Horror stories in popular culture and the name Stephen King have almost become synonymous. The author of magnum opuses like “Carrie,” “The Shining,” and “It” has released yet another commendable read in the form of a collection titled “If It Bleeds”, which includes four novellas. Published in April 2020, the title of the collection is named after its third story; the other three include “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” “The Life of Chuck,” and “Rat.”
If you are looking for a read which has equal amounts of thrill, suspense, and horror and yet a light read at the same time, the novella “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” should be the perfect pick. While King is undoubtedly popular for his intense and heavy horror fiction, which often surpasses page counts, his genius deserves equal praise when it comes to shorter prose fiction. The story “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone,” although covers only 88 pages, proves to be the perfect first in this four-chaptered collection. Along with the predominant supernatural theme running across the story, it also subtly explores the themes of friendship, bullying, social injustice, and the effects of technology.
Mr. Harrigan and Craig
The narrative is from the point of view of a teenage boy named Craig and spans across his high school and college days. The story begins with Craig trying to give the readers an idea of his hometown Harlow, and he does so by elaborating on how far it is from the city and the scanty population of six hundred. In this almost forsaken place lived Mr. Harrigan, an ex-businessman whose retirement had made it to the front page of The New York Times. The fact that the ex-owner of Oak Enterprise, a company owning shipping lines to shopping centers, movie theaters, mills, and telecom companies, would settle down in a village as his retirement plan adds to the mysterious aura of John Harrigan. The story unfolds after the narrator is hired by Mr. Harrigan. His jobs included reading to him for two or three hours a week, tending the garden, and doing some additional household chores. The payment was agreed at five dollars per hour.
The primary section of the novella deals with the developing bond between the retiree and the teenager. Craig loved spending time with Mr. Harrigan, and we realized the feeling to be mutual after the latter’s death. They discuss books, business, and, of course, technology. The story speaks of the time around the 2010s when the first iPhones were just available in the market. Mr. Harrigan was a well-read person, interested in stocks and shares, and although he had retired as a businessman, his interest in economics remained intact. However, like most of the elderly generation during the time, Mr. Harrigan too was determined to remain skeptical towards technology or the mobile phones and the internet; until he was taught otherwise by the narrator.
What is particularly attractive here is the manner of narration. Although comparatively much shorter in length, King does not let go of his signature style. While on the outward, the unconventional friendship between Mr. Harrigan and Craig keeps the readers engaged, one cannot help but question the simple details—the lack of information on Harrigan’s family, the particular one-dollar scratch cards as gifts on Valentine’s Day, birthdays, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas (even when he was one of the richest men in America), or the impending question regarding the titular “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.”
The Importance Of The Phone
The title of the novella itself is suggestive of the importance of ‘the phone’—an iPhone. The phone is almost a character of its own and later acts as a medium between Mr. Harrigan and Craig. From the very beginning of the narrative, the readers are provided with enough evidence to establish Mr. Harrigan’s dislike of technology, thereby making the readers more intrigued as to how the plot develops.
In a strange turn of events, Craig ends up winning three thousand dollars from the scratch cards gifted by Mr. Harrigan. To show his gratitude, Craig decides to give an iPhone to his aged friend. Half expecting Mr. Harrigan to not accept the gift, Craig is positively surprised when the former takes a keen interest in the device. It is at this point that the readers finally meet “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone”. We gradually see the once Mr. Harrigan who considered all new objects to be ‘chains,’ be it- a new car, television, or phone, now well-fettered to his new gift.
The discussions between the two friends slowly drift from books and journals to accessing the latest news on the internet. However, amidst these discussions, King provides subtle hints of Mr. Harrigan’s intellect and shrewdness as he constantly quizzes Craig about spam and other technicalities-some of which perplex even the teenager.
The climax of the story sets in at the death of Mr. Harrigan. It is Craig who finds Mr. Harrigan lying dead in his chair with the iPhone and the McTeague on the table beside him. Evidently aggrieved and heartbroken at the loss of his dearest friend, Craig decides to slip in the precious gift—the iPhone—inside Mr. Harrigan’s suit coat, along with a typed message to carry with him on his final journey. Unaware, this very action of Craig sets off a series of uncanny events.
Coping with Mr. Harrigan’s death was not an easy task for Craig. However, he had found a way to deal with it. Whenever in need of his old friend, Craig used to dial Harrigan’s number only to hear his rusty voicemail. However, the eeriness of the story takes a turn when the phone keeps ringing even months after Mr. Harrigan’s death. Taking the spookiness, a notch further, Craig’s messages to Mr. Harrigan’s phone start acting as a “wishing well,” only more twisted in this case. Whether it is the bully Kenny Yanko who beat him up in his high school, or Dean Whitemore, who kills his favorite teacher while drunk driving, complaints from Craig to Harrigan’s phone result in their questionable death.
‘Mr. Harrigan’s Phone’ Book Chapter: Ending Explained
The unnatural pattern in the deaths and the messages to Mr. Harrigan’s phone does not remain unnoticed by Craig. What he initially tries to ignore as a mere coincidence becomes strikingly apparent. The turn of events gets Craig questioning himself: was he hurting Mr. Harrigan by calling and messaging on the dead man’s phone? Or was his old friend enjoying the process?
What remains predominantly interesting is how Craig deals with this predicament. While on one hand, we see Craig not denying himself the easy vengeance he keeps receiving through “Mr. Harrigan’s phone,” on the other hand, his moral integrity is constantly at play, making him question his very actions. Craig’s interchanges with Mr. Harrigan’s phone almost become “a deal with the devil” until he decides otherwise. This constant dilemma between holding on and letting go is what makes the character human and relatable. Was Mr. Harrigan his guardian angel or the devil with a bargain? Was this rendezvous evoking a darker side of him? Was it he who was holding Mr. Harrigan captive, or was it the other way round? These questions cease to haunt Craig when he finally deciphers the message from the dead, something he knew all along but was not ready to accept—’ C C C sT,’ meaning ‘Craig Stop.’ Although the first 2 texts (C C C x and C C C aa) from ‘pirateking1’ (Mr. Harrigan’s phone) remain open for speculation, the final message provides Craig the closure that he needs.
In the end, Craig takes his old iPhone 1 (the only phone that was connected to Mr. Harrigan’s phone) and throws it in Castle Lake. The story comes full circle when, for a moment, Craig thinks of throwing away his latest version of the iPhone, reflecting on the dark sides of technology in the 21st century (just like Mr. Harrigan had once despised the phone). However, like most Stephen King fiction, the ending remains open as the readers keep wondering whether it’s the ultimate end for Mr. Harrigan and Craig or does “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” establish a connection again?
Although to some readers, the plot might not be entirely unheard of, King’s mastery over creating realistic characters and his style of narration makes up for it. Mr. Harrigan is a character one can easily meet in their life, yet the uncertainty surrounding him, and his actions is what instills the thrill in the narrative: why does he choose to live in the small village of Harlow? Why is there no mention of his family? What was his life like before his retirement? Why does he take an interest in Craig? Or why does he leave Craig with $800,000?
Not too grotesque and yet a perfect fit in the horror thriller genre, Stephen King’s “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” stands out on its own. It proves to be an apt read for readers who are yet to explore King’s classics.