My very first introduction to Stephen King came around 1992 or 1993, when my mother, tired of me watching horror films, decided to prod me into reading horror fiction. She brought home a hardback copy of Stephen King’s novella collection Four Past Midnight. So my first introduction to Stephen King was in the form of the novella. This Gwendy’s Button Box review, which is decidedly “spoiler free,” considers the novella within King’s canon as a whole as well.
Since King’s writing began in his childhood in the ’50s, he wrote at least 30 pieces of fiction that can be called “novellas.” Think of a “novella” as something too long to be called a short story, yet too short to be called a novel. Some of them are incredibly well known (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Body, Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Mist, etc.), but most are not nearly as well known. King’s novella collections contain some of his best writing. If you’re primarily into King’s novels so far, you really also need to pick up copies of Different Seasons, Four Past Midnight, and Full Dark, No Stars. Chances are you will love them.
Throughout King’s career, he has been accused of being self-indulgent with bloated writing. This, of course, stems from his novels which, compared to other popular writing, are positively enormous (see The Stand, Under the Dome, and It, amongst others). The truth is that King’s fiction stretches from incredibly short (Cain Rose Up, Here There Be Tygers), to incredibly long (11/22/63, Needful Things), and everywhere in between. Gwendy’s Button Box, which King co-authored with the founder of Cemetery Dance Publishing, Richard Chizmar, is in the in between (no, Stranger Things fans, that has nothing to do with you).
I’m not in the camp that says that writing long is necessarily a bad or good thing. I believe that writing should be as long as it effectively should be. Does Gwendy’s Button Box work at novella length? Yes, it does, but it could just as easily be restructured as a short story or expanded into a novel. And it should be if you can handle it as a writer. No, I’m not saying it’s too long, or too short. It works perfectly well at the length that it is. However, an examination of it demonstrates how writing fiction, at all lengths, occurs.
King is the source of the general idea behind the story. The genesis of this co-authorship is that King began writing this story, set in the ’70s in King’s well-known town of Castle Rock, Maine. Then he stopped. I’m not sure how long the story sat dormant, but eventually King and Chizmar, who are friends, struck up a conversation about the story, and one thing led to another. The next thing you know, King and Chizmar, over a relatively brief period of time, passed this piece of writing back and forth and the finished product is the stand-alone novella Gwendy’s Button Box.
King and Chizmar’s description of how the writing process worked is very similar to King’s writing process with Peter Straub, with whom King co-authored the much more lengthy epic novels, The Talisman and Black House. Chizmar is a fine author in his own right, and has the novel A Long December under his belt.
Gwendy’s Button Box begins in 1974. The story’s protagonist is elementary school student Gwendy Peterson who ventures every day to the top of Castle View via the “suicide stairs.” The stairs get their name because people have committed suicide by jumping off of them. Waiting at the top of the stairs is a gentleman who has a box he wants to give to Gwendy. He offers some explanation of what the box is and does, but of course doesn’t disclose everything. That would ruin the fun.
I won’t ruin the fun for you either. Gwendy’s Button Box is an absolute ball to read. Even with illustrations, the book is only around 160 pages. Yet, it has 32 chapters. The first chapter is the longest, laying the groundwork (I suspect strongly that this is the piece King wrote years ago and later finished with Chizmar). The effect of this is that the writers build a foundation of the story and then absolutely propel the reader through the rest, which stretches over more than ten years.
I didn’t do this, but you could feasibly read Gwendy’s Button Box in a single sitting – it moves that quickly.
The story is a bit of a genre-bender. It’s not precisely horror. It’s not precisely fantasy. It’s certainly a bit of both.
A lot of King fans are probably wondering about the character development, which has been a trademark of King’s writing. The development as to Gwendy is very strong. However, the other characters in the story seem like mere shadows by comparison.
This is what leads me to believe is that this could have easily been expanded into a novel. In particular, Frankie Stone seems underdeveloped, and it leaves me wondering what it would be like to have him as a fully developed King villain.
Regardless of all this, Gwendy’s Button Box is a terrific read. At a minimum, it is fun, and so it’s worthwhile. Also, there are some possible “Easter eggs” related to other King works. But I’m not going to get into the at least two small ones I noticed – it would ruin the fun for you, fellow Constant Readers.
Upon reading it, I believe you will agree with me that Gwendy’s Button Box would also work very well as a film if placed in the right hands.
Gwendy’s Button Box will be officially released May 16, 2017 and is available to order directly from Cemetery Dance.
If you like what I’m doing here at The Stephen King Universe, it would mean a lot to me if you subscribed to my email list. I promise not to bombard you with promotions. In fact, I’m not doing much selling of anything lately. The box to use to sign up is right at the top of your page. Just enter your email there and I will update you periodically about what is going on here.