Holly: A Novel

Image of Holly
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Great storytellers do more than entertain. They educate, they provoke, and they challenge our preconceived notions. Stephen King is Exhibit A.”

As daunting as it is to live up to your own lofty reputation, it must be deeply satisfying to succeed. Just ask Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell about the former; you only have to look as far as Stephen King for the latter. 

When King wrote his classic book on writing, called conveniently enough, On Writing, he dispensed wisdom and advice to writers of all ilk. But the best learning tool for great writing, as far as this reviewer is concerned, is simply reading the works of King. They’ll teach you all there is to know about style, structure, imagery, wordsmithing, and, perhaps above all, storytelling. King’s Holly is merely the latest textbook for that creative writing course.

Holly Gibney was first introduced as a Boo Radley-esque recluse in King’s Mr. Mercedes, but the author fleshed her out in subsequent books of the trilogy featuring retired police detective Bill Hodges. By the time he wrote Finders Keepers, Holly had moved from outcast to Hodges’ partner in the detective agency that gives that novel its title.

Following Bill’s death in End of Watch, Holly emerged from his shadow to become an owner of the agency, where she shined in The Outsider. Now, she casts a shadow of her own as the lead in King’s latest novel, which even bears her name, leaving no doubt that she is the driver of the story.

When Penelope Dahl calls the Finders Keepers Detective Agency to find her daughter, Bonnie, what starts off for Holly as a routine missing persons case soon reveals itself to be anything but. No surprise there. Has any Stephen King story ever been so pedestrian as to be labeled “routine” or to follow any predictable path?

It turns out that Bonnie isn’t the only person to have gone missing in the same area in the past few years. As Holly tracks down leads to Bonnie’s disappearance, she finds intersecting lines with those other cases, leading to the inescapable conclusion that something serial is afoot. But what, exactly? There are no bodies, just missing persons.

Holly follows the trail to an eccentric, ostensibly harmless, married couple, both aging professors at a local college. But harmless they decidedly are not. Rodney and Emily Harris seem to channel Arsenic and Old Lace’s Brewster sisters, Abby and Martha.

The difference, though, is that the Brewster sisters’ serial murders were motivated by a distorted vision of benevolence—to end the “suffering” of lonely old bachelors—but the Harrises are purely out for themselves, in a very unconventional sort of way. And, thus, horror creeps in to what otherwise might simply be labelled a thriller or, more mundanely, a missing persons whodunnit.

It’s not critical that the reader have read the prior novels in the series to follow the story and to quickly pick up on the characters that provide Holly with her support structure. They do, however, lay the foundation for an appreciation for who Holly Gibney was at the start and how far she has come.

Sometimes derisively labeled “Holly the Mumbler” or, as she was ridiculed in school, as Jibba-Jibba Gibney because of her propensity for jibba-jibba-gibbering, her place on the autism spectrum remains secure. But with Holly, her transformation into the remarkable woman and detective she has become is complete.

Readers of the prior books will also recognize those supporting characters who first helped bring Holly out from her world of self-imposed loneliness. Characters like the brother and sister duo of Jerome and Barbara Robinson, who have also grown since first being introduced in Mr. Mercedes. The series almost reads like a family saga or extended coming of age story for multiple characters. After all, Holly was almost childlike when first introduced, and Barbara literally was a child in the first book.

Holly is not a horror novel in the traditional sense, like King’s Pet Sematary, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, or even classics like Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Wollstonecraft’s Shelley’s Frankenstein. Instead, Holly is more realistic, if that term can be used, in that there are no fantastical or supernatural elements.

The horror comes from taking the normal and the natural to bizarre extremes. In Holly, it is the desire to improve one’s quality of life, a most normal and natural inkling. But when distorted by narcissism, the notion that one’s life is more precious than another’s gives license to do the unspeakable. What starts as something benign becomes malignant, as the professors Harris advance their own selfish ends.

Great storytellers do more than entertain. They educate, they provoke, and they challenge our preconceived notions. Stephen King is Exhibit A. Presumably most readers view themselves as decent human beings, but how far would anyone go out of self-preservation? As the saying goes, getting old ain’t for sissies.

Neither is reading Stephen King.