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Elevation by Stephen King (book review).

September 25, 2019 | By | Reply More

To the general public, Stephen King is a writer of horror novels like ‘Carrie’, ‘The Shining’ and ‘It’, each of which has subsequently reached a much larger audience via film and television. Readers of SFCrowsnest will, I trust, be much more aware of the huge volume and variety of King’s work, which ranges well beyond horror to Science Fiction (eg ‘The Running Man’), fantasy (eg the ‘Dark Tower’ series) and crime fiction (eg ‘Rita Hayworth And Shawshank Redemption’).

He also writes at all lengths, from short stories to multi-novel epics. ‘Elevation’ is a recent example of this flexibility, a novella that tells a contemporary story with just a single fantastical element. I first heard of the book when Charles de Lint reviewed it in his regular column in the March/April 2019 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A couple of weeks later, I saw it in my local library and decided to see if his glowing review was justified.

The story focuses on Scott Carey, a middle-aged, self-employed website designer living in Maine, New England. Scott is unexceptional but for one thing. He is losing weight at a rate of around one pound or half a kilo every day. What’s so unusual about this is that he’s not trying to lose weight, there’s no effect on his physical appearance and, strangest of all, whenever he weighs himself the scales give the same result whether he’s buck naked or wearing seven layers of clothing weighted down with coins in all the pockets. His doctor has no idea what’s going on, leaving Scott to wonder what will happen to him when the scales hit zero.

On top of the weird weight issue, Scott is also having problems with his newly arrived neighbours, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson, who have moved there from Boston and opened a Mexican restaurant in town. Missy, the chef, seems nice enough, but front woman Deirdre is extremely prickly, as he finds out when he tries, as politely as possible, to raise the issue of her dog doing its business regularly on his lawn. Deirdre refuses to believe that her boxer is capable of such a vulgar thing and wonders openly whether this is actually Scott’s response to her and her partner’s sexuality.

Scott, who couldn’t care less about the sexual preferences of any of his neighbours, refuses to write Deirdre off and sees a potential opportunity to understand her better when he finds out that she’s a strong amateur runner who is hoping to win the town’s annual Thanksgiving Fun Run. She sees this primarily as an opportunity for free publicity for her restaurant which, despite good reviews, is struggling to attract customers in the strongly Republican town. Scott therefore enters himself into the Fun Run, hoping to compete with her and wondering whether his recent weight loss will convert a potential coronary-inducing event into a figurative walk in the park. Will he manage to get into Deirdre’s good books before his weight loss becomes a chronic problem for him?

One of King’s great strengths as a writer is his ability to create truly three-dimensional characters that can engage his readers emotionally and so draw them in to the stories. Since ‘Elevation’ is told at novella-length, the cast list is inevitably more restricted than would be the case in a novel. However, the characters that do appear are brilliantly observed. Our hero, Scott Carey, is a thoughtful, intelligent and polite everyman, yet he’s clearly not perfect, as his recent messy divorce attests.

By way of contrast, Scott’s principal antagonist, restaurant co-owner Deirdre McComb comes across as an unsympathetic snob who assumes that the whole world is against her and gets her defence in early. It’s only when Deirdre’s partner Missy plucks up the courage to speak to Scott that he begins to understand where some of Deirdre’s aggression may come from, as a proudly married gay woman in a largely conservative town that is struggling to come to terms with equal marriage.

What I love about this novella is the way King introduces his one genre element, the idea that Scott is losing weight but not mass, almost as if he’s an astronaut heading slowly away from Earth towards a zero gravity destination into an entirely mundane suburban situation, then lets it play out as just another element of the characters’ everyday lives. Rather than focusing the entire story on this inexplicable physical effect, as a traditional SF story would, King pushes it into the background, using it largely as a contextual factor for everything else that’s going on.

In this, the book reminds me of some of the most uplifting real-life stories I’ve read about people who, having been diagnosed with a terminal illness, choose not to let it define them but instead take their situation as an opportunity to re-evaluate their lives, focus on what’s important and make a difference to those people and causes they care about in whatever time is left to them.

Looking beyond the merits of the story itself, King’s transparent prose is beautifully enhanced by Mark Edward Geyer’s delightful pen and ink illustrations that introduce each chapter, whimsically illustrating the subject matter to come.

This is a quiet, understated story with not a hint of horror to be found. It does brilliantly what every good piece of fiction tries to do, letting us experience a slice of life from the perspective of people other than ourselves, so we see the world through new eyes. By doing so, King engages in a constructive way with the culture wars that are raging across America, Britain and so many other countries at the moment. For that he should be applauded. Above all, though, this is a thoroughly engaging, enjoyable and thought-provoking book.

Do read it if you get the chance. You won’t regret it.

Patrick Mahon

September 2019

(pub: Hodder & Stoughton, 150 page novella hardback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN 978-1-473-69152-0)

check out websites: www.hodder.co.uk and www.stephenking.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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