There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 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.
At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.
One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”
On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…
Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella written by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, is a twist on a familiar story/social experiment. I was immediately reminded of the 2009 film The Box, based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button” and previously adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone by the same name. The story more or less always goes that an enigmatic man gives someone a box with a button on it. If they push the button two things will happen: they will receive a sum of money, and someone will die. What follows is the expected moral dilemma. While I’m certain this book is meant to recall these tales, the situation here is actually a lot more complex.
While the above button presents strictly a moral dilemma — which do factor here — the button box is more a matter of responsibility. On top of that, it is power; what one could or should do with unfettered access to it, as well as power’s effect on your life. The button box itself has numerous coloured buttons on it corresponding to each continent on the globe. What these buttons do is hinted to be disastrous, but never specified. There’s also a black button, suggested to be worst of all, and a red one, which will do what the user wills.
All Gwendy is prompted to do — by a man in black, Richard Farris, who charges her with keeping the box — is pull a lever on one side to receive a tiny chocolate animal from within the box every day, which tastes as good as all get-out, and pull another on the other side to receive a valuable silver coin. Otherwise, she’s to keep the box secret. Pushing any of the buttons is up to her.
Simply having the box, keeping it secreted away, eating the chocolate, and collecting the coins induces miraculous changes in her life. It actually perplexed me for a good while that much of the book explores the wonderful ways her life changes with no definitive ill side effects. It seemed lacking conflict, operating counter to what I would expect from a story like this. I assumed Gwendy would have to actively deal with direct consequences and more actively struggle with temptations.
Her good fortune does harbour ill feelings from others, however, and attracts unsavoury attention. As wonderful as the changes are, forces seem to be at work to make sure they stay positive too, even at the cost of others. We’re made to wonder how much the box’s mysterious influence ought to be blamed for the misfortunes other people face. With comfort and contentment comes complacency in Gwendy as well, and the box doesn’t like to be ignored or forgotten.
Though the implications of the box are troubling, she deals with it in a more optimistic way than expected of such a story. The story really is more about the gravity and responsibility of such a thing, not as much using it. Still, her time with the box, spanning her preteen years to young adulthood, is not without its experimentation with the tantalizing red button, or using it when she unexpectedly needs it. What becomes an interesting question for the reader regarding the buttons is not what she does use them for, but what she could have.
With such nebulous possibilities for what the box does, I wonder what crises that came her way could have been avoided if only things had been a little different, with the box in her possession still. The book concludes fairly closed ended, but left me with complicated feelings: how can I feel everything went so well for Gwendy when so many terrible things happened? These mixes in tones, from fortunate to tragic, feel so strange because they’re conveyed naturally. I feel like they’d conflict, but they don’t.
It’s hard to say where different author’s contributions lie. It reads a lot like a King book to me, whose style I’ve enjoyed pretty consistently, but clearly the two pair together well. Short as the book was, I went from page to page so fluidly I was almost done before I knew it. Had I the time I probably could have read the whole thing in a sitting without complaint.
Gwendy’s Button Box is not groundbreaking, but tells a thought-provoking tale of power, responsibility, and the unknown that I will reflect on for a while to come.