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Stephen King isn’t short on plaudits for his many diverse
achievements, but fans with short memories may have forgotten that the author
was an early adopter and champion of on-line publishing. Over cries of “fad” from
many in print media, King years ago lent name-brand credibility to the e-book
by releasing his unfinished novel THE PLANT and short tale RIDING THE BULLET as on-line exclusives. King’s story UR made its debut in glowing liquid crystal,
and he recently granted visitors to his website a number of free downloadable
chapters from an early version of UNDER THE DOME called THE CANNIBALS. That
fearless, forward mindset earned King a 2000 Time magazine cover and feature
article praising his vision, so it’s no surprise to see King continuing his
Internet infatuation, with his new e-novella MILE 81 (Simon & Schuster)
speeding across unwary computer screens everywhere.
With this tale offered so soon after the riled rattlesnake
called FULL DARK, NO STARS, readers might be bracing themselves for something
comparably harsh and dour. Instead, MILE 81 reads like a ricochet from King’s
early short-fiction period, a time when he sold his terse supernatural
thrillers to whichever magazine editor valued lurid shock over good taste. If
not for the inclusion of modern touchstones like iPads and Justin Bieber, MILE
81 could easily tuck inside King’s 1985 collection SKELETON CREW and not
disrupt the tenor of that classic book one smidgen.
The opening of MILE 81 sees a young boy named Pete exploring
an abandoned highway rest stop in an effort to demonstrate his bravery to the
neighborhood crew of preteen daredevils. As is almost always the case when King
writes kids, Pete’s meanderings and entertaining inner monologues come across
as perfectly authentic (Pete’s hilarious idea for a sequel to Bieber’s
corn-syrup hit “Baby” is worth the story’s three-buck price tag by itself).
Soon the story’s hammer drops in the form of a nondescript, mud-blotted station
wagon appearing in the rest stop’s parking lot and simply waiting. A logjam of
characters unwittingly present themselves to complicate things and, since King
no longer dabbles much in the pool of traditional monsters that were a hallmark
of his early days, MILE 81 should be celebrated as the day King took on the
notion of the vehicular Venus Flytrap.
Yes, brain cells will need some quieting down as the whole
thing threatens to sink under the silliness of the setup and a very
questionable resolution, but just approach with Saturday-matinee good cheer and
enjoy these retro King stylings as a diversion before his presumably weightier
novel 11/22/63 hits store shelves in two months’ time (a short preview for that
book is included after MILE 81 concludes).
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