“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Many readers have, at some point, come across this famous Stephen King quote. The process of creating books is also magic, and that magic gives characters their own personalities — which means they can surprise an author even when they’ve worked on character development a lot and think they know all there is to know about them. Holly Gibney is a perfect example of this.
Holly Gibney first appeared in King’s Mr. Mercedes, an Edgar Award-winning novel and the first book in the Bill Hodges Trilogy. Now that Holly is back, I wanted to get reacquainted with her, to see her development as a character, so I went back and did a lot of reading. In Mr. Mercedes, Holly is a walk-on character. In fact, she doesn’t make an appearance until page 219, and when she does, she “never speaks above a mutter and seems to have a problem making eye contact.” During the rest of that novel, and in the sequel, Finders Keepers, when she starts working with Hodges, Holly is a pale, insecure young woman who suffers from panic attacks, is haunted by her overbearing mother, and must take Lexapro for her anxiety. In the subsequent novels, Holly starts to come out of her shell. And in Holly, King’s latest, she is a complex, multilayered character who seems to have been developed to occupy center stage from the beginning.
In Holly, Gibney is working a case by herself because her partner, Pete, is at home with Covid-19. Holly is looking into the disappearance of Bonnie Rae Dahl, a young woman who vanished under mysterious circumstances, leaving behind her bike, a strange note saying she’d had enough, and a heartbroken mother. The case, which Holly wasn’t supposed to accept but decided to take on because Bonnie Rae’s mother was desperate, is tricky. Also, Holly must deal not only with the limitations and stress imposed by the rampaging Covid pandemic but also with the recent death of her mother, who didn’t believe Covid, the illness that killed her, was real and refused to get vaccinated.
While looking into Bonnie Rae’s disappearance, Holly comes across another missing person, a boy who also mysteriously vanished. As Holly and Jerome (who used to help Hodges as a kid and then started helping Holly) look into the two cases, they become convinced they’re related. And they might be right. A few blocks from where Bonnie Rae was last seen, professors Rodney and Emily Harris are hiding a lot of dark secrets under their respectable facade. The octogenarians are a cute, devoted, eloquent couple of semi-retired academics who don’t shy away from social situations. They’re also racist and homophobic, and that’s not the worst of it — the worst happens in their basement. To solve the case of the missing woman, and of those that vanished just like her, Holly will have to use all the tools she has developed because those responsible are brilliant, experienced, and very patient.
King’s work usually swings between full-blown nostalgia to incredibly timely, and Holly belongs to the latter group. The Covid-19 pandemic, racism and homophobia, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and Donald Trump’s effect on the country’s zeitgeist and political discourse are all very present in the narrative, which mostly takes place in 2021 (jumping back and forth during that year) but also goes back in time to show Rodney and Emily Harris’ history of atrocities. King has never been shy about his politics, but Holly is one of his most political novels to date, and it’ll’ surely anger all the right people.
Holly is a gripping crime novel, but it’s one that’s very close to the horror aesthetic King is known for. The things Rodney and Emily Harris do in their basement — and some of the things they do with the…aftermath of their actions in their daily lives — are hideous and shocking in ways that will satisfy horror fans. However, the way the narrative is constructed and the layering of characters and their gruesome ends are all reminders that King is also a superb crime/mystery writer who easily navigates the interstitial space where all dark genres meet. Furthermore, the book is full of ghosts. Bill Hodges, now long gone, is a constant presence in this book. So are the killers he and Holly tried to bring to justice together. In that regard, this novel is a celebration of Holly’s past as well as of Hodges’s legacy, but there is enough context to allow it to work as a standalone for those who haven’t followed Holly’s story from the beginning.
While Holly is brutal and gripping and King did many things right with the story, Holly is the heart of the narrative. Her growth from a shy, muttering mess in Mr. Mercedes to the smart, strong, smoking, slightly better, and much richer woman we see in Holly is tremendous. It’s also a testament to King’s talents as a writer and a stark reminder of what can happen when writers allow the magic that inhabits their characters to blossom unimpeded by their original plans for them. Please, Mr. King, give us more Holly soon.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.