Billy Summers is the most recent thriller written by Stephen King. With Billy Summers, Stephen King reminds us once again that horror does not always come in the form of nightmares, ghosts, and monsters. Sometimes, horror can be found within the human mind and the horrific actions of human monsters.
The main character of this novel, Billy Summers, is not a good guy in the traditional, white-picket-fence way. Instead, he follows his own moral code, developed from his troubled youth in an abusive home, foster care, and military service. He wants to experience a different, more traditional kind of life and uses this last job to explore what that other life would be like. Billy enjoys pretending to belong in a white-picket-fence world, even while knowing that he can never stay there. That pragmatic view of his own life elicited sympathy from me for his character in spite of his large moral flaws. Despite Billy’s “bad” nature, he is a character that I could not help but root for, even while hoping he would eventually make better choices and break free from the lifetime of decisions that trapped him within his current existence.
Despite Billy’s twisted moral code and “badness” based on his career choice, it is clear as characters are introduced throughout the story that he is a better person than many of the individuals he encounters. As I read this novel, I hated some of the decisions that Billy made as the story progressed. There were no neat fixes for some of the loose ends in Billy’s story, which was frustrating for me as the reader. I wanted Billy to kill off a character earlier in the story because I knew that character would cause him trouble later in the story and the end result would be the same – that character would eventually be killed by Billy. The most frustrating part of it from my perspective was that Billy knew the same thing. I enjoy reading stories with characters that are well developed and make me feel protective of them even when I disagree with that character’s choices. Stephen King’s attention to plot details and world-class character development engaged me from the very beginning of the novel.
The “one last job” trope is a very common literary theme and Billy pointed it out in the book, helping to foreshadow the direction the story would take. What I could not predict was the sharp 90° turn in the direction of the book after Billy’s job was completed. Billy’s efforts to balance his desire for self-preservation while protecting someone he thought of as innocent was an interesting development of his character after he encountered Alice Maxwell. I understood Billy’s desire to protect Alice’s life and prevent her from becoming “bad” and turning out as he did. I also enjoyed reading the story that Billy was writing throughout the book. Reading a story within a story adds a neat dimensionality to the novel.
Based on Stephen King’s very public political leanings, this book reads as an allegory on the general state of American society and current political affairs. I am glad that I read this story at this moment in time because it resonates with me more now than it might in another ten or twenty years.