanting more. On one hand that can be a good feeling for a reader because it means the story was so engrossing he or she didn’t want it to end; in this case, the wanting occurred because there just wasn’t enough meat on some of the bones.
I listened to the audiobook version of the story for this review, which requires a few more comments from me before I finish up.
First, the talented Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, Billions) reads the stories, and she does a *phenomenal* job. Her voice added to and enhanced the tales, which is the best compliment I can pay a narrator. I’m not sure if she’s done this before, but if so, I’ll be tracking down the other material she worked on.
Next, the audiobook includes a short story from Stephen King, called “The Music Room.” It first saw publication in Playboy and has been made available online, if I’m not mistaken, but it was fun to hear Siff read this one too. “The Music Room” is short and sweet, detailing the unique way that a husband and wife make money during the Great Depression. Definitely track it down via audio or online if you haven’t experienced it already.
Last, the audiobook finished with a roughly five-minute “conversation” between King and Chizmar. I put quotes around “conversation” because it didn’t feel organic to me. Instead, it was almost as if they were being interviewed separately and then had their answers spliced together to make it sound like they were talking to each other. Add that to the poor audio quality (both men were talking on phones) and lack of content, and the conversation was probably better off left on the cutting-room floor.
In my opinion, the audiobook was the way to go, both because of the extra story (which was exclusive to that edition) as well as it being the cheapest method at the time of publication. That being said, the story is worth reading no matter the format, so choose what works best for you and give it a try. I’ll be interested to hear people’s thoughts as more reviews pop up online.
Until we meet again…