King’s ‘Ur’ re-released.

Last week the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 2009 novella Ur was released. Now the release of an audiobook isn’t a particularly momentous occasion for me (I’ve only ever listened to one once), but the idea of Ur being on another format is interesting because (for the uninitiated) Ur was only released for the Amazon Kindle. Exclusively. This was no mere marketing contract on King’s part – the format of the text works to heighten the effect of the narrative: Ur is the story about the disturbing consequences of one man’s purchase of a Kindle.

King has always been at his best when it comes to giving everyday objects a sinister turn: creepy automobiles are the focus of Christine (1983) and From a Buick 8 (2002), and a killer virus transmitted by mobile phones decimates the population in Cell (2006). In Ur, King sets his sights on the e-reader phenomenon with a story centring on a college English professor who purchases the device in a fit of spite, wanting to prove his ex-girlfriend wrong about his addiction to paper-and-ink books. But what Wesley Smith receives is no ordinary Kindle. The ‘Ur’ menu provides him with access to the literature of other realities, but the fascination turns to horror when the professor stops reading ‘new’ Hemmingways and begins to investigate the newspapers of other realities – which leads to the discovery of troubling information about his own.

Reading a story about an e-reader on an e-reader lends the story a real immediacy. You catch yourself looking for the additional ‘Ur’ menus on your own device, and wondering just what you’d do if you actually found them. Could I help myself checking if Arthur Machen had written anything more in another reality? I doubt it. Could I restrict my curiosity to the realm of literature or would I feel compelled to poke my nose into history as well? Would I meddle with what I’d found to save a loved one? I’d poke. I’d meddle. I don’t have that kind of self control, and I doubt you do either. That’s the beauty of King’s writing: he gets to the heart of things, human nature. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

So, will Ur work as an audiobook? Unlikely. I understand the need for audiobooks so those who have difficulty with reading off a page or a screen have access to literature – and it’s great that technology has made this possible, but the real charm of King’s novella is actually the uncomfortable frisson the reader gets from interacting with the very source of the story’s fear. That kind of hands-on experience is hard to come by, and won’t be found via MP3.


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