We hear Stephen King’s name and instantly recognize him. He’s the mastermind behind many of today’s best horror stories and pop culture’s most memorable monsters. With magnum opuses like The Shining, The Stand, Misery, and It under his sleeve, you could argue that King is one of the leaders when it comes to deep and enthralling novels that break past the boundaries of page counts. With that said, it is easy to overlook the fact that King is also a master of the novella.
It really doesn’t matter what the format; anything written by this authorial titan is bound to be excellent, which is why I present to you one of his latest novellas Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. Number one in a 4-story collection titled If It Bleeds, this short masterpiece provides the perfect opener to the proceeding novellas while standing fantastically on its own.
If you’re interested in reading Stephen King but are worried that doing so will take a toll on your already troubling sleep habits (ahem…cellphones in bed…ahem), then rest assured because this short 88-page sweep contains the best elements of his works while keeping the terror approachable. And for those of you who are looking for sudden heart palpitations, that’s not to say that Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is lacking in spookiness and simple WTF moments. The true beauty of this novella is its seamless balancing and complimenting of these elements.
Mild spoilers ahead for the sake of context – you’ll get the full depth from actually reading it.
This story is set in the perspective of Craig, a boy who we experience growing from early adolescence to adulthood. At the cusp of the story, his life is marked by the presence of a man called Mr. Harrigan, who hires Craig to read to him and water his plants. The two form a bond over the next few years, which culminates eventually with the other word in the title: phone. It’s important to consider that Mr. Harrigan is a retired billionaire and this story takes place prior to the 2010s, right around when the first iPhones were emerging onto the world stage. For those of you who are Gen-Zer’s, you’ll get a pretty nice surge of nostalgia from reading about Craig and Mr. Harrigan’s testing of the “new” technology. It’s about halfway through that things take a scary turn. Craig is a teenager trying to survive middle and high school, dealing with the problems that characterize such a turbulent time, plus some spooky stuff…
What defines Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, as with many of Stephen King’s best works, is not the magnitude of fright induced by his monsters; rather the way he builds suspense through creating questions in your mind. Just looking at the title, you can’t help wondering what the hell is up with that old billionaire’s phone that compelled Stephen King, the master of horror, to write a novella about it. I was under the same spell when I first looked it over.
In classic King fashion, he builds up the narrative around the focal character Craig; we see his life, his family, and his hometown of Harlow, Maine (this is Stephen King, so what did you expect?), which culminated with his meeting, working for, and befriending Mr. Harrigan. Through simple things, such as mailed lottery tickets, the untold backstory of Mr. Harrigan and his fortune, and the particularly isolated setting of Harlow, Maine induce a hoard of questions that seem almost unconsciously originated but are deeply tied to the story as a whole. You’ll surely find yourself standing back, in awe of the silhouette King constructed. As time and change progress, additional questions are added, creating a feedback loop of answers and uncertainty—the wheels of any grand narrative. If you ever thought being busy would deprive you of experiencing full and rich stories, think again and indulge yourself with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.
If you were not already aware, words have no limits. Though this novella is only 88-pages long, it manages to pull off what some full-length novels can’t. In all of Stephen King’s works, there’s a sense of reality that is unshakable (perhaps, that’s why his books are so terrifying). One is never in doubt that places like Harlow, Maine, Stovington, Vermont, or Shawshank State Penitentiary are real in and of themselves, even if they don’t exist in our world physically and geographically.
Where that realism shines brightest is in regard to Mr. Harrigan himself. Seen from the limited and still-developing perspective of Craig, there is a sense that you, as the reader, will be forever uncertain of everything the man’s life entailed while also believing that he could have existed seamlessly in our world—that there was a place for him. Such is increased by the fact that King sews historical events, the release of the first iPhone in this case, into the fabric of the story. There is no Mr. Harrigan’s Phone without Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. The characters live and respond to the world we knew a little over a decade ago—a world many of us grew up in—and that fact is what makes the more chilling aspects of this story so powerful.
Though Stephen King’s stories are often characterized by their proficiency at instilling suspense, terror, and the occasional gross-out, as the author humorously admitted in an interview, the real magnetism of his stories derives from how those elements backdrop the characters and their relationships. In Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, the one that stands out above all is that between Craig and Mr. Harrigan. There is initially a great deal of suspense regarding these two, which harkens back to the section on King’s ability to power his works with interesting questions. What does this retired billionaire find so intriguing about Craig? What are his intentions? And why does Craig enjoy working for Mr. Harrigan? Where will this lead? Uncertainty marks every relationship in King’s works—Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is no exception—and that is one of the fundamental reasons why this work is so enthralling.
Another deeper aspect of this comes to light when Mr. Harrigan’s character is given more context. He was a ruthless business tycoon. There is something nail-bitingly interesting about watching genuine good-natured interactions with a character that may be borderline psychopathic (based on his own description of himself later in the novella), through the relatable perspective of Craig.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, as demonstrated above, is a perfect icebreaker into the world of Stephen King. Short yet profound, it contains all of the elements of one of his full-length novels and can easily make other works of fiction look meager by comparison. Considering that it is only the first in a 4-novella collection, each with progressively scarier titles (The Life of Chuck, If It Bleeds, and Rat), it serves as the delicious first bite, ensuring that your pallet is ready for what’s to come in the next three stories. Now, go buy yourself a copy and enjoy!
Featured Image via amazon & Cult Faction