Also Known As ‘Nice Thinner’
Stephen King’s most recent book is a slim little number called Elevation. It clocks in at a featherweight count of 160 pages, and is what we fiction writers would refer to as a “novella” or, as it’s known in layman terms, a “short novel.” But let’s be clear, this is a story–not a novel. Don’t let the novel-sized $20 price point fool you. This thing is a coaster with pages.
However, the story itself came as an even bigger surprise than the mini-sized book and low page count. If you know anything about Stephen King, you’ll know that he used to enjoy writing under the thinly-veiled pseudonym of Richard Bachman. He did this not because Bachman’s content was wildly different than King’s, but more so because King’s prolificity was such that he couldn’t be contained to a single novel per year. Publishers of the long-ago didn’t put out two books by the same author in a 12-month time frame. So King invented Bachman to help flood the world with horror.
Arguably the most famous of the Bachman novels, and the one that finally outed Bachman’s true person, was a neat little trick of grim horror called Thinner. It’s the story of a fat guy who gets cursed by a gypsy and immediately starts losing weight at a dramatic rate, slowly killing the poor bastard. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but I’ll say this: It ain’t kittens and rainbows.
Which brings me back to Elevation, which, for all effective purposes, is a weirdly modernized re-telling of Thinner. In Elevation, King tells the story of a fat guy who wakes up one day and realizes he’s losing weight at a dramatic rate, slowly killing the poor bastard. Ah! But there’s a twist: This time, the guy’s not physically shedding pounds and getting creepy and skeletal ala Thinner. This time the weight-loss is more…ethereal. The guy looks the same, eats the same, but somehow, for no damn good reason at all, his effective mass on gravity is lessened and lessened until, by the end of the story, he’s literally running marathons and leaping through the air like he’s on the moon.
In Thinner, the protagonist hired hit men to murder gypsy families while his friends turned into lepers and alligators. That was so 1980. Elevation, on the other hand, is a nice story. Everything about it is super-duper nice. The Poor Bastard doesn’t even seem to mind that he’s, you know, dying. And even nicer yet, he uses his strange floaty gift to help the townsfolk (there’s always townsfolk in a King story) realize the error of their ways when they fail to embrace the new lesbian couple that move into town and open a restaurant.
I won’t get into the how’s and why’s of the Poor Bastard’s incredibly nice methodology for helping the couple, but I will say that the book ends with a fuzzy warm vibe, kind of the last thing you’d expect from a Stephen King book. I mean, what’s more politically correct than “dying white guy saves small-town lesbians from the prejudice and hate of the redneck townspeople?” Not only that, but even the townspeople turn nice by the end of it. The story has turned into It’s A Wonderful Life by the time you flip page 160.
So what does this mean? Has King gone soft? Has his uber-pleasant son and bestselling author Joe Hill had such a strong effect on King that he’s writing gentle horror now?
I don’t think so.
King’s last novel (like, real novel) was a gruesome volume called The Outsider (highly recommended) in which little kids are raped with tree branches then strangled to death. So no, he hasn’t gone soft. But with Elevation, King has essentially written the anti-Thinner. He basically retells the same story but this time with a left-leaning message. He transforms the feel of the piece from a gut-wrenching, violent and gruesome story of death, murder and revenge into a really nice story about kindness and being nice to same-sex couples.
While I don’t think King set out to re-write Thinner, I do think he chose this moment to tell a story that’s literally uplifting. Maybe he believed the world could use a little splash of nice right about now. So, kudos to King on a nice story that I highly recommend, even if I’m not thrilled with the inflated price-point. That said, if his next release is about a sick dog that transforms a town by spreading “good rabies,” I’m out.
(Scribner, October 30, 2018)