Dreamcatcher isn’t the first time that aliens have landed in Stephen King’s Maine woods to mess with the heads of the natives. The first time was The Tommyknockers (1987). And the first head they messed with was attached to Roberta “Bobbi” Anderson, a best-selling writer of westerns. Almost immediately, Bobbi’s typewriter could not only read her subconscious mind but also transcribe what it found there, clicketyclack, while she catnapped.
In the TV miniseries version of The Tommyknockers, Marg Helgenberger played the part of Bobbi, and you should have seen the look on her face when she realized how easy book-writing had all of a sudden turned out to be. This gift more than made up for any number of killer dolls, green throbs, and grungy geckos running around asking each other, “Are you ready to complete The Becoming?” Of course, by the time her ex-lover, an alcoholic poet, was ready to rapture up from an Aztec altar to an erotic crucifixion, Bobbi’s opinion was less favorable. By then she knew that “The Becoming” had unfortunate side effects, like radiation poisoning.
You have to admire a man who finds gleeful terror in the tools of his own trade. It’s not just that in Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Misery, The Dark Half, and Bag of Bones King returns over and over again to stories about blocked, crazy, addicted, and otherwise unhappy writers. Or about fans who hold these writers hostage. Or about pseudonyms who turn into stalkers. Or about characters shocked to discover that their story is being written against their will, who refuse to let themselves get killed off just so their creator has someplace safe to hide from his real-world troubles. It’s more that there’s something homemade about all of King’s best sellers, something wonderfully intimate and microbrewed, as though scaring the bejesus out of us were a domestic art, like sewing and cooking in fairy tales.
Thus, while his loyal readers can always count on being menaced by the usual syzygy of zombies, werewolves, and vampires, the usual consortium of government agents, serial killers, and Internet pedophiles, and the usual zoo of spiders, toads, slugs, rats, eye-eating bats, “Giant Lobsters,” and “Slow Mutants”—to which Dreamcatcher will add “shit-weasels”—we must also beware of a surprise ambush by heretofore not-unfriendly artifacts around the house or in the neighborhood, like toilet stalls and garbage disposals, sparkplugs and topiary hedges, moving vans and snowmobiles, librarians and pets; even a baseball autographed by Sandy Koufax and a snapshot of the long-dead Elvis. Out of their sewers, kennels, and parking lots, his clowns, Cujos, and Christines are rabidly hostile. So, in his forthcoming ABC television miniseries Rose Red, are dolls, crayons, hammers, mirrors, cell phones, wind chimes, honeybees, dominoes, and the music of Glenn Miller. In a June 1993 interview, King told Playboy:
The genre exists on three basic levels, separate but interdependent and each one a little bit cruder than the one before. There’s terror on top, the finest emotion any writer can induce; then horror, and, on the very lowest level of all, the gag instinct of revulsion. Naturally, I’ll try to terrify you first, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll try to horrify you, and if I can’t make it there, I’ll try to gross you out. I’m not proud. I’ll give you a sandwich squirming with bugs or shove your hand into the maggot-churning innards of a long-dead woodchuck.
Which is not to say that he isn’t a high school English teacher who may have hit it big with Carrie in 1974 but has never stopped reading the serious stuff. That he doesn’t arrange a conjugal visit for Thomas Hardy and Daphne du Maurier in Bag of Bones. That T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien don’t show up in the Dark Tower novels, as well as Shakespeare and the Wizard of Oz. That Rose Madder hasn’t trafficked in Greek mythology, with the Minotaur and labyrinth. That you won’t find Joseph Conrad, Thomas Wolfe, and Natty Bumppo in Dreamcatcher, or Vladimir Nabokov, Jacques Derrida, and Allen Ginsberg in Black House. But it’s also true that he took the name of “Cujo” from one of the crazies who kidnapped Patty Hearst, and that the novel he intended to write about the Symbionese Liberation Army turned instead into The Stand, a sort of Oswald Spengler space opera on How the West Was Lost, featuring a dog named Kojak, a guinea pig named Geraldo, an AIDS-like virus that escapes from a secret government lab to ravage most of America, a pilgrimage of deaf-mutes and pyromaniacs through the temptations of the desert, and an excess of Christian moonshine, batched in the English teacher’s basement.
As King revealed in On Writing: “My earliest memory is of imagining I was someone else—imagining that I was, in fact, the Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy.” In other words, there are as many files in this man’s mind as Mr. Gray finds in Jonesy’s in Dreamcatcher, trillions of cardboard boxes. Otherwise we would never have gotten more than forty books, under his name or Richard Bachman’s, horror, fantasy, suspense, science fiction, nonfiction, or screenplay adaptations of any of these bad trips down Freudian mind-shafts, in which for almost three decades he has obsessed about growing up and growing old; spousal abuse and child molestation; poverty and alcoholism; homophobia and rape; repressed memory and precognition; secret shame and bottled rage; the seductiveness of evil and randomness of fate; high schools, hospitals, grief, celebrity, suicide, hypocrisy, cancer, magic, technology, occult powers, other worlds, sacred quests, and cannibalism; the sad fact that a single mistake can be fatal to a marriage, a career, and our soul; the dreadful intuition that life is fragile, losing cohesion, up for grabs, and sinking fast. (“My God, my dear God, they are eating the world,” a character cries in The Langoliers.) It’s as if he had known all along that there was a Plymouth Fury or a Dodge van out there with his name on it.
“Give me what I want and I will go away,” the satanic Linoge (“my name is Legion”) told the villagers in The Storm of the Century. And before they knew what hit them, their munchkins were singing “I’m a Little Teapot” and falling into comas.
In a review of the 1997 television remake of The Shining—in which Steven Weber’s impersonation of the alcoholic playwright Jack Torrance, as well-meaning but abused as a child, disappointed as an adult, and weak in the fume-filled head, was actually closer to the spirit of the novel than Jack Nicholson’s Nixonian berserker in the 1980 Kubrick film—I called King “Walt Disney’s Evil Twin.” Never mind that ABC, the television network most hospitable to King, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Magic Kingdom. I thought I was being funny. And I hadn’t even gotten around to reading another of King’s writer novels, The Dark Half (1989), in which novelist Thad Beaumont, whose pseudonymous George Stark books sell more copies than the ones he publishes under his real name, declares the pseudo dead in the pages of People. Except that George, who will avenge himself by framing Thad for murder, turns out to have been Thad’s unborn, “nonviable” twin, absorbed into the survivor’s body. So when surgeons operate on Thad’s brain, they find an extra eye staring back at them.
And yet this King’s a regular guy, like your Uncle Vanya. From Stephen J. Spignesi’s The Essential Stephen King, it’s practically impossible not to like him. Essential is an exuberant box of odd facts, gossipy opinions, and interview snippets rattled like raisins all over an idiosyncratic ranking of “The King’s” Greatest Hits from 1 to 101—which is to say, from It, a 1986 novel in which a band of misfit children rose up against a killer clown, to “The Thing at the Bottom of the Well,” a short story he wrote when he was twelve—put together by a fan who’s almost as scary as Annie Wilkes and Kathy Bates combined: “I find King’s work,” says Spignesi, “to be more accessible than Poe; more exciting than Twain; less long-winded than Dickens; and considerably more prolific than Salinger.” Franz Kafka and Dr. Seuss are also mentioned. Elsewhere and more reliably, Essential is full of clues to the man and writer, most of them ingratiating. If he works harder than he has to—who else would recover from a near-fatal sideswipe in 1999 by finishing up On Writing, then composing one novella, Riding the Bullet, and serializing six chapters of another, The Plant, for Internet download, and finally delivering two more six-hundred-page manuscripts for publication in 2001, plus an original screenplay for a six-hour TV miniseries?—he plays harder, too.
Which has caused some problems. For instance, with drugs and alcohol. King has been frank about them. In On Writing, he regrets: “At the end of my adventures I was drinking a case of 16-ounce tallboys a night, and there’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing at all.” Later in the same book he’s equally sorry that “in the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.” To Dreamcatcher, his first full-length novel since the road accident that put him in the hospital two years ago, he adds an author’s note: “The reader will see that pieces of that physical discomfort followed me into the story.” The reader, in fact, will feel that discomfort. One of the characters has been hit by a car, just like King. And his cohorts experience the alien invasion as either a plague or a disemboweling. From so much rending of the viscera, we wind up in a noose of our own intestines.
But as every recovering writer eventually learns, when you sober up, your stuff doesn’t get better. Nor does it get worse. It just gets faster. Meanwhile, if you’re Stephen King, you can otherwise occupy yourself. You can be generous to beginning writers, for which you will get into heaven if there is one. When you aren’t motoring to all the away games of Maine’s women’s basketball team, you can show up whenever you want to in your own television productions. (In Rose Red, he delivers pizza to a haunted house where psychics have gathered to raise the dead.) You can suddenly start writing for The New Yorker, not only a short story that wins an O. Henry Prize, but also a splendid nonfiction account of the state championship season of the Bangor West All-Star Little League team in 1989, for which his son Owen played.*
You can also hit the road with one of the damnedest rock bands this side of Peter DeVries (Red China and the Single Girl), Thomas Pynchon (Septic Tank and the Fascist Toejam), or Tom Wolfe (Pus Casserole and the Child Abusers)—the Rock Bottom Remainders, an unlikely bunch of “mid-life confidential” music-makers that included Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr., Michael Dorris, Matt Groenig, Barbara Kingsolver, Greil Marcus, and Amy Tan. You can even buy your own table at the National Book Awards, and invite as your guests such fellow best sellers as John Grisham, who, like you, also won’t ever win one from those shit-weasels, the anal-retentive literary establishment. And you can take time out to tell a publisher never again to reprint one of your Richard Bachman novels, Rage (1977), because it was found in the locker of a high school student after he had gunned down three kids at a prayer meeting in Paducah, Kansas. As King explained to the BBC:
And I said, that’s it for me; that book’s off the market. Not that they won’t find something else…. I don’t think that any kid was driven to an act of violence by a Metallica record, or by a Marilyn Manson CD, or by a Stephen King novel, but I do think those things can act as accelerants.
Not only does he report from the boom-boom ventricle of the terrifying heart of childhood, but you don’t achieve Stephen King’s sort of Vulcan mind-meld with America unless you are in intimate touch with the communal fantasies of the whole culture. And, frankly, it would be better for the culture if more of us were. It says here that his PowerBook is reading not only King’s subconscious, but ours as well. How scary this is, we shall see.
When The New York Times Magazine asked eight writers to react to the horrific events of September 11, Stephen King was one of them. This is what he wrote:
People keep saying “like a movie,” “like a book,” “like a war zone,” and I keep thinking: No, not at all like a movie or a book—that’s no computer-generated image, because you can’t see any wash or blur in the background. This is what it really looks like when an actual plane filled with actual human beings and loaded with jet fuel hits a skyscraper. This is the truth.
…Cost of weaponry? Based on what we know now, less than $100. This qualifies them as cut-rate, low-tech, stealth guerrillas flying well under the radar of American intelligence. We must realize this and grasp an even more difficult truth: although it is comforting to have a bogyman, and every child’s party needs a paper donkey to pin the tail on, this Osama bin Laden fellow may not have been the guy responsible. It wouldn’t hurt to remember that the boys who shot up Columbine High School planned to finish off their day by hijacking a jetliner and flying it into—yes, that’s right—the World Trade Center. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris weren’t exactly rocket scientists, and the guys who did this didn’t have to be either. All you had to be was willing to die, and these guys were. It could happen again. And now that crazos the world over see that it’s possible to get 72 hours of uninterrupted air time on a budget, it will almost certainly happen again.
Straight from the shoulder and maybe not profound, but free of bluster, posture, flourish, sentimental filigree, or the disfiguring temptation to be brilliantly original at the expense of the holes in our hearts and our heads. Yet at the same time I happened to be reading Black House, and it seemed to me that this new wound in the world was what that novel meant by “slippage.”
This “slippage” will begin in a small Wisconsin town called French Landing, where the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad runs parallel to the bank of Tom and Huck’s Mississippi River, a “borderland” on the seam between one territory and another, “dreamlike and slightly unnatural” as such borderlands are doomed to be, tasting of “unruliness and distortion,” murmuring of “forces and powers beyond our understanding,” “a kind of discordant hum, like the sound of all those lethal volts coursing through the steel struts” of the radio tower, suggesting “grotesque possibilities” and, “more than terror…emptiness,” an “ongoing disintegration.” We are warned: “Once it has started, slippage never stops for long.” Still: “You can’t just say, I’m lost and I don’t know how to get back—you keep on going.”
Black House is a sequel to an earlier collaboration between King and Peter Straub, The Talisman (1984), which they tried to make so seamless that King, going over “large chunks of the manuscript,” was “unsure myself who had written what.” So I certainly can’t tell you in the case of Black House. But if Talisman only hinted at affinities with King’s developing cosmos of parallel worlds at risk from telepathic mutants in the service of usurpers, Black House is overwhelmed by them—the Crimson King, the Dark Tower, the Unifying Beam, Gunslingers, vampire nuns—and so, irresponsibly but conveniently, I’m treating it as King Neat. Nor am I about to elaborate that cosmology, sort of Gnostic, which also shows up in Insomnia (1994) and Hearts in Atlantis (1999), beyond saying that for each of us in this world except Jack Sawyer there is a “twinner” in the parallel world that Jack refers to as “the Territories” and somebody else calls “Faraway.” Sometimes, through “portals” of madness, grief, and need, our twinners talk to us. But outside of the Black House in the Wisconsin woods, only Jack seems able to “flip” from one world to the other. He “flipped” the first time in The Talisman, when he was twelve years old and had to save the life of his mother and her twinner, Queen Laura. He’s been trying to forget how ever since, but must do the dolphin yet again as a prematurely retired Los Angeles police detective, before any more children disappear from French Landing: “WARNING! SLIPPAGE IN PROGRESS! PASS AT YOUR OWN RISK!”
I’m not as dismissive of King’s fantasy worlds as some other critics, who wish he’d stick to horror. If “the Territories” aren’t as fully realized as, say, Camelot, Middle Earth, Plato’s Republic, Kafka’s Castle, Nabokov’s Zembla, Babar’s Celesteville, or Gene Kelly’s Brigadoon, they tend to have more heart. Moreover, like the Tommyknockers, they haven’t completed their Becoming. They’re notional, like Calvino’s imaginary cities of Argia, completely filled with dirt, and Ersilia, made out of string and forever changing its location, “spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.”
But there is no question that King gets most of his momentum from the rough stuff. Black House is at its best when it’s lowdown—“Once, in 1997, he and his partner Kirby Tessier found a single testicle sitting on top of a toilet tank in the Culver City public library like an ancient soft-boiled egg”—chasing a creepy-crawly who not only abducts and dismembers children but mails parts of their bodies back to their mothers with little pen-pal notes.
Never mind that this killer is in the employ of otherwordly evildoers who let him butcher whomever he pleases, so long as he forwards to their dark satanic mill any child gifted enough to become a “Breaker”—that is, someone with the destructive telekinetic power to bring down the “Beam” that holds all the parallel worlds in harmonious place. Ignore the carousel, the Ferris wheel, Poe’s raven, and those Sufi bees. What absorbs us is Jack’s detective work in the mental hospital, the shape-shifting Black House, the Territories, and his own memory hole. And “the undead and the droolies” at the Maxton Elder Care Facility, overdosed on strawberries and the jitterbug. And the Thunder Five on their Harleys, bikers who brew beer when they aren’t reading Descartes or the Bhagavad-Gita. And passages like this one, vintage King:
The lobby of the Nelson Hotel always smells of the river—it’s in the pores of the place—but this evening the smell is heavier than usual. It’s a smell that makes us think of bad ideas, blown investments, forged checks, deteriorating health, stolen office supplies, unpaid alimony, empty promises, skin tumors, lost ambition, abandoned sample cases filled with cheap novelties, dead hope, dead skin, and fallen arches.
Black House is a thriller, so let it thrill you. But notice the slippage, into chaos and bricolage. It’s the usual Kingly mix of high, low, and middle-management cultures, a bouillabaisse of Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland, Gertrude Stein and Hansel and Gretel, Machiavelli and Humpty Dumpty. Before they switched to beer, the bikers had majored in philosophy at college. Thus: Wittgenstein and the unsayable. When Jack isn’t huffing after a serial killer of children who wear baseball caps, he reads Dickens aloud to his blind friend Henry. Thus: Mark McGwire and Oliver Twist. Jack collects art, while his mother was known in Hollywood as Queen of the “B” movies. Thus, there is a high Vincent Price to pay for a Georgia O’Keeffe. Mention will be made, on the one hand, of Hemingway, Robert Frost, Carson McCullers, and W.H. Auden; on the other hand, of Johann Sebastian Bach, Artie Shaw, The Sound of Music, and the Grateful Dead; and, on the third hand, of William F. Buckley, Harry Potter, Jack the Ripper, Matt Drudge, Patsy Kline, R. Crumb, and Jell-O pops. As in the old English proverb, they agree like bells; they want nothing but hanging.
This is what the inside of King’s head looks like: Robin Williams, Dennis Miller, Stanley Fish, Levi-Strauss, and Dracula. No wonder Jack is “exhausted, strung out. [He] cannot hold off his awareness of the world’s essential fragility, its constant, unstoppable movement toward death, or the deeper awareness that in that movement lies the source of all its meaning. Do you see all this heart-stopping beauty? Look closely, because in a moment your heart will stop.” And what King does is Stop Therapy.
And so it also is with Dreamcatcher, the other long novel he published in 2001, with flying saucers, a plague of farting, an epidemic of telepathy, “grayboy” alien invaders, and all the panicked creatures of the woods machine-gunned and fire-bombed under the command of a lunatic named Kurtz—“I’m the Lieutenant Calley in charge of this particular Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”—while the chase was on, first to save a reservoir and then the human race, our hopes pinned to the remarkable powers of a boy born with Down’s syndrome and dying from leukemia, to whose protection a band of buddies had pledged themselves when they were young and brave, but from whom they ran away, to become professors, psychiatrists, carpenters, and drunks:
Henry believed that all children were presented with self-defining moments in early adolescence, and that children in groups were apt to respond more decisively than children alone. Often they behaved badly, answering distress with cruelty. Henry and his friends had behaved well, for whatever reason. It meant no more than anything else in the end, but it did not hurt to remember, especially when your soul was dark, that once you had confounded the odds and behaved decently.
Actually, it helps a lot. But not until the end of a wild ride into heroic myth, on Flexible Flyers and Arctic Cats and Kiowa helicopters, over most of quarantined and martial-lawed New England, through thickets of cross-reference to writers like Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, and Khalil Gibran, filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman and Steven Spielberg, music-makers like the Rolling Stones and Rage Against the Machine, baseball players like Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra, and pop-culture icons like Walter Cronkite, Bugs Bunny, and Meg Ryan’s armpits—all the while eating a bacon sandwich as crucial as cancer to the plot of Dreamcatcher. You can’t imagine what eating bacon does to an alien. Only Stephen King can imagine, having plumbed by bathysphere the murky depths of the pulp dumpster, and come up with the bends.
Of particular interest to sci-fi readers will be King’s explanation of why all the extraterrestrials we see these days look like polliwogs and fetuses, before Henry smothers one. (We are projecting mass-media cartoons on angels and aliens, as if they were Rorschachs.) But our greater interest ought to be in his uncanny access to our apprehensions, his poetry of slippage. From Dreamcatcher to Black House to his new TV miniseries, Rose Red, this downhill slide is more like falling off a cliff.
Rose Red combines elements of Dreamcatcher (a wounded child with telepathic powers) and elements of Black House (multiplying rooms full of horrifying secrets). While it’s less overtly literary than the novels, you may be reminded even so of R.D. Laing’s Kingsley Hall, back when Doris Lessing knew him and the lunatics were licensed to take over their asylum, with an added dash of Bruce Chatwin’s Viceroy of Ouidah tabasco sauce. A psychology professor with tenure problems (Nancy Travis) seeks to prove the existence of the paranormal and the otherworldly to her hostile department chairman (David Dukes) by hunkering down on a Memorial Day weekend in an abandoned gothic mansion in overcast Seattle with a hand-picked coven of mind-readers, automatic writers, precognitives, and telekinetics (Judith Ivey, Kevin Tighe, Julian Sands, etc.), whose amalgamated woo-woo she hopes will wake up the Undead, upon whom there appears to be some sort of African/Hollywood curse. I especially like the liquid mirrors, although the bloody fridge, the decapitation, the eye-pecking crows, and the vampire sex are nice touches, too. The ultimate “slippage,” of course, is into madness, like the Red Queen.
In these three Kings we find the culture’s shudder. No matter how fast we run in our Air Jordans to whatever gated community, we are namelessly frightened and oddly bereft. We are insecure and negligent in our parenting and citizenship, caught between a public sphere (corporations, officialdom) that feels hollow, and a private circle (family) that feels besieged. We aren’t safe on the tribal streets. We are equally weightless, in orbit and cyberspace; balloonlike, in exile or migration; tiddlywinks on the credit grid; fled abroad like jobs and capital; disappeared like Latin American journalists; missing, like the children whose mugshots show up on milk cartons; bugged, tapped, videotaped, downsized, hijacked, organ-donored, gene-spliced, lite-beered, vacuum-sealed, overdrawn, nonrefundable, void where prohibited, and stealthed. “All that is solid melts into air,” wrote Karl Marx. And Stephen King agrees.
So these sinister entertainments tell us, speaking like Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm in code, about incest and croquet. Or promising deliverance with a wooden bat from enchanted mirrors, spellbound stone, Red Sox baseball, and cocaine addiction. Or crowding us with a brand-new cast of ogres and changelings, unicorns and satyrs: instead of Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb and Snow White, Ovid and Pandora—a Dolores Claiborne and a Randall Flagg, an Andre Linoge and the Little Sisters of Eluria. In King we discover, disguised as aliens or Crimson Kings, as predatory tumbleweeds or killer clowns with names like Pennywise, our modern demons customized for the big-screen movie, the small-screen miniseries, and the World Wide Web. Goldilocks gets gothic sex! Up there in the Maine woods, he’s our modern Aesop, Calypso, and Scheherazade, as well as a Devil’s Advocate, a Wandering Jew, a Magic Flute, and, of course, a Ringling Brothers Circus Strongboy.
I am often wrong. For example, I liked Cop Rock, voted for Nader, and used to think that the preeminent philosophical question of the late twentieth century was whether the government intelligence agency or the semiattached policy-studies think tank represented America’s best hope for a viable pluralism. But I may be right, after all, about Stephen King and Walt Disney. No matter how often King shows up on ABC, they haven’t yet figured out how to merchandise his dread, how to turn his intuitions and intimations into action figures and fast-food tie-ins and Davy Crockett coonskin caps. It’s homemade versus mass-manufactured; bootleg versus theme park; Cujo versus Mickey Mouse.
February 14, 2002