The Short Version: Brady Hartsfield was put into a coma at the end of Mr. Mercedes. In the years since, he has come out of it but remains nearly vegetative – or so it would appear. But Brady has his old nemesis, Bill Hodges, on the brain and that brain has achieved some decidedly psychic capabilities. When otherwise healthy individuals begin committing suicide, Hodges is drawn into the case – a race against time not only to save those he loves, but against his own ailing body, too…
The Review: Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, Stephen King ‘returns’ to supernatural horror in this third volume of his Bill Hodges trilogy. The first two novels were straightforward mysteries, although I’d argue that they were just as horrifying (if not more so) than his traditionally-shelved horror novels: I’ll never, ever, forget the stomach-churning, jaw-dropping, emotionally potent sequence that opens Mr. Mercedes, with Brady’s rampage – it’s some of King’s scariest writing to date. And, just as he didn’t give up on the thrills and chills in the first two novels of this trilogy, so too does he not give up on the mystery/procedural part of it in this third one. Yes, the supernatural is in play – but this is still, first and foremost, a detective novel.
Of course, King has (from moment one) been turning the tropes of the genre to his own particular ends and it remains delightful to watch him stretch and explore when most writers of his status could stay in the comfort zone and never stray. But King is a reader’s writer and he still retains that youthful joy of delivering a good story, well told – no matter what the so-called “genre”. So as the clock starts ticking at the beginning of this novel (whose present tense action only takes place over a few days), we’re drawn in firstly because we care about Bill and are worried about him – and secondly because of the ticking-clock trappings of this particular sort of detective story.
It was pretty clear, as soon as King announced that there’d be a trilogy about Hodges, that Brady Hartsfield would return and that these two knights would clash again. It’s Harry Hole and Tom Waaler, Holmes and Moriarty, George Smiley and Karla, Batman and the Joker – the list goes on, but the fact remains: the good guy never vanquishes the bad on the first try. A final reckoning will come, an ultimate battle of good and evil – and there’s always the chance that the good guy won’t make it out alive. King sets up his story to encompass these traditional postures, but he also writes like, well, Stephen King and so the story feels if not new, somehow new-ish.
This also may have to do with the ways in which King does warp the standard structures. For one thing, Brady’s plot is a thing of diabolic mischief, a referendum on the potential terrors and dangers of technology in a way that seems almost (but thankfully not quite) grumpy-old-man. Strange old-school-GameBoy-esque consoles – a retro fad that seems entirely plausible, right down to it having not caught on – that, with a simple hack, are turned into subliminal messaging devices… it sounds like the sort of thing Tipper Gore would’ve been unnecessarily freaking out about twenty years ago but there’s just enough potential-reality here to make it feel a little scary. Who’s to say that our devices – or the games on them, more aptly – couldn’t be hacked and changed to manipulate our subconscious? Hell, the popular puzzle game Two Dots just recently updated in such a way that “reward videos” (watch a 15-30 second clip, get a bonus or puzzle-boost) now buzz your phone just once to alert you. Naturally, you look down at it when it buzzes – and so the messaging is actually forcing you to see it. Not quite the same, but it’s something to think about.
Brady’s plan is, of course, far more nefarious than encouraging you to see the new Independence Day movie: he wants people to commit suicide. Something happened during his coma (and King leaves it up to interpretation) that, during his recovery, allowed him to not only move things with his mind but actually jump into people’s brains for a spell. He uses this invasion to nudge his victims into their deaths and King delivers a couple of suicide scenes that, much like the rampage that began the first book, will haunt my nightmares for years to come – but it’s because he manages to make these cameo characters into fully-realized human beings in the space of just a few pages that their deaths are so affecting. Anybody can write a death scene, but how often are horror novels littered with deaths that are ultimately shrug-worthy, even if they affect you in the moment of the reading? Here, King proves once again (not that he needs to prove anything at this point) that he’s an absolute master of the written word.
The novel rockets along from word one – there’s little background on the story as it has played out so far, so readers would be warned not to jump in without having read the other two books first – and it, at times, does have a careening or lurching quality to its pace: we jump back and forth in time, catching the reader up on Brady over the last few years before dropping back into the present. There were a few moments where I was surprised that the action was taking place over only a few days, because it just seemed like so much more time had passed. And the Finders Keepers team is only together for the final third of the book, making this much more about Bill than about the team of Bill, Jerome, and Holly – not a bad move, by any means, but Jerome’s arrival in the final third presages a move to serious plot-based storytelling. Still, I couldn’t help but cheer when he showed up – and I’m ever thankful that he did. And King even manages to make the sigh-inducing flash-forward-recap epilogue seem like a fitting conclusion to his trilogy – a trilogy that broke the rules and rewrote them, even as it paid homage and fit entirely into the boundaries it set for itself. Thankee-sai, as they say.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Certainly a strong conclusion to the trilogy, although it’s a bit scattered at times and definitely increasingly plot-heavy. Still, King knows how to take a pause that matters and how to bring even the briefest appearance to its maximum emotional fruition. This is, yes, a ‘return’ to the supernatural – but, really, it just happens to be a supernatural mystery novel, not the other way around. The Bill Hodges Trilogy has proved that King can write whatever he sets his mind to, no matter the genre, and that he will always still do it with his one-of-a-kind voice and mastery. Oh and he’ll scare the daylights out of you, too.