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Onyx reviews: Riding the Bullet by Stephen King

By now, almost everyone in America knows that Stephen King released a new novella on the Internet in March. Riding the Bullet is the first material that he has written and published since his near-fatal accident last June.

What makes this story newsworthy is that it is available only on the Internet and can only be read on a computer. There is no way to print the story out, which is what King and his publishers intended. They are using this story to see how readers feel about reading fiction on-line.

Over half a million people showed their willingness to participate in the experiment during the first week the story was available. However, reviews of the technology have been mixed. Many people had difficulties obtaining the story, partly because two major on-line bookstores decided to give it away free on the day it was released. All orders were filtered through two or three small servers, which were helplessly overwhelmed. Others reported problems installing the programs required to read the story. Users of Macintosh computers only recently were able to download a version for their computers and WebTV subscribers are still unable to read Riding the Bullet. Many people lamented the fact that they could not read the story in a more comfortable location than in front of the computer screen.

What of the story itself? King describes it as a classic ghost story. Alan Parker, a freshman at the University of Maine, gets word that his mother is in the hospital, having suffered a stroke. Money is scarce and his car's transmission is shot, so he decides to hitchhike the hundred and twenty miles back home. After a harrowing ride with an elderly man, Alan wanders into a graveyard while waiting for another car to pass. Here he stumbles over the gravestone of George Staub, who died in his teens.

The next car that passes by is driven by none other than the late Mr. Staub, who met his fate in a violent car crash a couple of years earlier. King gleefully describes smoke from Staub's cigarette seeping through the stitch-marks in his neck where the mortician reattached his head.

Staub, however, is not just out for a preternatural joyride this night. He is a messenger from beyond the grave. Alan finds himself in one of those Twilight Zone situations where he must make a pivotal choice, both for himself and for his mother. The implications of his decision will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Alan is aware of his situation, often commenting to himself that this is the point in a ghost story where a certain thing always happens. However, King toys with the rules of the ghost story. The outcome of the choice Alan makes while riding with Staub is not at all what he or the reader expects.

King's metaphor for life and death is "The Bullet," a famous roller coaster. As a boy, Alan had pestered his mother into standing in line with him for hours on a hot day to ride "The Bullet," but when their turn had finally arrived, Alan had chickened out.

King is not a typical ghost story writer, and he leaves the reader with no easy answers to the questions that everyone asks about life...and death. It is not surprising that King has chosen to write about mortality given his recent experience. It is also noteworthy that the dog that distracted the van driver who struck King was called Bullet. This is a story about choices, but also a look at how mundane, everyday choices can have life-altering outcomes.

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