Gwendy's Button Box
Cemetery Dance • 2017 • 175 pages
A Novel Critique
It’s good to be back in Castle Rock, but that’s not why we’re here.
Stephen King famously destroyed the town of Castle Rock in 1991’s Needful Things. Constant Readers have had glimpses of the town in the years since – a character here, a memory there – but there hasn’t truly been a Castle Rock story since Leland Gaunt took to the skies and Alan Pangborn and Polly Chalmers rode off into the sunset. As to why he chose to return now? In an interview with author Bev Vincent, King simply stated, “I just...well...missed the place.” Readers may have missed it, too, but the truth is that while this is a Castle Rock story, it’s so much more a Gwendy Peterson story. That’s why we’re here.
Within moments of meeting twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson, we understand the type of person she is: driven, determined, and fully in charge of herself. Her morning runs up the Suicide Stairs to better herself prove these things out before she ever says a word. We’re not the only ones who understand: within a page, Gwendy comes face to face with a man in black calling himself Richard Farris who notices these things and more. He gifts Gwendy with a small mahogany box inlaid with a series of buttons. Before the first chapter is out, Gwendy has an idea what the box is and what the buttons do, and has agreed to take ownership of it. Whether this is the best or worst decision of Gwendy’s young life is the main crux of Gwendy’s Button Box, and the fact that this question remains as difficult to answer when we turn the last page is what gives this short book so much of its power.
Gwendy’s Button Box came almost out of nowhere, much as The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon had in 1999. It couldn’t have come at a better time, either: since the publication of the last Bill Hodges book, End of Watch, King had been unusually quiet on his upcoming work. While he’d discussed his upcoming collaboration with his son, Owen – a long book called Sleeping Beauties – details were scant, with no release date announced. The long silence following End of Watch (a title saddled with a contextually unsettling finality) recalled the dry period following The Tommyknockers, later revealed to be caused by one of King’s infrequent bouts of writer’s block. For a fanbase raised on a two-book-a-year diet, this seemed like famine. Then, in a whirlwind, King hit on an idea that he found easy to start and hard to finish. In came Richard Chizmar, owner of Cemetery Dance Publications, with the assist that got Gwendy’s Button Box out of the unpublished trunk and into production.
“Steve sent me the first chunk of a short story,” Chizmar revealed to Entertainment Weekly when the book was announced. “I added quite a bit and sent it back to him. He did a pass, then bounced it back to me for another pass. Then, we did the same thing all over again – one more draft each. Next thing you know, we had a full-length novella on our hands. We took a free hand in rewriting each other and adding new ideas and characters. The whole process took about a month.” King’s more recent openness to collaboration is interesting and exciting, especially in a case like this when King chooses to work with a writer whose style seems to mesh so easily with his. While different in tone and scope, the end product is reminiscent of King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman, right down to the method of collaboration, albeit with the necessary technological updates – no explanation needed as to how they hooked their modems up together. (It also doesn’t hurt that Chizmar is a publisher as well, one willing to crash production on a book to get it in the hands of readers five months after first hearing about it.)
Collaboration aside, Gwendy’s is the sort of project that begs curiosity, especially after the peek at the text in the press release. When longtime King readers see the initials RF, it’s easy to make assumptions ... especially given the mid-70s timeline, when the creature known as Randall Flagg was only a few years off from attending a party at the end of the world. But, as Gwendy points out, “names aren’t knowing,” and though her interaction with Richard Farris hints toward the apocalyptic, nothing about this persona seems in line with the Flagg we know and love. It’s one of the ways King and Chizmar subvert expectations in this book, both from outside the story and from within. Some might expect some big revelations about Castle Rock in the early 1970s, seeing as most of our knowledge of the town comes from before (“The Body,” set in the early 1960s) and after (The Dead Zone of 1978 through Needful Things in 1991). But here, the town functions as backdrop rather than as a character; Gwendy is who we care about, and because she is fascinating and complicated, caring about her is easy to do.
King’s recent work has found him wrestling with the theme of morality, attacking it from all sides. “Morality” itself, collected in The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, questioned whether evil is ever small. “The Music Room,” from Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight and In Shadows collection, glanced at the banality of brutality. Full Dark, No Stars’ “1922” showed us the dark side of Dolores Claiborne, and the consequences of a murder that is in no way righteous. Even more in line with Gwendy’s is Full Dark’s “Fair Extension,” and its lead character Dave Streeter, who gets everything he’s ever wanted after making a literal deal with the devil. Streeter accepts his horrifying good fortune almost blandly, definitely blindly. Gwendy is more reflective, questioning whether she is responsible for the life she’s led, or whether the button box has something – or everything – to do with it. Chizmar and King alert us to the connection between these two tales explicitly, bringing in a character named Streeter midway through, as if inviting Constant Reader to compare and contrast.
Beyond King’s work, the obvious antecedent to this tale is Richard Matheson’s brilliant “Button Button,” the story of a housewife who receives her own button box from a mysterious stranger. The rules of Matheson’s box are simple: press it, and you receive $50,000. The only consequence is that someone in the world you don’t know will die. It’s a moral puzzle with an O. Henry twist at the end (no spoilers here). The powers of Gwendy’s box are exponential; as Mr. Farris explains, there are buttons for every populous continent, plus two. The red one is the only one she can push more than once. And the black one? Well, the black one is best not discussed.
That doesn’t mean this story’s authors have only questions and what-ifs. Gwendy’s natural curiosity – and just as natural whipsaw of emotions – provide some of the book’s more unsettling sequences. In a late 1989 issue of W•B (the magazine published by the now sadly deceased Waldenbooks bookstore), King revealed that he’d “got[ten] an interest in writing a novel about what happened in Jonestown.” Here, he and Chizmar brush up against that interest, and the question of who might be to blame for such an unnecessary catastrophe. King has long put tempting objects in the paths of otherwise good people; witness the scrapbook Jack Torrance finds in the basement of the Overlook (The Shining), the spaceship buried in Bobbi Anderson’s backyard (The Tommyknockers), the box of Moleskines under the roots of Pete Saubers’ tree (Finders Keepers). Sometimes these obsessions consume. The red button, the only one Gwendy can push more than once, threatens to consume. It’s more attractive, and not just because it’s a one-and-done. Interestingly, even at a young age, Gwendy takes a global view more than a more age-appropriate, self-centered look at her world. She doesn’t want to hurt people she doesn’t know ... but that red button can be focused. In this way, and in ways Gwendy doesn’t quite understand, the box offers her powers over life and death. She’s the latest in a long line of characters beginning with Carrie White and continuing through “Everything’s Eventual”’s Dinky Earnshaw and Revival’s Charlie Jacobs. What’s maybe most intriguing about Gwendy is the fact that she’s not quite sure how these powers manifest, and her need to know whether she must be held responsible for every terrible action of others.
The rewards she receives from the box – tangible and not – also remind us of Dinky Earnshaw, who got anything he wanted on the provision that he used his psychic powers to get people to kill themselves. Dinky eventually came around to the idea that the treasures of earth aren’t worth his soul. Gwendy, who opens this remarkable short book dashing up Castle Rock’s Suicide Stairs, has a similar choice to make. Her journey, at turns thrilling and horrifying, is worth the trip to Castle Rock. Even though it’s not why we’re here, it’s good to be back.