With more blockbusters in his quiver than you’ve had hot dinners, a new Stephen King novel is always big news. Billie Ingram Sofokleous gets into the dark heart of Billy Summers, the new King in question.
Stephen King’s work sits among a league of writers that know their audiences and treats life’s taboos as tableaux. Scenes of the proverbial disturbing and uncomfortable nature are handled in a way that makes the reader address their own fears and insecurities and face them head on. King is prolific in his outpouring of content, too, and his understanding of the craft has been helpful to many writers the world over; while he often recycles themes in his work, this generates a sense of world-building.
Even while not considering myself a Stephen King mega-fan, he has set an inspiring standard for horror and crime writing, with a back catalogue that has had me hiding behind the sofa and unable to sleep. Misery, Carrie, Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Doctor Sleep, The Shining, Pet Semetary, It, personal memoir On Writing…
Billy Summers is an intriguing thriller, featuring an interesting and complicated narrator and told from the perspective of the criminal. The eponymous Billy is a former Iraq marksman turned hitman, doing one final job before retirement, and he pours his tragic life onto the page in gripping fashion from which it’s hard to turn away. He’s justified his choice of freelance employment to himself by only accepting jobs that will have him target what he considers to be bad guys… until he’s too far in to back out.
Although this novel is rooted in real life – horrors, done by hideous people and traceable to actual events – a certain kind of enchantment prevails. True crime fiction, done well, intrigues audiences as to how the mind can skew itself and act on such impulses. (In the King canon, this calls back to It and Carrie’s sense of distrusting adults.)
For a while, the addition of Alice and her trauma feels rather unnecessary, but this becomes instrumental in the storyline later on. The ensuing trauma tells us a multitude of things about the narrator, mostly about their compartmentalised means of looking at disturbing events; personally, I would’ve appreciated more nuance, and less toxic masculine revenge.
The pivotal ‘hit’ necessitates Billy settling down in a small town, ingratiating himself with the locals while he waits for his opportunity. His cover story is that he’s a novelist with a deadline who needs to be a hermit and write (Misery, anyone?). The tension builds slowly, but the relationships he forges happen fast, and the final showdown may feel anticlimactic to some considering its leadup, but this reader found the quickness rendered it believable.
Crime and thriller stories are what Stephen King appears most interested in telling now, and if he stars in another adaptation of his work – as in It Chapter 2 – he’ll have a happy audience. Billy Summers offers memorable characters you can’t help but root for, despite their questionable moral compass.
Billy Summers by Stephen King is out now via Hodder & Stoughton. Price: £20. Info: here
words BILLIE INGRAM SOFOKLEOUS
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