By Lois Kennedy
It’s 1974, and Gwendy is a 12-year-old girl who desperately wants to lose weight. She meets a strange man who gives her a box (hence the title) with buttons and levers. One lever dispenses chocolate candies that regulate her appetite and gradually cause her to become prettier and a fast runner. Another lever summons valuable antique coins. The buttons correspond to the seven continents, with an additional red button and black button; they all cause death and destruction if she chooses to use them. The box changes her life as she grows up, in both good and horrifying ways.
The book was written by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, founder of Cemetery Dance magazine. Honestly, I couldn’t really see Chizmar’s influence. King’s other collaborations, like with Peter Straub or Stewart O’Nan, are clearly the work of two authors. But King’s voice and style is dominant. Not to mention the novella takes place in Castle Rock, with nods to his other works, including Dark Score Lake and an appearance by Sheriff George Bannerman. Most striking of all is the bearer of the box, one Richard Farris (AKA The Man in Black in the Dark Tower series, AKA Randall Flagg in ‘The Stand,’ etc.), who tells Gwendy, “We ought to have a palaver, you and me.”
I found it a compelling read. King is such a damn good storyteller that even if his work seems like a copy of his previous publications (cough cough ‘From a Buick 8’), it’s still great fun. This one is pretty original, but resonates with what he’s already written. Themes like wondering whether to change the future or that with great power comes great responsibility are pretty consistent. I was thinking of ‘The Dead Zone’ and his story ‘Everything’s Eventual,’ and trying to remember which books Sheriff Bannerman was in. I was glued to it, though. I started it shortly before I had to leave for work, and I kept promising myself just ten more minutes…
Gwendy is a likable and fascinating character. Farris gives her the box with the understanding that she will take good care of it and not use it for selfish reasons. We are given to wonder when she will use it, and what happens to her when she does. She has to handle the fear of what will happen if someone finds the box and fight the temptation to let possessiveness of it control her life. She wonders, “How much of her life is her own doing, and how much the doing of the box with its treats and buttons?”
It’s short, even for a novella. The hardcover edition runs 161 pages, including illustrations and generous spaces between chapters. It took me about two hours, even while taking notes.
Overall, I loved it. It’s classic King (and Chizmar!) and will please fans new and old alike.