“Gwendy’s Button Box”

Gwendy

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


Stephen King and Richard Chizmar’s 2017 novella, published as a stand-alone hardcover. I borrowed it from my friendly public library. Visit yours today! (Seriously. Go to your library.)

2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

12-year-old Gwendy receives a mysterious box from a black-suited stranger. The buttons on it give her the power to destroy, the gifts from the levers make her flawless.

This might be more short story than novella. The page count of 164 is padded with blank pages between chapters (chapters which are sometimes as short as a half-page), large double-spaced text and illustrations (which, admittedly, were pretty awesome and my favorite part of the book).

Anyone familiar with speculative fiction is going to immediately see similarities with Richard Matheson’s short story, “Button Button” (1970) (it’s really good. Read it.). King isn’t trying to pull a fast one. He loves his Matheson and wouldn’t try to rip-off or cheat. But the fact remains that Matheson already nailed the set-up of a box with death-buttons. If King wanted to tread the same ground, he needed to do something more than adding buttons to the box.


 

[1]

“In that case,” says the man in the black coat, “let me introduce myself. I’m Richard Farris.”

(p.9)

Stephen King? A man in black with the initials RF? We know where this is going.

[2] Reference:

For her birthday in October, she gets a poster of Robby Benson.

(p.37)

Robby Benson (b.1956) is an American actor, director, singer and teacher. He is known as the voice of The Beast in the Disney animated film, Beauty and the Beast. He made his film debut with an uncredited role in Wait Until Dark (1967; great movie, go and watch it now).

By 1974, when Gwendy received this poster, Benson had been in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow (1971 – 72), Jory (1972) and Jeremy (1973).

[3] Continuity mistakes? This scene takes place in January 1975.

They talk about it for the rest of the class. [Destroy] Hanoi, says Henry Dussault. Knock out that guy Ho Chi Minh and end the stupid Vietnam War once and for all.

(p.40)

Henry Dussault might not know that Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 (the Ho Chi Minh trail was such an important element of the Vietnam was that the student might assume he was a living figure) and the Vietnam War ended in April 1975, so Dussault’s second statement about ending it isn’t a mistake. But on the next page, a comment is made suggesting that Nixon is still in office:

“Good thing there isn’t really a button like that,” Miss Chiles says.

“But there is,” Gwendy says. “Nixon has one. So does Brezhnev. Some other people, too.”

Having given Miss Chiles this lesson – not in history, but in current events – Gwendy rides away.

(p.41)

Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August 1974. By January the next year, Gwendy has no reason to think he still has the power to destroy other countries.

[4] Reference:

He repeatedly tries to feel her up at a drive-in showing of Damnation Alley on their first date.

(p.65)

Damnation Alley (1977) is a post-apocalyptic film directed by Jack Smight, loosely based on the novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny.

[5] It sits badly when speculative fiction attributes real-world tragedies to supernatural influence. (King did it in “Fair Extension,” note [107], the only misstep of an otherwise very solid story). Gwendy, to its credit, only pulls the move once, linking Gwendy to Jonestown’s mass suicide:

She eases down on the sofa next to her mother and watches in horror as Charles Gibson takes them to Guyana.

(p.71)

…but this is partially redeemed in a later conversation between Farris and Gwendy:

“I caused Jonestown.”

“You give yourself far too much credit,” he says sharply. “Jim Jones caused Jonestown. The so-called Reverend was a crazy as a rat in a rainbarrel.”

(p.157)

[6] Continuity error? In 1978, Gwendy is told:

“Looking for a buffalo nickel or a few commemorative state quarters? I got a Utah, very good condition and scarce.”

(p.93)

According to theus50.com, the Utah State Quarter was released in 2007. Placing a Utah quarter in 1978 is such an egregious error that I’m wondering if coin dealer Jon Leonard is supposed to be a character (like Richard Farris) who exists outside of time.

[7] Along with “the man in black,” there are a couple other King-verse nods:

There are four of them sitting in a circle on the Peterson’s den floor: Gwendy, Sallie Ackerman, Brigette Desjardin, and Josie Wainwright. The other three girls are seniors at Castle Rock High.

(p.105)

Brigette Desjardin could be related to Rita Desjardin, the gym teacher in Carrie (1974), which takes place in Chamberlain, Maine.

 

Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman commented.

(p.119 – 120)

According to the Stephen King Wiki:

George Bannerman was the sheriff in Castle Rock, Maine from November 1972 until his death in July of 1980. He has appeared or been mentioned in the King works: The Dead Zone, Cujo, “The Body,” Needful Things and The Dark Half.

[8] Reference:

She stumbles upon a newspaper article about the accidental release of anthrax spores at a Soviet bioweapon facility that killed hundreds of people and threatened the countryside.

(p.110)

The Sverdlovsk anthrax leak was an incident in which spores of anthrax were accidentally released from the Sverdlovsk-19a military research facility on the southern edge of the city of Sverdlovsk on April 2, 1979. The ensuing outbreak of the disease resulted in approximately 100 deaths, although the exact number of victims remains unknown.

This causes another continuity mistake; Gwendy is reading the article sometime in the “fall and winter of 1978” (p.109). The paragraph after Gwendy has read about the anthrax leak, we’re told:

Near the end of her junior year, in March 1979, Gwendy watches television coverage of the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island.

(p.110)

Three Mile Island occurred days before the anthrax leak. Not a huge issue; it could be attributed to artistic license. But why not just switch the paragraphs?

[9] My guess, if this was co-written in a strictly “I do this part, you do that part” way, is that King drops out around Chapter 27 (page 133) and Chizmar takes the last thirty pages.

[10] Continuity error?

If Gwendy was hanging out with Desjardin when she was a sophomore and Desjardin was a senior (note [7]), why is Desjardin hosting a graduation party for Gwendy’s class?

After the ceremony is finished, they will change clothes and head to Brigette Desjardin’s house for the biggest and best graduation party in the school.

(p.141)

Why is Desjardin still throwing graduation parties years after her own? Was she held back two years?

[11] Reference:

A week-long camping trip to Casco Bay.

(p.141)

Casco Bay is an inlet of the Gulf of Maine on the southern coast of Maine. The city of Portland sits along its southern edge and the Port of Portland lies within.

[12] Continuity error?

He reaches into his pocket again, and pulls out a knife. It reminds [Gwendy] of Lenny’s except there’s no Semper Fi.

(p.146)

Gwendy never saw Lenny’s knife. She wouldn’t know what was written on it:

They watch [Gwendy] go, and then Frankie and Jimmy turn back to Lenny (…)

Lenny reaches into his pants pocket and comes out with a flick knife. Engraved on its silver side are the only two words of Latin these boys understand: Semper Fi.

(p.103)

[13] Reference:

The rape-murder of a girl in Cleaves Mills.

(p.158)

According to the Stephen King Wiki, Cleaves Mills is a fictional town in Maine, “close to Orono and Bangor and probably based on the town of Stillwater, Maine.”

Cleaves Mills was also used in The Dead Zone, The Tommyknockers, and Lisey’s Story.

[14] Reference:

(said by Farris in 1984)

“I have my eye on a boy in a little town called Pescadero, about an hour south of San Francisco. You will never meet him.”

(p.161)

From context, I assumed this would prove to be an (in)famous figure in history, but the only notable male resident on Pescadero’s Wikipedia page is Steve Blank (b.1953), an entrepreneur and academician.

[15]

“Who knows how many worse things the box might have prevented during your proprietorship? (….) It hasn’t stopped everything – we both read the newspapers – but I’ll tell you one thing, Gwendy (…) It has stopped a lot. A lot.”

(p.160)


 

Gwendy’s Button Box isn’t terrible, but it’s thin in more than its length. The continuity/logic errors are inexcusable and perplexing; it’s not the quality I’m used to seeing from King. And for such an interesting set-up, not much happens.

Adults: don’t pay hardcover price for this one. Even Amazon’s Kindle price (currently $6.99) is unjustifiable. Just put your name on the reserve list at the library or, honestly, skip it and read Matheson’s “Button Button” and King’s “Fair Extension.”

If you’ve got a young teen (or an ambitious pre-teen) itching to read a book with “Stephen King” on the cover, this is a good one to start them on. There’s a positive message here for younger readers (respecting unlimited power and using it wisely) and the language is straightforward and simple.

Next week, this complain-train’s going to keep rolling; we’re looking at Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March.

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