Book Review: Stephen King finds terror in the ordinary in new pandemic-set novel ‘Holly’

“Holly” by Stephen King (Scribner)

In half a century of writing horror novels, Stephen King has created some remarkable villains. Who can forget the sing-song voice of Pennywise the clown, the devil incarnate Randall Flagg, or the drooling jaws of Cujo? The big bads in King’s latest novel, “Holly,” aren’t quite so memorable, but that’s part of what makes them terrifying.

Emily and Rodney Harris are retired professors of Bell College Arts and Sciences. Em, as her husband calls her, taught English and Em’s beloved “Roddy” taught life sciences and earned the nickname “Rowdy Roddy the Mad Nutritionist.” Bell is a generic “college on a hill” near a lake somewhere in Ohio. King doesn’t need to be more specific than that with his sense of place, because this is a story set during the COVID pandemic that uses common acts and things to create fear — abandoned bicycles, lost earrings, a twilight run through the park.

The novel begins with quick flashbacks to a series of abductions starting in 2012 that were perpetrated by the Harris’, and immediately we as readers know more than our title character. King fans will remember Holly Gibney from the “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy and a starring role in the title story of King’s collection “If It Bleeds.” It’s now 2021, and Holly is the only person working at her private investigation company, “Finders Keepers,” as her partner Pete quarantines. He pops into the story now and again during telephone calls, offering advice between coughing fits, but this is Holly’s case to solve.

When readers first met Holly in “Mr. Mercedes” she was awkward and reclusive, working behind the scenes to catch the killer. Now after getting a telephone call from Penny Dahl, whose daughter Bonnie has been missing for three weeks, she’s front and center, interviewing witnesses and suspects, while also dealing with the trauma of her past. Her mother, Charlotte, is a COVID statistic when the novel begins, dead after a “brutally short illness” precipitated by not masking and a refusal to get vaccinated. King goes fairly deep into Holly’s head, connecting her low self-esteem to her demeaning mother and the bullies who tortured her growing up. But it’s obvious he likes her — doggedness and common sense are traits to be admired. But will she exercise enough caution when it’s required?

Additional characters from King’s “Mr. Mercedes” books play key roles as well. Siblings Jerome and Barbara Robinson each have their own story arcs and it’s not hard to imagine that Jerome at least may pop up again in the Kingverse. The man who encouraged Holly to become a P.I., Bill Hodges, is gone from cancer, but never forgotten. His advice, in fact, serves as the novel’s epigraph — “Sometimes the universe throws you a rope.” The novel plays out according to that metaphor as Holly follows the rope all the way to a climactic confrontation with Emily and Rodney Harris, and sees for herself just how depraved college professors can be in the world of Stephen King.