“There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day this summer – yes, even on Sundays – twelve-year old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside. She walks the first hundred, jogs the second hundred, and forces herself to run up the last hundred and five, pelting-as her father would say-hellbent for election. At the top she bends over, red-faced, clutching her knees, hair in sweaty clumps against her cheeks (it always escapes her ponytail on that last sprint, no matter how tight she ties it), and puffing like an old carthorse. Yet there has been some improvement. When she straightens up and looks down the length of her body, she can see the tips of her sneakers. She couldn’t do that in June, on the last day of school, which also happened to be her last day in Castle Rock Elementary.”
The above is the opening paragraph from the well-paced, and thought provoking, Gwendy’s Button Box written by world-renowned author, Stephen King, and co-authored by Richard Chizmar. In addition to being a writer, Chizmar is the publisher and editor of Cemetery Dance Magazine, and the owner of Cemetery Dance Publications. The 175 page novella was published on May 16, 2017 by Cemetery Dance Publications, and takes place in the fictional setting of Castle Rock, Maine, which King has used in a number of his other works. King had been working on Gwendy’ story, but hadn’t, come up with a satisfactory way to end the work. During an exchange of e-mails, he told Chizmar, a long time friend, what was happening. Chizmar told King, he would love to read the story, but didn’t expect it to go further than that. The next evening, he received an e-mail with an attachment of what King had written, and the two began collaborating, and expanding the story. In an interview Chizmar gave to Entertainment Weekly, he speaks about how he and King collaborated:
“Within three days, I added 10,000 words. I sent those to Steve. He added a few thousand, sent it back, and then we did that until we were finished. Played ping-pong with emails. Neither one of us ever told the other where we wanted it to go or where we thought it might go. We left that up to the other writer.”
The date is August 22, 1974, and overweight, twelve-year-old, Gwendy Peterson, is desperately trying to shed her unwanted pounds, as she is tired of her peers referring to her by the unflattering nickname of ‘Goodyear,’ as in the blimp. For the past week, when she has reached the top of the suicide stairs, she observes a mysterious, blue-eyed stranger sitting on the bench located near the entranceway to the Castle View Recreational Park. He is dressed in a white buttoned down shirt, open at the collar, black jeans, and a black sports jacket; atop his head is a black hat, and from what Gwendy can tell, he’s always reading the same book, “Gravity’s Rainbow.” One day, he calls to her. She’s hesitant to engage him in conversation, telling him she’s not supposed to talk to strangers. As Gwendy will soon learn, the man’s name is Richard Farris, and he agrees with her about not talking to strangers, but eventually, she warms up to him, and they begin conversing.
At first, the conversation between Farris and Gwendy consists of getting to know you questions. He asks her about her name, and she asks him if he’s on vacation, to which he responds that he travels all across the country, and refers to himself as a ‘rambling man.’ While talking, Farris lets Gwendy know he keeps his eye on certain people, and she is such a person because she’s special; he tells her he felt her presence long before he saw her. Furthermore, he theorizes about Gwendy’s inner thoughts, and she finds herself opening up to him about things she wouldn’t even discuss with her parents. When Gwendy gets up to leave, Farris tells her she can’t leave because he has something for her. Reverting back to her mindset on strangers, she tells him she can’t accept a gift from him. Once again, however, even though she’s fearful that Farris might try something, he convinces her to stay.
Farris reaches under the bench, they’re sitting on, and brings out a drawstring, canvas bag. When he opens up the bag, he takes out a mahogany box, that Gwendy considers beautiful. A feeling overtakes Gwendy; the box is something she immediately wants. Gwendy views the box as something valuable that belonged to her in a previous life, that was lost, and has now been returned. The gift Farris gives her is not just a finely polished box, but – as he refers to it – a ‘button box.’
The box is adorned with eight buttons, all different colors, six of them represent continents, Antarctica is excluded. Farris imparts instructions about the buttons to Gwendy. Firstly, the buttons pertaining to the continents can be used only once. The same goes for the black button, which Gwendy will come to refer to as the ‘cancer button.’ Farris never gets into precise detail about what would happen if its pushed, but, in an oblique way, he intimates that it would usher in the end of the world. Conversely, the red button can be used by the box’s owner multiple times, and gives the person, anything he or she wants. Additionally, there is a slot in the middle, and two small levers on each end of the box. The one on the left produces chocolate, while the one on the right dispenses mint condition, Morgan silver dollars. Farris gets up to leave. He doesn’t let Gwendy know where he is going, or when he’ll be back. He does, however, warn Gwendy of the following:
“Take care of the box. It gives gifts, but they’re small recompense for the responsibility…I advise you not to let anyone find it, not just your parents, because people are curious. When they see a lever, they want to pull it. And when they see a button, they want to push it.”
The remainder of the novella centers, in essence, on Gwendy’s guardianship of the box. Farris has left her, not so much a gift, but a test. The chocolates that she eats, that are produced by the box, aid her in magnificent ways; each one is no bigger, as Farris states, than a jelly bean. Although small in size, the chocolates leave Gwendy euphorically satisfied, and quells her appetite, so that only one a day is enough. The box, as the reader will discover, changes Gwendy in profound ways. She begins to transform herself from an overweight, introverted, child into a teenager and young woman, who is confident, attractive, and seemingly excels at anything she puts her mind to. Temptation, however, regarding the other powers that the box offers begins to consume her thoughts. Furthermore, she wonders if the gifts she has received are directly proportional to terrible events that have taken place throughout the world.
Who is Richard Farris? What is his agenda? Why would he give a school aged girl the same type of power normally reserved for heads of state? What price does the world at large pay every time Gwendy utilizes the power of the box? Will Gwendy give in to temptation and push one of the buttons, thereby causing the destruction of an entire continent? What sorts of things, if any, will she use the red button for? While not all of those questions will be directly answered by the conclusion of the novella, a good many of them, as well as several more, will be. King and Chizmar, however, do leave certain parts up to the reader’s imagination to discern, and while that might frustrate some, it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this King-Chizmar novella.