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.


25 thoughts on “Review: MILE 81 by Stephen King

  1. Thanks for the review! You know, I really don’t find possessed cars all that scary. I liked Christine well enough, but I don’t know if I’d be into another evil-car story. That said, I love King’s writing, so maybe one day I’ll pick it up, since, as a novella, it won’t be quite the same endeavor as picking up a Stand-sized King novel 😛

  2. I found this site by following a link from my site and I have to say that I’m impressed. I was a bit on the fence on the release of King’s new novel, but hearing your review I might actually buy the e-book version of it. I like that you said it reminds you of old school King. The one that mad me reread Cujo a couple of times before I actually got through it because I was so scared. Or Pet Semetary, where I would dream of the man with the smashed head and how he was dead. Thanks for renewing my faith in the old school King. 🙂

    • Hi Taylor,

      You’re very welcome! I’m a huge fan of King’s, and buy everything he puts out, but I also accept that not everything he writes is brilliant. That would be next to impossible.

      And PET SEMETARY is in my top five favorite King novels.

      Thanks for stopping by!


      • It is for sure one of my top five too. I have Duma Key that I’m going to read as soon as I get done the current book I am reading. Stephen King has been a big part of my life growing up…and the reason I’m a writer. 🙂 The Dark Half has to be my favourite of his. And you are welcome for stopping by.

    • Then I shouldn’t be disappointed then. Perfect, that will give me motivation to finish the one that I can’t seem to get through but refuse to give up on. (It’s not a Stephen King book though.)

      • I’ve had a few of those myself lately. The only King book I have here that I still haven’t read is LISEY’S STORY. I tried three times to get through it and couldn’t get past page 150. I’m determined to do so though, eventually.

      • I am behind in the books by him so I have most of his recent ones to go. Like Lisey’s Story and Cell..all of those ones. I’m really looking forward to 11/22/63, I want to see how he would twist that. And Tommyknockers…my friend in highschool died and he was reading that book so to honour him I won’t read it. (Weird. I know.)

      • I don’t think that’s weird at all. Makes perfect sense. And I’m sorry to hear about your friend.

        From what I’ve heard about THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, you’re not missing much. I would say the same about CELL, which has a phenomenal first half and then, much like DREAMCATCHER, devolves into lackluster territory.

      • Cell is a disappointment then? I haven’t read Dreamcatcher or From A Buick 8. I guess I am farther behind than I thought. I have heard though that Tommyknockers is a bit disappointing. What is your favourite of his.

        My friend died back when we were both 17. But thank you. I miss him still.

      • Yes, CELL was a letdown after a terrific opening. I really enjoyed FROM A BUICK 8, though I seem to be in the minority there.

        My favorites, off the top of my head, would be IT, SALEM’S LOT, THE SHINING, and PET SEMETARY, and most of his collections (but especially FULL DARK, NO STARS.)

      • Pet Semetary was my first Stephen King book I read. I have to agree with your choices. It being probably the reason I’m scared of clowns. One more question…do you think that the movies that were made of his books were a letdown? Such as Misery…he got out so many more times and his legs were cut off instead of being broken like the movie. (In Pet Semetary though, Gage and the Dad were exactly how I pictured them.) (And the books you have published are they horror? :P)

      • I think for the most part, many of the films they’ve made have been disappointing, but that’s always the case when you’re looking at someone else’s visualization of the work. What happens in your own mind when you read the book is the best kind of movie. That being said, I liked MISERY, PET SEMETARY, CARRIE and THE SHINING. And THE GREEN MILE and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION were superb adaptations.

        And yes, I write horror 🙂

  3. Shawshank Redemption is one of my top five favourite movies. The Stand wasn’t one of your favourite? That was the only one that I had seen the movie (or mini-series before the book). And which Shining was better? I like the original better vs the mini-series.

    And I will for sure check out your book. I know that if you write horror I want to check it out for sure. I am also a huge fan of Dean Koontz too.

    • I liked THE STAND, but I don’t think it was nearly as good as the book. But that’s a tall order. And definitely the original THE SHINING, though the TV version was more faithful to the book.

      I’m a big fan of Koontz too. More his earlier stuff, like PHANTOMS and MIDNIGHT, than the recent work, but that may change with the new one he has coming. Looks deliciously creepy.

      If you check out THE TURTLE BOY, I hope you enjoy it!

  4. My favourite of Dean is Intensity. I always tell people to read that one. But his older stuff is much better. I hope that he is creepy. I think the creepier the better. I’m like that with my movies too scary and gory…bring it on.

    I sure hope to check out The Turtle Boy. It would be interesting to read since I’ve picked your brain right now. I’m always intrigued with the way the writer’s mind works. I always ask singers how their writing process is. It’s very interesting to me and I like to compare it to the way mine works.

  5. Pingback: Book Review – Mile 81 by Stephen King « Randomize ME

  6. Totally true, when Pete uses that “thing” for the “final battle”… it felt just wrong, I can remember feeling the same on many horror stories, in which a ridiculous solution takes place. This is beyond unsatisfying, seems Mr. King was scared of his own creation and decided to finish it as soon as possible.

    There’s only two others stories that sucks for its finale: Blockade Billy and Cell… Same problem, same poverty. I think it is not fair to evaluate a story just for its conclusion or climax… But I also think Mr. King has the power to offer more intelligent and scary endings.

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