fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMile 81 by Stephen King

One of the best things about e-books is that many more novella-length works get stand-alone publication. You don’t have to search them out in magazines, or wait for the author to write several of them and combine them in a collection, or spend a large chunk of change for a special printing from a small press. As I’ve always thought that the novella was the form best suited for short science fiction, I’m pleased with this advance; it almost makes up for not being able to hold a real book in my hands, turning real pages.

One of the worst things about e-books, though, is that they disappear on one’s Kindle (or Nook, or tablet; whatever). You can’t really search through them the way you can scan a bookshelf. When you’re an inveterate collector of books, those e-book deals fill up your reader until you’ve forgotten you bought that cool novella by one of your favorite writers that you couldn’t wait to read. Which explains, I hope, why I’ve only read Stephen King’s Mile 81 now, even though it was first published in 2011.

I have always particularly likes the way Stephen King inserts a horrific element into the mundane world, often without explanation. In “The Raft” (from the collection Skeleton Crew), for instance, probably my favorite of his short stories, a malign entity simply appears in the water as four teenagers are swimming in a Pennsylvania lake. I won’t tell you what happens from there, but I will tell you that this story has haunted me ever since I first read it. I also like the way King seems able to capture how children think, almost regardless of their age or gender, though he’s best at boys who are just at the stage of puberty; you can see this in works like “The Body,” from the collection Different Seasons, which became the movie Stand by Me.

In Mile 81, King has combined these two strengths into one frightening novella. The title refers to an abandoned rest stop near the Mile 81 road marker on a freeway. The buildings that used to house a fast food restaurant and other typical roadside conveniences have been boarded up, but that doesn’t stop the local teenagers, who have turned it into a place to drink, have sex, and otherwise act up. Pete Simmons is only ten years old, but he’s at loose ends on spring break. His older brother, who is supposed to be watching him, has gone off with his own gang of friends, and all of Pete’s buddies seem to have gone to Disney World. On his way there, Pete finds a partially full bottle of vodka, which seems to offer a pretty cool option for his time in the rest stop.

While Pete is sleeping it off inside the rest stop, a car pulls into the entrance lane of the rest area, striking four of the arrange barrels blocking it off. It looks sort of like a mud-covered station wagon, but it’s no recognizable make or model. The driver’s side door opens, but no one gets out. An insurance salesman named Doug Clayton sees the car as he’s driving from Bangor to Portland to attend a conference, and he decides to stop and help. After all, his favorite bible story is of the Good Samaritan, and he wants to live up to it. So Doug pulls in, walks up to the station wagon, and peers inside, which is just as covered with muddy goo as the outside is. He can’t see anyone, so he grabs the open door, the better to lean in and look into the back seat. And that’s when he discovers that this car contains no injured Levite.

The story goes on from there pretty much as you’d expect a Stephen King story to go, but that’s no criticism. This is vintage King, where lots of bad things happen to good people. And, as is often the case in King’s writing, it is those who still have imaginations, who still believe in the unbelievable, who figure the whole thing out. King’s characters ring true, and, as his characters so often do, they say and do the things that you don’t find in most writing — the everyday talk to one’s self, the odd little things people do when they think no one is looking — which makes them all the more real. The plot may be predictable, especially because King plants hints at the beginning of the story, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is how much fun it is to read this work. You’ll find yourself swiping at your e-reader because you can’t get the pages to turn fast enough to learn how things turn out.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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