A stalled story by Stephen King received enough of a jolt of inspiration from another writer to power an unexpected trilogy.

What started as an attempt to jump-start a fragment of a short story by Stephen King has grown, thanks to Maryland publisher Richard Chizmar, into a three-volume collaboration of increasing complexity.

Published Feb. 15 by Chizmar’s Cemetery Dance Publications, “Gwendy’s Final Task” completes the fantasy trilogy begun in “Gwendy’s Button Box” and continued in “Gwendy’s Magic Feather.” It’s another unexpected treat for King fans in the span of a year, represented by some of his best recent work, including “Billy Summers,” his hard-boiled assassin thriller from last August.

The “Gwendy” saga begins with 12-year-old Gwendy Peterson of Castle Rock, Maine meeting a mysterious stranger wearing a black bowler hat. He says his name is Richard Farris and that he has a favor to ask of her.

Farris gives her for safekeeping a wooden box with seven buttons on it. The color of the buttons, Farris tells Wendy, determines whom they affect when pushed: light green and dark green for Asia and Africa; blue and violet for North and South America; orange for Europe and yellow for Australia; plus a red one for a personal wish and a big black one associated with CANCER. There are additional levers that dispense exquisite chocolate animals or exceedingly rare silver dollars.

Gwendy matures into a successful, athletic, popular, attractive, intelligent young woman. Eating the chocolates and spending the coins instill feelings of euphoria and seemingly bestow good luck. Like Gollum’s ring, however, the box has an addictive quality. Gwendy is eventually forced to choose a button to press. She figures South America might result in the fewest casualties, but she is horrified to learn that the box might have triggered the murder/suicide at Jonestown. Although she experiences tragedy, it seems as if Gwendy eventually finds a way to slip out of the box’s sphere of influence.

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“Gwendy’s Magic Feather” recounts her rise to success in Washington, D.C., and as a best-selling novelist. She also finds herself being pulled back to Castle Rock, to help with the search for two missing girls. The box re-enters her life, for reasons she doesn’t understand.

“Gwendy’s Final Task” jumps forward a couple of decades, to when Gwendy is a 64-year-old U.S. Senator from Maine, participating in a mission to a space station. She carries with her a heavy-duty steel case marked CLASSIFIED, and she and only one other shipmate knows it contains perhaps the most dangerous object in the universe.

King will probably never stop returning to his gargantuan “Dark Tower” mythos, and there are strong connections in the Gwendy trilogy to “The Gunslinger” and other books. Mr. Farris is undoubtedly an incarnation of Randall Flagg from “The Stand.” Pennywise the clown from “IT” makes a cameo appearance from the dark little town of Derry. The clairvoyant handshakes from “The Dead Zone” play a role in the plot.

After a lifetime of good luck and good health, Gwendy has developed accelerating early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She misuses words well-known to her, forgets familiar tasks. Even if she develops a foolproof plan to protect the box, there’s no guarantee she’ll remember it. Bad as it is not to be able to trust her own brain, it’s worse for Gwendy to have to protect her teammates from a devious billionaire who has wangled his way onto the rocket ship with the intention of stealing the box and giving the black button a good, hard smack.

King has worked with other writers before, but they’ve tended to be either family members (Joe Hill and Owen King) or very close friends (Peter Straub). The author of “Chasing the Boogeyman,” Chizmar is well-known within the horror publishing industry, but he’s not a household name. He was, however, uniquely situated to see the early pages of “Gwendy’s Button Box” and be able to offer King his help in finishing the novella and continuing the trilogy.

“Gwendy’s Final Task” offers a fitting ending to this off-beat offering. Over the course of three books, Gwendy emerges as one of King’s most likable heroines – soft-spoken but not a pushover, strong enough to face extraordinary circumstances with grace and strength. Although some observers might deem her life as cursed, she never loses her conviction that she has also been blessed. Her essential goodness in the face of apocalyptic evil is what gives the series its power.

The “Gwendy” series feels a little baggy at times, repetitive in its reminders that the box is dangerous and that Gwendy is losing her mind. But it earns points in the ways it generates suspense in a claustrophobic setting.

King is a more adventurous writer than a lot of critics give him credit for. It’s good to watch him experiment with subject, style and structure as he does with the “Gwendy” books. Working with Chizmar seems to suit him, and readers can be thankful – in this special case, at least — for King’s willingness to collaborate.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: mlberry


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