Novella Review: "Mile 81" by Stephen King
"Mile 81" is one of Stephen King's shortest novellas. Its scope is even small for a short story, but it packs the same punch as King's better works. Expect to read it in a single sitting and have a few, "Oh, King" moments when you read it. I should also point out that readers of "On Writing" will almost be able to see the advice King gives at work in "Mile 81." It might be the shortness of the novel or the smallish area of the setting, but he's bravely leaving a lot up to the imagination and this imagination took the bait.
This piece hearkens back to some of King's earliest works in many ways, but it also has some mentions more modern things than this reader of early backwoods King novels is used to. For example, he mentions the Facebook game "Words with Friends," and even has a cop playing it on an iPad. Slow down, Mr. King. I still want banana seated Schwinns from you, sir. Anyway, it all pans out in that eerie way that Stephen King makes you see a book as though through a '50s or '60s looking glass, and then, "Bam!" there's the token young man seeing a poster, but this one is shaved. (If you've read "Dreamcatcher," you know the kind of poster I mean!) It's a Burger King and not a vintage restaurant chain. It's an SUV instead of a pickup. Well, maybe that's me, but I liked the reminders of it being a modern time, as it contrasted with the novella's focal point -- a muddy station wagon.
When I say that "Mile 81" hearkens back to early King, I mean it in several ways, but none more than the monster car theme it has going. Part of me wonders what horrible or wonderful experience Stephen King had with a car when he was a child that made him able to imagine them in such a way. My favorite was "From a Buick 8," but the inevitable unanswered questions of such a short story make "Mile 81" tasty for me as well. I both love and hate unanswered questions in a story. Perhaps that is why I like King so much.
Before I go, there is one more thing I have to point out and that is that readers will likely appreciate the pace of this novella. Stephen King has a tendency to jump back and forth between dragging butt and hauling it in his full-length novels. Even some of his short stories are a little too verbose when I am chomping at the bit for something to happen, but not "Mile 81." Every break to a new chapter ends with something interesting and starts with the promise of the same. From a kid going to sleep on a questionable mattress in a questionable place to a couple of children stranded on the side of the road, there is plenty of suspense, but not one single pause before the suspense is satisfied.