Going into Holly, Stephen King’s latest novel (published on Sept. 5), I was filled with apprehension. I had never read any of King’s books before and was unsure if my nerves could handle it. Yet from the first page, I was enraptured by the vivid imagery for which King is known. Despite my misgivings, Holly proved a frenzied delight that rescued me from a major book slump.
In Holly, King diverges from his usual otherworldly horror, replacing it with one that is calculating and eerily mortal. Set in the United States post-2020 election and the pandemic, Holly feels simultaneously poignant and draining. The exploration of current events and the troubling capabilities of human nature cause the book to linger with the reader long after they have read the last page.
Holly follows the titular character Holly Gibney, who first appeared in the Bill Hodges Trilogy, as she pushes aside the complicated feelings brought on by her mother’s recent death from COVID-19 to focus on a missing persons case. When a distressed woman named Penny Dahl calls Holly’s detective agency, Finders Keepers, for help finding her missing daughter, Holly is drawn into the mystery against her better judgment. Bonnie Dahl has disappeared from an abandoned edge of Deerfield Park, leaving behind only her bike and an enigmatic note. On the other side of the park live semi-retired professors Rodney and Emily Harris, both in their eighties and still as in love as the day they met. Yet in their basement lurks a secret entirely discordant with their beatific life. Whether or not the sinister presence in their home relates to Bonnie Dahl’s disappearance remains to be seen, but Holly intends to find out.
King sets this captivating mystery against the backdrop of the political fallout from the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and the raging debate over COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States, because, as he asserts in his author’s note, “fiction is most believable when it coexists with real-world events [and] real-world individuals.”
Though King’s mastery of storytelling is apparent throughout Holly, there were moments when the return to the height of COVID-19 in 2020-2021 was exhausting. Throughout Holly, King reminds us of the very real horrors of the pandemic and the toll it took on our hospitals and infrastructure. The death of Holly’s mother, who refused to be vaccinated, combined with Holly’s obsessive nature, make her understandably cautious as she navigates a post-lockdown world. However, the depictions of anti-vax Americans come across as King airing his frustrations with a divided nation rather than as the insightful social commentary one might expect from a writer of his merit.
Although readers familiar with King’s Detective Bill Hodges trilogy will find the callbacks to Holly’s former mentor and past exploits charming, for the new reader they were at times mildly off-putting. However, these occasional references did not hinder my understanding of the book or tarnish its intrigue, nor should they deter readers new to King from beginning with Holly.What makes the novel truly chilling is King’s choice to highlight the normalcy and humanity of the villains of Holly even as they commit the worst crimes a person is capable of. The novel’s expertly written third-person omniscient narration, which switches to focus on different characters throughout the novel, keeps the reader questioning if what is actually happening and what a character believes is happening are indeed one and the same. King forces the reader to understand and even empathize with the faces of evil incarnate, elevating Holly to a wonderfully dread-inducing read that will remain with the reader and leave them wanting more.