It's Halloween season, so the perfect time for a new novella from Stephen King - the American horror writer who, through books such as Carrie, The Shining, and It has not just petrified generations of readers, but defined a whole genre. Flick through Elevation and chapter three even begins with an illustration of a jack-o'-lantern, as "black cats and skeletons danced in the windows of houses." Settle back, then, for another fright night with one of our most spine-chilling storytellers.
Except Elevation isn't really that kind of tale at all, despite having at its heart a strange hero who is grappling with something supernatural - but in the literal sense of not being able to comprehend something beyond the laws of nature. Graphic designer Scott - 42 but drawn a lot older than that - is dramatically losing weight, day by day. He fears cancer, but his podgy body is not changing shape. So Scott experiments; stepping onto the bathroom scales, he measures himself, steps off, picks up a pair of heavy weights, steps back on and still the readout is the same. It's weird, makes no sense, and is ever so slightly reminiscent of King's story published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym in 1984, Thinner.
Interestingly, Elevation never really explores why this weight loss happened in the first place or indeed encourages anything more than faint interest as to what will occur when Scott weighs nothing, no longer tethered to earth by gravity. The thin plot is, effectively, just a way for King to delve further into his perfectly drawn snapshots of small-town America, given particular resonance here by the references to the current Presidency. In Castle Rock, the town King often likes to curse with unexplained phenomena, the county "went for Trump three-to-one" and the attendant intolerance arrives when Scott's outsider neighbours open a fantastic restaurant that the prejudiced locals refuse to frequent.
So Scott makes it his mission to give the restaurant a chance, even though his outstretched arm of friendship is initially unwanted - unsurprisingly given he's admonished the restaurateurs for allowing their dogs to poo on his lawn. Elevation is full of black comedy like this, which is a relief when King is effectively extolling the virtues of being good neighbours and getting along: all well and good but not exactly the stuff of a rollicking yarn.
And despite some longueurs, by the end, Scott has become an endearing, tragicomic, almost Messianic figure. "What's the joke, Scott?" someone asks as he bursts out laughing just before he is released from his plight for the last time. "Nothing," he says. "Everything."
Which, in all its pathos and beauty, is not exactly what one might expect from a brief Halloween story by Stephen King - and all power to him. Elevation doesn't always soar, but it does celebrate a tolerant, dignified America that King clearly believes can still exist.
Elevation is published by Simon & Schuster
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