Kate’s Review: “Gwendy’s Button Box”

34430839Book: “Gwendy’s Button Box” by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

Publishing Info: Cemetery Dance Publications, May 2017

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Book Description: The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Journey back to Castle Rock again in this chilling new novella by Stephen King, bestselling author of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, and Richard Chizmar, award-winning author of A Long December. This book will be a Cemetery Dance Publications exclusive with no other editions currently planned anywhere in the world!

Review: One of my favorite things about Stephen King (and there are so, so many things to love about this man, in my opinion) is that he likes to make references to his past works within his books. It makes it feel like his stories exist in their own universe, and it makes it fun to try and spot references as you read his books. He also brings some characters from some books into other books. For example, in his Science Fiction/Suspense book “11/22/63”, his main character travels back in time to stop the Kennedy Assassination… and makes a detour in Derry, Maine, the infected town in “It”. We even got to see some of the characters from “It” in that book, even though they were definitely just treats for his readers. But the character that he does this the most with is Randall Flagg, aka The Man in Black, aka The Walkin’ Dude, aka Walter O’Dim. Flagg is mostly seen in “The Stand” and “The Dark Tower” Series, but every once in awhile he’ll show up in other King works. It’s rumored that he’s He Who Walks Behind The Rows in “The Children of the Corn”, and Raymond Fiegler in “Hearts in Atlantis”. I’m always on the look out for Flagg to come back, as he’s one of my favorite villains of all time.

And in “Gwendy’s Button Box”, the new novella by King and Richard Chizmar, it’s very possible that he has.

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M-O-O-N that spells ELATED! (source)

Gwendy is a typical awkward pre-teen girl. Teased by her peers and living a less than ideal home life, she’s taken it upon herself to slim down before she starts high school. She does this by running up a very steep set of stairs every day in her hometown of Castle Rock, Maine. And it’s on one of these days that she meets Richard Farris, a mysterious stranger wearing a black hat and coat. The Initials R.F. tell us right away that this is very likely to be Flagg, as does his appearance due to his penchant for wearing black. Oh, and the fact he gives her a magical box covered in buttons, and tells her that it is her responsibility at this moment to keep this box safe. While he doesn’t say it outright, he implies that pressing the buttons could have dire consequences for the world around her. It’s such a terrifying and fascinating concept to hold such a small yet powerful thing in your hands, and Gwendy is the one who is going to be the keeper of that responsibility. At least for now. This is Flagg at a more benign level, as he feels less destructive and more impish, almost like a mentor to Gwendy. The Box rewards her with beautiful chocolate animals, antique coins, and a boost of self esteem. While it didn’t feel like the Randall Flagg that I know and love, this potentially kinder, gentler Randall was pretty fun to read and rather ‘aw’ inducing. After all, how kind and gentle could he be truly if he knows that this box could potentially spell doom for mankind if it falls into the wrong hands?

I think that King and Chizmar did a very good job of writing Gwendy. Even though this is a novella and doesn’t have many pages to delve into her psyche, I felt that she was a realistic and relatable pre-teen girl. She isn’t too popular, she is unsure of herself, and she is happy to take the highs of this box and it’s responsibilities, but reluctant and scared of the lows. I enjoyed that as I was reading this book it was hard to know if there was a cause and effect going on, at least part of the time. When Gwendy pushes one of the buttons, shortly thereafter the Jonestown Massacre happens. Is that coincidence? Or did Gwendy cause it? It’s philosophical tension at it’s finest, making the reader question if she has any affect on the world, or if Richard Farris (aka Randall Flagg) is merely toying with her. She struggles with the knowledge that she has this thing that could potentially be destructive, and yet lives for the perks that it may be giving her. I also think that King and Chizmar did a good job of capturing adolescence as a whole, even if a magical button box wasn’t there. Gwendy makes friends, loses others, finds first love and has to deal with cruel and bad people who are in her life, and it always felt so real and bittersweet watching her go through her teenage years, button box or not.

King and Chizmar created a pretty cohesive book. It’s hard enough to pull off a novella, to hit all the points that you want to hit, and I imagine that doing it with another person is harder still. But it never felt like I was reading two competing voices in this book. It sounds like they created a system that worked for the two of them, and I have to say that I was very impressed with what they came up with. It has that undercurrent of thriller, wondering if Gwendy is going to keep hitting buttons and cause a catastrophe. But it also has that coming of age feel as Gwendy learns about herself and life. Given that King and his son Owen just wrote another book together, I see this as a positive sign that King has the ability to adapt, or at least tweak, his writing to mesh with another person’s.

“Gwendy’s Button Box” was a quick and very satisfying read. We get a nice taste of a return of The Walkin’ Dude, but we also get a heroine grounded in realism, and an existential crisis that kept this reader on the edge of her seat.

Rating 8: Filled with ambiguity and philosophical horror, “Gwendy’s Button Box” doesn’t only bring us back to Castle Rock, it may bring back The Man In Black. King and Chizmar work well to make a cohesive story between two voices.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Gwendy’s Button Box” is fairly new and isn’t on many Goodreads lists. It is, however, on “Best Books to Read In Summer”, and I think that it would fit in on “Weird and Freaky Books”, partially because Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button” is on that list and this book is super similar.

Find “Gwendy’s Button Box” at your library using WorldCat!

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