Saturday, February 17, 2024

“Rat” leads the batch of evil tales from Stephen King’s If It Bleeds

Back in the early days of the Covid pandemic, it was a respite to read Stephen King’s freshly released (at the time, in Summer 2020) collection of four novellas called If It Bleeds. It wasn’t exactly the kind of uplifting thing I may have needed, since this batch of stories deals mostly with various aspects of evil, but one of the stories that has stuck with me as a typical King page-turner is “Rat.”

In it, writer Drew Larson hasn’t had many great ideas for short stories. He had one published in The New Yorker. One contributed to his house burning down. But then he gets an idea for a Western novel and asks his wife Lucy if he can go away for three weeks to get it started. He also goes to tell his old university department head Al Stamper. 

When Drew reaches his destination, a podunk Maine town, and stops to get gas at the general store. The old cashier tells him the caretaker of Drew’s cabin had shot himself in the head there. When he arrives at the cabin, he has a scary run-in with a momma moose as he exits his car. When he talks to Lucy on the phone, he doesn’t mention the moose or that Old Bill blew his head off at the cabin. Before turning in for his first night, he reacquaints himself with the items in the cabin, like a Stretch Armstrong doll and several other toys that must have been left by renters over the years.

Drew tears through lots of writing in the first three days, so much so that he doesn’t even realize he’s begun sneezing a lot and isn’t eating anything fresh or healthy. He learns that the old cashier’s daughter has taken over the store with her dad in the hospital for pneumonia. And she says a major snow storm is coming in that will barricade Drew in his cabin. Lucy calls him later and tries to talk him into coming home. 

The storm and his sickness get bad and Drew begins to write fewer and fewer pages per day. Limbs start to fall off trees and he starts to realize he could actually die. A big one falls on the shed where he had just been gathering tools from should he need to cut his way through the exit road. Later that night, a rat crawls to his door, probably having been wounded in the shed tree fall, and Drew brings it in to die while he falls asleep.

But when he awakes, the rat is not dead. In fact, the rat is speaking, using Jonathan Franzen’s words to explain why Drew is a failed novelist, like so many other “wannabe novelists.” The rat then says he’ll make his wish of writing the book come true in exchange for one person Drew loves dying. This reminds him of his recent call with Lucy in which she said he was choosing his novel over his family. But the rat says he was thinking Al Stamper would be a good choice, since his university colleague had recently told Drew ha had early-stage pancreatic cancer. Drew agreed.

He goes back to work and does a good job on the book. The weather breaks and Jackie Colson is chainsawing trees that have fallen on the road back to town, called Shithouse Road, thanks to Lucy calling him to do so. Drew is able to get out and make it home, but he feels like the rat has followed him.

Lucy and Al think the book is great and sellable. And, oddly, Al’s cancer has seemingly gone away. Drew figures his rat episode was just a dream. The day the novel goes to auction and sells for $350,000, Al dies, and so does Nadine Stamper, both of them wiped out by a semi on the highway in the snow on the way to a cancer test. Drew vomits into the sink.

The next fall, he returns to the cabin so he can prepare to sell the pace. He has no plans to start writing in it again, or writing anywhere again, although he has not shared this information. Drew wakes in the middle of the night with the rat on his chest. The rat told him he didn’t break their deal in any way by having Nadine die too and that he, not Drew, had finished the novel. Drew jumps to try to kill him but the rat gets away into the walls. He returns home and tells himself he will gladly join the ranks of one-book writers and that at least his family will be alright.

As noted, it’s a page turner but, as also happens a lot with King’s tales, it has a relatively unsatisfying ending. Because of that I only give it 4 out of 5 stars.

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