Book Review -- Stephen King's 'Mile 81'


In an essay titled "The Horror Writer and the Ten Bears," Stephen King not only lists the ten best fears – "bears" – on which a horror writer can reliably base stories, but also the best markets for those writers.  Though apocalyptically out of date – the essay first appeared in Writer's Digest in 1973 before being reprinted in Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller's Kingdom of Fear and King's own collection, Secret Windows – "Ten Bears" remains an interesting glimpse into the state of horror and King's own career immediately before Carrie appeared.  In the essay, King specifically cites Doug Allen and Nye Willden of Cavalier magazine: "both … are warm and helpful, and if your story is good, they'll publish it."

It's no mistake, then, that "Mile 81," King's latest e-publishing venture, is dedicated to them.  Most of King's early Cavalier stories – "Trucks," "The Boogeyman," "Gray Matter," "Suffer the Little Children," "The Mangler," "I am the Doorway," and more – are simple, classic horror stories, focusing on character over plot, and inexplicable elements King doesn't always bother to explain.  (When King turned "Trucks" into Maximum Overdrive, did it help the story any to learn that the vehicles came to life because of a comet?)  "Mile 81" works the same way, using the same basic devices, and it's similarly effective.  Like King's recent "The Little Green God of Agony," "Mile 81" tries to be nothing more or less than a good, scary story, told well.

Superficially, King seems to be borrowing on his past.  There's a nasty car at the center of "Mile 81," and though its powers are somewhat different than that of Christine or the Roadmaster in From a Buick 8, King is absolutely working with the same tools (a character even mentions Christine at one point).  The car isn't really the point, but the supernatural elements never are; case in point, King published five novels between 1974 and 1980 that featured characters with wild talents, and all of them were significantly different stories.  It all comes down to character, and beyond anything, "Mile 81" works as a prime example in how to create real, fleshed-out characters in just a few paragraphs.  Some of the people who approach the car – their mistake – are only "onscreen" for a few pages, yet we understand their motivations, their habits, their irritations, and the reasons why they stop to investigate the inexplicable.  We know them so well, and they all seem like such nice people, it's almost unbearable to watch them die.  That's part of what distinguishes "Mile 81" from Christine and From a Buick 8: Christine was fueled by rage and the Buick by the very nature of mystery.  The car here plays on basic human kindness to do its dirty work; it's the kindness of strangers (and sometimes concern for loved ones) that dooms almost everyone in this story.

Some of King's other themes are at work here, chief among them is the triumph of belief over experience.  Children and their unquestioning faith in the supernatural crops up all over King's canon ('Salem's Lot, It, Desperation) and they're put to good use here.  In fact, Pete Simmons – our ten-year-old hero – sort of reminds us of Mark Petrie in 'Salem's Lot in his ability to believe in the uncanny … but also possessing the smarts and ingenuity to deal with the sudden reality of it. 

A few lesser points: King's emerging comfort with technology as a way to color the world of the story (as with computer crosswords in Bag of Bones and mentions of Twitter in Full Dark, No Stars' "Big Driver"), as opposed to being the point of the story (like cell phones in Cell, or the pink Kindle in "Ur"), continues to keep these stories feeling like a reflection of the times rather than a reaction against them.  Here, a policeman uses an iPad with no (direct) ill effects, and new verbs like "DVR-ing" provide casual verisimilitude.  The number 19, important to the Dark Tower series, is again highlighted, which is either exciting or wearying, depending on the reader's level of Tower fatigue.  Some very early scenes featuring young Pete Simmons seem a little forced, mostly regarding his internal slang (current parlance has "dope" meaning the exact opposite of what Pete thinks), but these are niggling nitpicks; Pete's a fun, interesting character to get to know, and we're rewarded for our time by discovering he's a pretty decent kid, too. 

As for the method of publication, it really, honestly, doesn't matter.  Read it on your Kindle, your iPad, your Nook, your phone.  Wait for the print version, or the audio version.  How you read this story is a non-issue.  As always, what matters is whether the story is good, and "Mile 81" is: an engrossing, creepy, traditional horror story that pulls you along like the best of Stephen King's fiction.

Kevin Quigley is a novelist, critic, and webmaster of  You can follow his mad exploits on Twitter @Kevidently.

"Mile 81" is available:
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