Stephen King's "Holly" reframes his hero's mental illness as an asset

In the horror master's latest book, Holly Gibney's anxiety and OCD helps to solve problems, not create them

By Kelly McClure

Nights & Weekends Editor

Published September 24, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

Woman in a trench coat looking on at a park (Getty Images/James Whitaker)
Woman in a trench coat looking on at a park (Getty Images/James Whitaker)

Article contains major spoilers for "Holly"

In every form of media you can think of — across all genres, but especially in horror — a common trope is for villainism and mental illness to go hand in hand. Rare are the instances when a character in a movie, TV show or book is introduced and described as having anxiety, depression, OCD or any other number of difficult to manage disorders where that character is not later revealed to be a catalyst for some sort of problem needing to be solved. But in "Holly," Stephen King's latest notch on his ever-growing bibliography, there's a noteworthy shift in this unfortunate standard in that the main character, Holly Gibney, is the one solving problems, not causing them. And in his writing, he makes it so easy to see how this can, and should, be absorbed as a new norm in culture. 

What's perceived as unstable can, in Holly's instance, prove to actually be pretty useful.

Often referenced as one of King's most beloved characters, dating back to when she first appeared in "Mr. Mercedes" — the first in his Bill Hodges trilogy, released in 2014 — Holly Gibney was initially depicted as a reclusive  chainsmoking eccentric who takes Lexapro for her anxiety and struggles with extreme OCD. Seeing something of himself in her — and mentioning in various interviews that other people would likely as well — King took what what he originally envisioned as being a one-off character and stretched her role, revisiting her in "Finders Keepers" (2015), "End of Watch" (2016), "The Outsider" (2018), his short story collection, "If It Bleeds" (2020), and now a book all her own. Clearly seeing something in the character worth fleshing out, he does something rare — especially for a horror writer — by not twisting her mental illness into that of the stabby kill-y variety, which he's certainly been guilty of doing before. 

For anyone who's read King's fandom gone wrong book, "Misery," released in 1987 and adapted to film in 1990, his ability to contribute to the "crazy" equals killer trope is known. The main character in that story, Annie Wilkes, (portrayed by Kathy Bates in the movie) is given no descriptor other than "mentally unstable," and yet her obsessive love of fictitious author Paul Sheldon's work leads to her kidnapping him, holding him hostage, drugging him, physically torturing him until she's eventually . . . rehabilitated and seen as someone worthy of love? No. She's killed.

Holly Gibney, with her laundry list of disorders, is mercifully spared that same fate, and that same problematic framing, while continuing to keep her creator and his readers intrigued. All goes to show that interesting doesn't have to be deadly, and what's perceived as unstable can, in Holly's instance, prove to actually be pretty useful.

In King's new book, we pick back up with her at age 55, running the Finders Keepers detective agency and investigating a string of disappearances credited to professors Rodney and Emily Harris, elderly academics who got it in their minds that eating young people will help keep them spry. Here, we see how her anxiety and OCD has been channeled into a healthy and functional purpose, aiding in her detective work and negating her as someone who needs help. She is the helper.

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Her anxiety and OCD has been channeled into a healthy and functional purpose, aiding in her detective work.

In an interview with CBS pegged to the release of "Holly," King speaks lovingly of keeping the character going, saying, "Every now and then, I'll say to myself, 'What's Holly doing now? What's Holly up to?' And if I don't know, I'll play with that a little bit on a morning walk, or on the treadmill or something like that. Eventually, she seems to turn up again." And as remarkable as it is for an extremely wealthy white man to find value in a female character who is not described as being particularly attractive, or easy to deal with, or as offering any sort of social currency by society's usual narrow gendered standards, it's also extremely sad for it to seem as such. For it to seem so remarkable.

King made this character flawed from the jump and not only did he decide not to make her become a monster, or from being discarded via a death of some violent fashion, but he promoted her. He let her shine. More creatives should follow suit.

"I could never let Holly Gibney go," he says in a blurb for the new book. "She was supposed to be a walk-on character in 'Mr. Mercedes' and she just kind of stole the book and stole my heart. Holly is all her."

Imagine where we could go from here. Maybe King's in the process of doing just that, for his next book.

By Kelly McClure

Kelly McClure is Salon's Nights and Weekends Editor covering daily news, politics and culture. Her work has been featured in Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan, Nylon, Vice, and elsewhere. She is the author of Something is Always Happening Somewhere.

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Anxiety Books Commentary Horror Mental Illness Ocd Stephen King