The Pleasures of Reading Stephen King

Stephen King, Bangor, Maine, August 2013
Steve Schofield/Contour by Getty Images
Stephen King, Bangor, Maine, August 2013

Is it right for a single mother spending a cold night outside so as to be among the first for a job handout at her town’s government center to bring her croupy baby along with her? Isn’t that irresponsible? But what if she can’t find anyone to babysit, and couldn’t afford to pay anyway? Sometime in the early hours, trapped in a long line that winds through a maze of yellow tape, a man offers her his sleeping bag; she can get inside with the baby and change its sodden diaper. “Why are you being so kind to us?” she asks. “Because we’re here,” he says.

In thick fog, with financial crisis turning into recession, the man is thinking Grapes of Wrath, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl; the woman is worrying out loud about exposing her child to the cold. “I want to apologize to everyone, for everything,” she says. Shortly after dawn, in a few seconds of bewilderment and terror, their lives are wiped out by a big Mercedes driven at speed right into the point where the crowd is thickest. The car disappears, leaving eight dead and fifteen seriously injured.

So Mr. Mercedes opens with the archetypal Stephen King confrontation: on the one hand ordinary folk struggling to make it in a difficult world, willing to lend one another a helping hand, always ready to feel guilty when their needs and desires prompt them to behave selfishly; on the other, pure, destructive evil; not, in this case, some extraterrestrial or demonic creature, as is normally the way in King’s novels, just a man so resentful of his failure to climb quickly to the top that he has chosen to treat life as an ugly game. The ordinary people are eager to be winners, but not at the cost of their humanity; the evil loner has no such scruples; putting winning before everything else, he actually alters the sense of what it means to win: for him it is simply a question of how many other people he can destroy.

But what if, instead of driving cars into crowds, or blowing people up, or poisoning and shooting them—all of which he will do at some point—our evil enemy were to learn to play on the vulnerabilities of the better folk, inducing them to feel so badly about their own strivings and shortcomings that they kill themselves? Wouldn’t that be altogether more satisfying? Wouldn’t it show the superiority of nihilism to an ingenuous belief in life? This is the “refinement” Stephen King introduces into his Bill Hodges Trilogy—Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch—Hodges being the elderly police detective who, having failed to solve the Mercedes case when in service, takes it on a year later in his retirement. Depressed…

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