In the course of his majorly prolific career, Stephen King has collaborated successfully on a number of projects, notably “The Talisman” and “Black House,” dark epic fantasies co-written with Peter Straub. Now, specialty publisher Cemetery Dance brings us King’s latest collaborative effort, and it’s something quite different. “Gwendy’s Button Box,” written in conjunction with Cemetery Dance founder Richard Chizmar, is a modest but resonant novella set in one of King’s signature locales: the small town of Castle Rock, Maine.
Castle Rock, a name derived from William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” has been the site of numerous novels and stories. King destroyed the town in his 1991 novel “Needful Things,” but Castle Rock stories still find their way into the world. This one begins in 1974 and takes us through 10 years in the life of Gwendy Peterson.
As the story opens, Gwendy is 12 years old. She is a bright, sensible girl with a weight problem she is determined to correct. For reasons she will never understand, Gwendy has come to the attention of a mysterious man in black named Richard Farris, who brings her a unique and dangerous gift: the button box of the title. That box is the enigmatic engine that runs beneath the surface of this book. Its properties include the ability to dispense gifts (chocolate, silver dollars) as well as the capacity to alter the lives of those nearby. Mostly, though, it is a color-coded Doomsday Machine. Each of the colored buttons on its surface has as its “target” a specific continent. (And then there’s that cancerous looking black button, the one that will destroy everything.) In the world of this story, apocalypse is no more than a button push away.
The narrative moves quickly and with great economy through Gwendy’s decade-long stewardship of the world’s most dangerous device. The cosmic elements of the story merge neatly with the sort of mundane details King has always delivered so effectively. Gwendy’s progress through awkward adolescence to mature young adulthood is consistently credible, and provides a solid foundation for the story’s larger, more universal concerns, such as the ongoing human capacity for self-destruction.
Given the locale and overall tone of the book, it would be tempting to regard this as just another Stephen King story, but it isn’t. It is a collaboration, and a seamless one at that. Chizmar, whose best short fiction was recently collected in “A Long December,” is an excellent writer with a clear affinity for King’s brand of storytelling, which includes a clear, idiomatic prose style and a flair for creating instantly recognizable characters. Together, he and King have created what is both a superior addition to the never-quite-finished saga of Castle Rock and a cautionary tale directed toward a world that grows crazier – and more incomprehensible — with every passing day.
Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Cemetery Dance. 180 pp. $25