Constant Reader Book of the Month April 2024: Holly By Stephen King

David B Morris
13 min readApr 8, 2024

After Half A Century, King Finally Gets a Female Lead Right

It was inevitable I was going to write one of my book reviews on Stephen King; I’ve long since expressed in many of my other reviews how big a fan I am of his work, and indeed my column of book reviews is named for the affectionate term King has for his longtime fans. However, before I get to the meat of my review I need to give some more personal background.

Not only have I read nearly everything Stephen King has written, I’ve read a lot of books about what Stephen King has written. Literary analysis, evaluations of his work, books on the Stephen King Universe, an encyclopedia written for King fans…I’ve gotten most of them as well. The most recent book I’ve about King is called Tracing the Trails: A Constant Reader’s Reflections on the Works of Stephen King by Chad A. Clark. Clark is apparently around my age or slightly older. And in a sense his journey with King parallels mine. When he was a teenager, he fell in love with King’s books and began to devour them instantly. However, after he left high school he became interested in other things and while he read King over time, eventually the books held less of a lure than they once did. He eventually decided to reread all of them in chronological order. The book was published in 2018, and I may end up reviewing it in a later article.

I also fell in love with King at a very young age — I think was twelve or thirteen when the obsession began. I remember very clearly during high school there was rarely a time I did not have a Stephen King book hidden on my person at a certain point and was devouring it. I would buy his old works at used book stores and every time a new novel came out, I bought it within days of it being released. I was obsessed with The Dark Tower series and I saw the connections between King’s books and the multiverse he was building. This obsession kept going through high school and past my graduation from college.

I don’t know when the bloom came off the rose for me on King (that’s a joke many Constant Readers will get). I think it was near the end of Wolves of The Calla when I saw the direction King was going with the Dark Tower series. It was red flags that even before the incredibly controversial conclusion, really made me wonder if King had ever know what he was doing with the series he had been working on his entire career. Part of me has often wondered if he should have retired after writing that book. I do know that after that point I didn’t rush out to buy King novels the way I had before. I would go to the library and check them out after a certain period of time and there would be certain books I would jump on the moment they came out. But I think the last Stephen King book I bought of my own accord was 11/22/63 which was a masterpiece. Ever since I’ve been taking a more pragmatic approach: I will read his books in a library and if I’m a fan of them having read them, I will purchase them for my collection.

I should also mention that, while I used to reread his books constantly well into my early thirties, I’ve basically stopped doing that a while ago. I may end up doing that now that I have taken criticism more seriously. I still think he’s a brilliant writer and not worthy of the abuse he has taken by so many, but it’s worth noting that I might be able to to pick up on the flaws that I am now painfully aware of in his books. Indeed, it’s one particular flaw that I’m going to use to preface this review.

Something you can’t escape when you read and reread so many of King’s books over the majority of his career is that he doesn’t write female characters well at all. I don’t mean female children; he’s always managed to do that well since Firestarter and he’s still very good at writing girls almost better than boys. No I mean fully grown women.

Most of the female-centric books he has written in his career — Gerald’s Games, Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder — are considered by fans and critics to be among his weakest. There has been a reevaluation of Lisey’s Story in recent years, and I may reread it some time, but I didn’t think much of it. And this is not a coincidence. Throughout King’s work, the women characters tend to fall into the category of wives, lovers and bitches. There are very few standout female characters. The strongest female characters during his peak period — from 1976 to 1989 — are Fran Goldsmith in The Stand and Beverly Marsh in It. Fran is completely excluded from the action in the final section of the novel — which is where the battle against Randall Flagg in Vegas meets its climax — and I find it telling that Bev is written stronger in the sections of It when she is a child than as an adult. Her role in the final battle is small too. In the Dark Tower series Susannah Dean starts out as a strong character in the third and fourth novels, but she begins to diminish in the fifth. I have always had a problem that King essentially has her return to a universe where she gets a happy ending in the final pages even more than his climax for Roland.

Ironically for a writer who burst onto the scene with Carrie, he has rarely had a female character with the same fascination in any of his books since. I’ve read several of his novels where I honestly don’t remember a single female character of note. And then nearly forty years into his career he did something incredible.

I was a fan of the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. Over the last decade King seems to have been experimented between more or less thrillers and mysteries mixed with horror novels. Mr. Mercedes started out as what seemed to be a straight mystery and it was hard not to admire the character of Bill Hodges. Then King did something he hadn’t done in forty years. He wrote a direct sequel to a book that wasn’t a horror novel. And by that point the world had become aware of Holly Gibney.

King said that Holly was supposed to be a throwaway character in Mr. Mercedes and he fell in love with her. It’s hard not to see why he did. Holly Gibney may be the most realistic female character King did and perhaps the first lovable character he’s ever written. I was reminded of Chloe O’Brian, the brilliant tech on 24, who is blunt, acerbic and brusque but has Jack Bauer’s back at every opportunity. Holly has a similar brusqueness as well a difficulty around other people but with the help of Bill and Jerome Washington, she begins to become an ally of Bill and come out of her shell. When Hodges was dying of pancreatic cancer in End of Watch, Holly refused to accept it and we realized how much she cared for Bill.

We had no reason to expect to see Holly again after the series ended. Then came The Outsider. As the novel progresses the lead investigator finds himself calling on Holly Gibney’s services. These kinds of easter eggs are common in King’s universe but we’ve only seen them in Maine and never with a female. It was telling that we see how much Holly has grown even then. By this point she has lived through the horrors of what Brady Hartsfield has done and has begun to tip her toe into the world of the supernatural.

King novels are not kind to recurring characters, even if they survive their original books. It is a frequent habit of King’s stories to mention almost in passing, that a character who was the lead in one book has died in a different one. I remember how, after Thad Beaumont survived The Dark Half, we learned in Needful Things that his wife took the twins and left him and he deteriorated into madness. We learn in a later book that he committed suicide. In The Talisman Jack Sawyer undergoes a continent and universe spanning quest to save his mother from an illness that might killer. When we meet Jack again in The Tommyknockers, he tells us his mother has died in a car accident. I didn’t want to believe this but King would confirm this in the sequel to The Talisman, Black House. And even if you survive one King novel as a major character, you might die in another. George Bannerman, sheriff of Castle Rock, survive Frank Dodd in The Dead Zone only to be killed by Cujo.

All of which means I wasn’t entirely sure Holly would make it through The Outsider alive. Many of the party didn’t as you might recall, but she did. She then got to lead her own novella in the title story in If It Bleeds. By that point Holly Gibney had been the lead of two different TV series. She had been played by Justine Lupe (best known as the eventual Mrs. Connor Roy in Succession) in the DirecTV adaptation of Mr. Mercedes and by Cynthia Erivo in the HBO adaptation of The Outsider (though apparently that Holly may not have made it out intact). Holly Gibney had been the fixture of five Stephen King stories, which may be a record. Finally almost half a century after King broke onto the scene with Carrie, he wrote Holly a novel with her unequivocally the lead. And Holly holds up just as well being front and center as she did as a side character.

The novel begins for Holly in July of 2021. Covid is shaking the nation in a second wave and her mother, who was her biggest detractor, was a victim of it because she did not believe it was real right up until it killed her. (King’s politics, particularly when it comes to Donald Trump, are always a factor in many of his novels; here it’s practically an unwritten character.) Holly has just finished attending her mother’s funeral by Zoom because her own neuroses have always driven her and she is terrified of germs. There is also a part of her who has been struggling to get away from her mother and doesn’t know what to do without her now that she’s gone forever.

As the novel unfolds Holly is hired by Penny Dahl, a fifty-ish woman with a strong personality who believes her daughter is missing and wants Holly to find her. She claims the police aren’t looking for her daughter, but that’s not accurate: she’s seen a detective and that detective tells Holly outright that she thinks Bonnie has been killed. It takes very little investigating for Holly to reach the same conclusion. However, because of her empathy she has a difficult time informing Penny of this and certainly not that within a few days she is convinced Bonnie was the victim of a serial killer.

The reader knows this before Holly does because King actually introduces us to the killers before we are reacquainted with Holly. Indeed, the killers themselves are identified on the book jacket so I am spoiling nothing by telling you the two murders are Rodney and Ellen Harris, two former academics who at the start of the novel are both in their early eighties. What I will not reveal is why they are killing their victims. I could tell you it is because when you learn why it may be so repugnant to you that you will run from the book in terror. However, if you are a fan of Stephen King — and if you’re reading this review, you probably are — then relatively speaking this is not high on the scale of gore and grossout we’re used to.

What is different about Holly is that this is one of the rare novels in King’s entire oeuvre that has no supernatural or horror elements to it. This may be King’s own subversion of his formula. In his novels, the characters come across scenarios that seem ordinary but start to take on bizarre and unexplainable elements. All of his protagonists spend their time looking for a rational explanation only to find that there is a paranormal one and by the time, many of their friends and colleagues have been victims of it. Indeed, that was the exact formula for both End of Watch and The Outsider. Even the fact that the killers are octogenarians may lead many to think that there is still a greater supernatural force guiding them — indeed the killer at the center of Black House was an elderly killer guided by one of the great forces at the center of King’s Dark Tower universe.

But in Holly, the longer the novel continues the more apparent it is the monsters are human beings — at least by the dictionary definition of the term. This actually makes the Harrises more frightening than quite a few of the monsters we’ve seen in many of his horror novels. Because it becomes clear very quickly that both Rodney and Ellen Harris are complete insane. King frequently switches to their perspective to make this point very clear. It’s not just that their reasons for killing their victims is beyond the level of insanity for most serial killers. It’s that for all of their lives not only have they hidden their insanity in plain sight but are among the most respected members of their community and because the elderly are counted as both invisible and harmless. We spend a long period of time in their community but only one of their eldest colleagues even suspects their might be something beneath the veneer of them and not even she realizes the implications.

As the novel progresses Holly realizes that murders are taking place in their neighborhood and comes to the conclusion that there is a killer who she calls the Red Hook Predator. The novel follows her as she picks up each bread crumb and realizes the string of victims that are leading her to the Harrises step by step. But even though she picks up several clues and even ends up on their doorstep she never thinks that the Harrises are capable of murder, only that they are covering up for it and she certainly doesn’t have any idea why they are committing the murders.

Both Harrises have been manifesting the kind of craziness that is clear under the surface but in both cases it is clearly based in racism, sexism and homophobia. You’d think they would be the ideal MAGA voters but neither one of them have use for Trump — and it may they consider him too far to the left for their tastes. One flashback takes place on January 6th 2021 and they actually look at what it is going on in DC as if it were just another TV show. (To be fair, so does their guest.) It’s clear from the start there’s nothing out of the realm of supernatural driving either Harris, but by the time the novel’s over and the full extent of their evil is revealing all involved truly wish there has been.

Holly spends the novel dividing her time trying to track down every lead in the investigation wherever it takes her. King has just as much touch in making real everyday America even when there is no horror. People exchange with each other the vaccines they get and there are just as many who don’t vaccinate. The novel is set in Michigan but we see election deniers and people who think Covid is fake news. Businesses are struggling and the police force is decimated by a recent police shooting of an African-American. We spend time in trailer parks and convenience stores and a major lead is found in a bowling alley that’s struggling.

Holly also spends the novel dealing with not only her mother’s death but the fact that she is alone — her sister was murdered in Mr. Mercedes, her father has been gone forever and her uncle is suffering from Alzheimer’s and is beyond reaching. In dealing with her mother’s estate she becomes aware of something and this I will keep secret for the reader to find. She still misses Bill Hodges, his partner in the agency is suffering from Covid and her two associates Jerome and Barbara Robinson are living their own lives. Barbra’s story is parallel to the investigation in ways she is not aware of until the end, so I won’t reveal that either.

For most of the book Holly Gibney is on her own and she remains the person we know. One of the charming things about Holly throughout her other appearances is, while most characters engage in filthy swearing, Holly speaks as though she was talking in the censored version of a movie for TV. In the novel dedicated to her, you get the feeling part of this may have been due to a combination of her upbringing and her mother’s constant disapproval of everything she did. She spends much of the novel trying to let go of her mother — and finds that despite everything she still misses her.

It is not my place to say whether Holly survives the novel named for her. Anyone who’s read a Stephen King book knows being the lead is no guarantee of survival; it certainly wasn’t enough for Billy Summers. What you are glad about when you read this novel is that King, after half a century, not only got a female protagonist right but an actual heroine. I kept thinking of Marge Gunderson of Fargo the more I think of Holly and frankly, the world of Stephen King needs her even more than that of the Coen brothers. When the world is filled with supernatural monsters, mad bombers and elderly serial killers, the world is blessed to have Holly Gibney in it. She would be the last person to call herself a saint, but she is a figure of goodness all the same and our world would be better to have more Holly Gibney’s in it.

I will leave you with this. Considering that her character has already been the supporting character in two other TV series, perhaps this novel could be the impetus for one where she is the lead. Both Lupe and Erivo were superb as Holly, but my personal choice would be Elisabeth Olsen. Having watched her in Wandavision and Love & Death, she has a gift for playing women who are not quite comfortable in their own skins. After seeing her play Candy Montgomery, I’m pretty sure Olsen can dance with the King.

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David B Morris

After years of laboring for love in my blog on TV, I have decided to expand my horizons by blogging about my great love to a new and hopefully wider field.