Tracing Trails : Gwendy’s Button Box
The final new book of this project.
As a brief editor’s note, I should mention that at the time this review is being posted, we are a month or so removed from the release of Sleeping Beauties, King’s collaboration with his younger son, Owen. Because of the timing, I won’t be including that review as a part of this project. However, when I compile all of these into the format of a book, that review will be included as bonus content.
Keeping this on Gwendy, this book represented only the second author King has collaborated with in this fashion. He worked with his son, Joe Hill, on a short story but in terms of books, the only other ones were the two titles he co-wrote with Peter Straub.
I’ll be honest, I have had no experience with the work of Richard Chizmar. I’ve been aware of Cemetary Dance publications for some time as well as the gorgeous books they produce. Their anniversary edition of IT is the crown jewel of my tiny book collection. The point is that I had no kind of road map or expectations going into this book. So in a way, I suppose you could say that End Of Watch was the last book I read that was completely Stephen King. With this, it’s hard for me to really evaluate who’s who. As much as I’d like to say that I’ve become so familiar with King’s tone that I can identify who wrote which sentence, my dumb brain just doesn’t work that way. Ultimately, for me, there’s really no way to know where King ends and Chizmar begins. In any authorial collaboration, it’s pretty much impossible to separate one voice from the next, unless one of the authors is Tarzan or Jar Jar.
I can say that having just finished End Of Watch that this book felt consistently in line. I’ll be completely honest and admit that seeing this coming out in such close proximity to Sleeping Beauties, it was hard to not immediately think of Tom Clancy. For those who might not be aware, Clancy began at some point in the mid-nineties to authorize books with his name but written by other authors. At first, this was limited to a special series of books, separate from the main universe he wrote in but that bubble slowly expanded until, for the last chunk of his career, pretty much all of Clancy’s books were being penned by someone else. Even now, despite the fact that he passed away several years ago, we are still seeing new books hitting the market with his name on the cover. An author that I loved as a child eventually become essentially a brand name.
And to be clear, I don’t feel like I have the right to criticize Tom Clancy for taking his career in this direction and if it were the case with King, I would also feel inappropriate in calling that out. Certainly both authors have proved the world many times over their ability to write beautiful books. I don’t see a conspiracy, as I suspect some people would. For me, it’s simply a matter of an author getting on in years and changing the way they work. And who’s to say how involved they are in the process? For all we know, Tom Clancy was sitting down with his writers, extensively outlining the books while not wanting to undertake the grueling work of writing out the actual prose.
I don’t feel for a second that King is checking out from his process or handing off the reins to someone else. My opinion is that he is likely just as invested in his craft as before. Having seen him speak in person as well as other interviews, I can sense the connection he feels with his work, something that I think wouldn’t be as evident if he wasn’t doing any of the actual writing. And I think there is more evidence of this in the recent announcement of a new (solo) King book, The Outsider, a mystery novel set for release in early 2018. So I’m not going to make this a treatise on hyper-analyzing each turn of phrase and conjunction to evaluate who deserves more of the credit. I’m just looking for an entertaining story. This, after all is likely the best legacy King has left for us.
When news came out regarding this book, much was made of the story being a return to Castle Rock, a long since abandoned locale for King and a product of what I think is the best stage of his career. I was both excited and nervous. How well would this hold up to what King has already done with the town? Needful Things was such a great sendoff, would this be a letdown?
In reality I would only classify this peripherally as being a “Castle Rock story”. There are some cool references here and there but otherwise, the actual story is the heart of this as opposed to the setting, as it should be.
And in this regard, the story is actually pretty entertaining. I thought it read as a kind of long form fable, but intended for an adult reader. The main character of the book, Gwendy, is gifted an ornate box with several buttons. This box has the ability to make her life qualitatively better. It also gives her the power to harness great destruction. How she deals with this power establishes a question of morality and integrity that runs throughout the whole book.
There is an interesting scene in which Gwendy is questioned by a teacher as to a moral decision. If you could kill anyone in the world, who would it be? The ensuing conversation is almost a microcosm for the entire book, more than likely intentional as Gwendy struggles with this notion from the moment she receives her special box.
As such, the book serves as an interesting version of a “what would you do?” type of story. It’s almost like a a long parable and I think that King and Chizmar did a good job making that concept entertaining, while at the same time thought-provoking. It isn’t an easy balance to strike and often stories of that nature seem to be heavy-handed or preachy but I actually enjoyed this. It wasn’t just about making some heavy-handed points through the specifics of the narrative. I really felt for Gwendy and her situation.
The mysterious stranger who gives Gwendy the box is definitely intriguing for me. I would love to know more about him and where he fits into the whole shared universe of King’s books. The language he uses in their first meeting, asking Gwendy to take a seat next to him on a bench so they can have a “palaver” had me thinking quite a bit of the Dark Tower. Not that I’m going to just declare this to be a Dark Tower book but I did appreciate the reference. A part of me did wonder if perhaps this stranger was indeed another manifestation of our friend Walter, Randall Flagg, the Man in Black. Seeing how the character behaves throughout the book though makes me think this isn’t likely. It’s fun to think about, especially in the occasional moments throughout the book that are creepy and unsettling, but looking at the larger picture, it’s a theory that I don’t think holds up in the actual text.
Stephen King has been a master of this craft for quite some time. I genuinely believe that there is at least one Stephen King book out there for everyone. His work has spanned more years than I’ve been alive and we have nearly lost him a number of times along the way. While he invited a partner to ride this particular trail with him, I think that his creativity and spark still shows through. I have faith and I have trust. And I’m excited to see what the future will bring.
My name is Chad Clark and I am proud to be a Constant Reader.
Chad A. Clark is an author of horror and science fiction. For more information on his literary universe, check out his official website or take a peek at his Amazon author page