Fable-like, fatalistic

This is Stephen King channelling Paulo Coelho, set in the American heartland that King is famous for

There’s a lot packed into the 160 pages of Stephen King’s newest novella, Elevation. There’s social commentary, there’s action-emotion-drama, there’s weird fantasy. Even so, King leaves us with the feeling that there’s something missing here.

The book stars Scott Carey, a middle-aged man who’s always struggled with keeping his weight in control. Something strange is happening to him: he’s getting lighter, although he looks the same. Even with heavy clothes on, or carrying further weight, the scales show his weight going down by the day. In the tradition of King, this is nothing that medicine, or even physics, can explain. Based on the steady pace of weight loss, Scott is able to calculate that he has a scarce few months left — and then his weight will go into the negative numbers. Since he lives alone, he doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it, but there’s a doctor friend who offers solace of a sort.

In the meantime, he’s been engaged in a feud of sorts with his neighbours: a married lesbian couple, outsiders to the town, who are trying to run a vegan Mexican restaurant but failing. The townsfolk are unwilling to accept the couple — and the restaurant — because of the couple’s sexual orientation. Scott’s feud has a more prosaic reason: their dogs keep leaving messes on his lawn. Too late, he sees that the couple has taken his objections to the dogs to be just an extension of the town’s more deep-seated prejudice.

But if Scott has been less than warm to the couple initially, the townsfolk have been below-freezing to them. At some point, it becomes too much for Scott, and he decides that he needs to help them out somehow. Not that they want his help. His attempts to start off afresh with them on a friendly note are rebuffed. They’ve had enough of the snobbery disguised as “offers to help” from others.

The two threads — weightlessness and social commentary — come together through a sporting event. The town, Castle Rock, has an annual tradition of a long run during Thanksgiving. One of the women plans to take part. Scott sets up a bet with her for the event — they’ll have coffee together in case he wins.

His weight loss is his secret weapon. But will he be able to actually win it? And will this rather far-fetched plan work in helping the town move forward?

If this all sounds rather strange, it is. The characters are not as fleshed out as in other of King’s work, and the plot seems like a sort of wish-fulfilment fantasy: I want to make a difference to the world, teach everyone the right way to live. Instead of sharing his fears, King is sharing his hopes.

The mood of the book is fable-like, fatalistic. The way the weight loss itself is treated exemplifies this difference. Here it can be seen as a symbol for a limited lifetime, instead of a real thing. Beyond the initial shock, Scott and his friends aren’t really trying to fix the mysterious affliction. They just kind of accept the inevitable. So, if you’re looking to read this book because it’s Stephen King and you like horror fiction, don’t. This is Stephen King channelling Paulo Coelho, set in the American heartland that King is famous for.

Elevation winds up stuck in a no-man’s land where the pieces fit together too neatly to be literary fiction, while the approach to the ‘otherworldly’ events is too matter-of-fact to be horror.

There are still slender threads connecting Elevation to his huge body of other work. The loss of weight, of course, reminds you of another novel, Thinner. The setting is Castle Rock, King’s favourite location. A college music band references Pennywise the clown from his book It. Gwendy’s Button Box, another recent book, shares the setting, a couple of locations, and even a bit of the feel with Elevation. For long-time fans, these little moments of recognition will bring cheer in an otherwise off-colour story.

Over the course of the last few books, it feels like King is in the process of casting aside his horror mooring and writing more “literary” fiction. Perhaps that explains the less powerful, slapdash monsters in his recent work, and the emphasis on realistic people with real-world problems. But literary fiction has its own conventions, its own references and subtlety, and King is only partially successful with these conventions. His recent shorter fiction published in mainstream magazines, for example, reads much better.

Elevation winds up stuck in a no-man’s land where the pieces fit together too neatly to be literary fiction, while the approach to the ‘otherworldly’ events is too matter-of-fact to be horror.

It says something for King’s following that Elevation was nominated in the Horror category on Goodreads in 2018 — and won the Audience choice award, too. But, while this book features King’s expected command over writing, it falls short in the numerous themes it tries to tackle. And that’s not just because of its short length.

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Fable-like, fatalistic

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