If you participate in Bluesky or X (formerly Twitter), you may follow the account called The Midnight Society. If you’ve run across their delightful posts, which imagine conversations among various horror writers throughout history, you might have seen a recent one which featured imaginary J.K. Rowling and Stephen King trading barbs over relative book-length. It had resonance for me because I’d just finished 2023’s Holly, and I have to admit, I was relieved when I bought it and found out it was less than 500 pages in length.
Almost as soon as I opened the book, I stopped thinking about page count. We meet the villains of the book immediately, along with a writer and an aging poet, somewhere in the Midwest, in a college town in the scary days of the Covid pandemic. King makes sure we know what the stakes are, and just how bad our villains are, but the star of this book is Holly Gibney, a private investigator trying to make a living and wrestling with her own demons. When we first see Holly, she has disconnected from a Zoom funeral—for her mother, who died of Covid in a hospital. Holly’s mother refused to get vaccinated. Trying to distract herself from the loss, Holly reluctantly takes a missing person case. Penny Dahl’s daughter, Bonnie, is an adult, but something about her abrupt departure from town—or possible suicide–doesn’t sit right with her mother, and as Holly looks into it, it doesn’t sit right with her either.
Bonnie Dahl is not the first person to go missing, and Holly and her friends Jeremy and Barbara Robinson find other people, and start closing in on the perpetrators. Since the book shifts point of view and we often see what’s happening in the home of the monsters, the tension soon ratchets up. In case you’re wondering how, without spoilers, here are two words: wood chipper. As to how evil the monsters are; they are hugely evil, and evil in small, vicious ways, like leaving a forged suicide note on Bonnie’s bicycle in order to deflect suspicion, unconcerned for the effect it will have on her family and friends. They are racists and bigots, which I believed, but King didn’t need that to convey their monstrousness.
King never misses a chance to tweak academics. Professorial foolishness is part of the story—so are turf wars and feuds. Aging and the fear of it loom large on the page, as many of the people Holly interviews are retired, in their late seventies or older. And the book is clearly set during the pandemic. Holly, who is a bit of a hypochondriac already, is hyper-vigilant, wearing her mask, using hand sanitizer and even donning gloves. She’s in marked contrast to many of the people she talks to, who even look at her with pity as they explain that Covid is a hoax and no worse than the flu. At the other end of the continuum are the people who tell her it is a government conspiracy and a weaponized virus. People close to her get sick, get hospitalized. This is not the definitive “Covid book,” but King accurately and concretely recreates those years.
King is the master of swears and foul language, and after a lifetime of reading him I laughed out loud at least twice when Holly mentally described a bad day as “poopy.”
In many ways this is more a detective drama than horror novel. The two monsters are so scary because they are out in plain sight. Their placement in society provides them with an early-warning system when the investigation starts, and they are one step ahead of Holly through most of the book.
The story follows Holly as she pulls together the clues, while also struggling to understand the massive lie she discovers her mother told her. Jeremy Robinson and his younger sister Barbara have their own lives as well; both are hovering on the precipice of success in their chosen fields, which makes Barbara, in particular, vulnerable, as her friendship with the aging poet laureate puts her into close proximity of the killers.
I still did find parts of the book slow, mostly when it shifted to the everyday lives of Holly and her friends. The writing is good, and I care about those characters, but I’ll confess to getting jittery because most of my mind was back in that cage in the basement with the victim(s). I found the old, clear-minded and insightful poet who mentors Barbara to be a bit sentimentalized, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like her.
King manages to convince me that Holly can prevail over these creatures, and bring them to justice, although it’s certainly not conventional justice. The pleasure of this book is watching Holly grow into herself. We’ve seen her evolve since Mr. Mercedes; here, as the title character and protagonist, she comes into her own. Holly has a satisfying ending, and leaves me ready to read another one of her adventures.