Stephen King: Download This

Stephen King made his bazillions from book sales and movie rights. So, why’s he suddenly gotten so cheap when it comes to paper? “Riding the Bullet” In case you haven’t heard, “Riding the Bullet,” King’s first new material since he was hit by a van and nearly killed last year, was published today. We use the term “published” liberally — more specifically, it was dispensed over the Internet as a downloadable-but-not-printable file, available for $2.50 per download to users of PCs and Palm Pilots (sorry, Mac aficionados, yer screwed again).

And after reading the 66-page thing (which is really a short story, not a novella as it’s been billed), you might come to the following conclusions: (a) Stephen King’s not as scary as he used to be; and (b) curling up with your laptop isn’t as comfy as it is with a dog-eared paperback.

“I found the inability to simply print ‘Riding the Bullet,’ even though I paid for it, was a great disappointment,” says David Rawsthorne, webmaster of Horrorking’s Stephen King Web site ( “I hate reading more than I have to on the computer and do not own one of the new handheld book readers to allow me to sit on the lounge and read in comfort.

“At a tiny 16,000 words, the price was also quite high. To compare it with a real hardcover, it is like paying $25 for ‘The Dead Zone’ with its 152,000 words, and with no first-edition binding, hard cover, graphics work on the cover, and the risk that a simple virus, hard disk drive failure, etc. will ultimately cause you to lose the book forever.”

A new Stephen King book (or story) is big news — especially when you consider that the author of “Misery,” “The Green Mile,” “Carrie” and more than 30 other horror novels said last year that his brush with death (he suffered a collapsed lung and multiple fractures to his right leg and hip in the June mishap) had left him unable to write.

But the folks at Simon & Schuster, who are co-publishing “Riding the Bullet” with King’s own company, are getting a lot of mileage out of the fact that this is the first-ever “e-book” from a major author. Even though no trees were killed in the making of King’s latest missive, a lot of newsprint and air time is being devoted to it, including a segment on NBC’s “Today” show.

A spokesman for the publisher tells that it’s not yet known how many people will download the book over the next few days. Both and Barnes & Noble Online, which offered “Ride the Bullet” downloads free today (they’ll start charging Wednesday), were swamped. (Barnes & Noble Online sent out an apologetic e-mail to hopeful readers, promising to deliver the book as soon as “issues of capacity” are resolved). Meanwhile, the book is also available from six other, nongratis e-book vendors, which were also difficult to access.

“I was extremely disappointed in the entire process,” says Steve Stinnett, who runs a Stephen King fan Web site ( Stinnett says he spent “nearly half the night” trying to get through to a server to download the book.

“Fans from across the world are unhappy and suffering because these companies failed to plan and expect an enormous response in the first hours of the release,” Stinnett says.

So, what’s the deal? Has Stephen King suddenly become an e-cologist? Or is “Ride the Bullet” simply a tuneup effort by a writer who’s on the mend? A minor work that’s being hyped by greedy Internet capitalists?

You asked, we tell:

“Ride the Bullet” is a story about a college student who gets a phone call from home, telling him his mother has been hospitalized after a stroke. The student hitchhikes home from the University of Maine. Along the way, he’s picked up by a Headless Horseman-like character (except with a sewn-on severed head), who makes the kid re-examine his beliefs about life and death, love and family, this and that. (The title, by the way, refers to a notorious rollercoaster called “The Bullet,” which the protagonist was too chicken to ride in his youth.)

Like other Stephen King stuff, there is the usual assortment of oddball characters (an old man whose car interior smells like urine, and who keeps tugging at his hernia truss), brand-name references, and a protagonist who isn’t sure what to make of life just yet.

So, is it any good?

It’s scary, but it ain’t no “Carrie.”

By way of a second opinion, webmaster Rawsthorne offers this: “‘Riding the Bullet’ is a short story, and like most short stories, it is hard to develop the characters in a way that allows a link between the reader and them, getting the reader more involved and engrossed in the story.”

That, and you can’t stick a bookmark in it.