Review: MILE 81 by Stephen King

Stephen King’s novelette, MILE 81, released today in digital format, tells the story of an abandoned rest stop, or rather the peculiar car that chooses to park there, and what that car does when the curious get too close.

Ten year old Pete Simmons, brushed off by his older brother and his gang and looking for something to do, decides to investigate a nearby rest area, which, once a popular stop for hungry and weary travelers on the I-95 stretch of highway, is now little more than a dilapidated hangout for local teens looking for somewhere safe to get high and get lucky. Once there, Pete finds a bottle of vodka and samples it, which proves enough to knock him out for a few hours. While he sleeps, a mud-coated Station Wagon “of indeterminate make and vintage” shows up and parks outside. The door swings open, and nobody steps out.

I won’t say much more about the plot, because the story is too short for that, something I wish the publishers had kept in mind when coming up with the sales copy. Because unfortunately, if you’ve read the synopsis of the book, you know 75% of the story already, which, like movie trailers that give away major plot points, is annoying. One could argue that the “deaths” were mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis because there’s a lot more to the story. The problem, though, is that there isn’t. We get a nice setup, which reads like it would for a novel, in which Pete is introduced and sets off looking for mischief or adventure, whichever comes first. Then we get the car and the ensuing creepiness, and then (and this is my main beef with the story), we get a hurried, unsatisfying ending.

Which is unfortunate, because for the majority of MILE 81, I felt like I was a teenager again, reading CHRISTINE for the first time. The style is vintage, good-old fashioned King, and MILE 81 will inevitably draw comparisons to that novel, although it probably has more in common with FROM A BUICK 8 (both feature cars with questionable appetites), with a dash of the slow, creeping death of “The Float” (from SKELETON CREW) thrown in for good measure. And as is typical of King’s work, the characters are handled with the author’s trademark skill. Within the space of a page, we know them, which makes us care about what happens to them. And while I had issues with some of the children’s dialogue (both internal and external) not ringing true at times, I was willing to forgive it because in my experience, such minor issues are quickly forgotten in a King story by the time the real fun starts.

But sadly, the fun is all too brief in MILE 81, and in the end I felt as if I had read the opening chapter to an abandoned novel, or perhaps a FROM A BUICK 8 prologue that was abandoned in favor of not making the car so obviously homicidal. There are some great scenes here (one involving a tire is delightfully creepy, and the death scenes are pretty clever), but while I agree with the author’s contention that the novella is the perfect length for horror fiction (and FULL DARK, NO STARS is proof of his own mastery of that format), here it feels constricting, as if King had someone standing over his shoulder reminding him of the word count restrictions when he wanted to write a novel. It’s jarring, because everything to that point promises more of a payoff, which doubles the let-down when it doesn’t come.

Still, I recommend reading it, particularly if, like me, anything King writes is an automatic purchase for you. You’ll enjoy the ride, even if it doesn’t handle as well as the overenthusiastic salesman promised, but when it stops abruptly enough to give you whiplash, don’t say I didn’t warn you.