Reviewed by Max Booth III
Back in February, Entertainment Weekly blew everybody’s minds by announcing a brand new novella from Stephen King. The fact that he’d written something new obviously came to no surprise. The dude is one of the most prolific writers in history. What did astonish us all, however, was the fact that this new story would evidently take place in the New England town of Castle Rock.
Constant Readers worldwide will recognize this town as the fictionalized setting from some of King’s most classic works, such as The Dead Zone, Cujo, The Dark Half, and “The Body” (AKA Stand By Me), among many others. Constant Readers will also recall that the town fucking explodes in 1991’s Needful Things, which was marketed as “The Last Castle Rock Story”. We, of course, know that tagline is now bullshit. Nothing ever stays dead for long, does it?
Diehard fans already know that Gwendy’s Button Box is far from the first story to use this setting since Needful Things. 2015’s The Bazaar of Bad Dreams included a story from 2009 titled “Premium Harmony” that took place in Castle Rock. I didn’t hear anybody lose their minds with that story’s release. But that’s okay. This isn’t a review for “Premium Harmony”. Today we’re talking about Gwendy’s Button Box.
Another peculiarity about this novella: it’s written with a collaborator, Richard Chizmar. Chizmar is the founder of Cemetery Dance, which just so happened to publish Gwendy’s Button Box. Probably not a coincidence.
King reportedly sent Chizmar a good chunk of the novella once he realized he didn’t know how to continue it, and told him to do “whatever he wanted with it”. Perhaps King would have been better off just deleting it and moving on. Or maybe, at the very least, spent more time with Chizmar fleshing out the story.
But neither of those things happened, and this is what we’re left with.
Gwendy’s Button Box is a novella, but just barely. The chapters here are bizarrely short for a story with very little suspense. In just barely over 100 pages, we travel through ten years of Gwendy Peterson. We begin at age twelve, when Gwendy encounters a strange man in black while exercising at the park. Is this the Man in Black from King’s various other writings? I mean, probably. Who else? In this novella, he calls himself Richard Farris, which are of course the same initials as Mr. Randall Flagg himself. He calls Gwendy over and gives her a button box (a box with buttons that one can press, not buttons that might hold clothing together, which is what I’d originally imagined before opening the book).
The buttons, he explains, each represent a different area of the planet, and that they should not be pressed under any circumstances. There are two other buttons, a red one, which is supposed to signify whatever Gwendy wants, and a black button, which implies total annihilation worldwide. Why he gives this box to Gwendy is not really clear. He tells her she must protect it and keep it close. But it’s good to keep in mind that this is Randall Flagg we’re talking about here, and he’s generally a dick on most days, anyway. Maybe he just wants to torment some dumb kid. In any case, he gives her the box. Not only do these buttons exist on it, but there are also two levers. When you pull one of them, tiny pieces of magical chocolate fall out. The chocolate kills your hunger and increases your intelligence, somehow. The other level shoots out rare coins, because of course it does.
The rest of the novella follows Gwendy’s life from age twelve to her college years. As previously mentioned, these chapters are super short, and we don’t stay in one time period for very long. The novella reads less like a complete story and more like an outline for a much longer piece. There’s so much here that could easily be fleshed out, but instead it’s like we’re fast forwarding as quickly as possible. What’s the rush, fellas?
For a book about a doomsday box, there is almost no tension found within the pages. Even the ominous black button, which hints at some form of cancer or massive destruction, never really comes into play. It’s a classic Chekhov’s gun if I’ve ever seen one, so it’s super weird that nothing ever happens with it. Perhaps the writers simply forgot it existed.
Even the characterization here is very lazy, which is not typical for a King story. The titular Gwendy is the least interesting person I think I’ve ever read about, and the villainous bully couldn’t have been more predictable. Nothing here will surprise you. Events the authors might have thought were cool and thrilling are actually in fact mostly lame and dull. What’s with the man in black’s magical hat? Is it alive? Where do you buy such a ridiculous hat?
But at least Gwendy eventually achieves her lifelong dream of becoming a writer at the end, which isn’t mentioned or even hinted at until the last couple pages, because why not.
Max Booth III is the author of The Nightly Disease, a novel about a sleep-deprived hotel night auditor rotting away somewhere in the surreal void of Texas. He’s also the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Perpetual Motion Machine and the managing editor of Dark Moon Digest. He co-hosts the podcast Castle Rock Radio and writes online for LitReactor and Gamut. Follow him on Twitter @GiveMeYourTeeth.