Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Tommyknockers

I've read many reviews that state, rather unequivocally, that this is a bad book.  I disagree.  It's certainly not the best thing I've read by King, and yeah, it doesn't make sense, and yeah, it really needed an editor, but King always manages to present incredibly creepy situations and vignettes.  The Tommyknockers has a fascinating premise, but gets bogged down in disconnected details that cause the novel to swell to almost 700 pages.



From what I've read, King was on a lot of coke while writing this, and I think that explains the lack of editing, the frenzied jumps in narration, and the general lack of caring if anything makes sense or not.  I certainly don't condone drug abuse or say that quality control can be ignored if you are, as my father would put it, "gooped up on gop."  And yet.   There is something in the manic pace of The Tommyknockers that gives insight into the mind of a drug addict, and even explores what it is like to create while under the influence.

Ostensibly, this is a story about aliens.  When I think of Stephen King, I don't think aliens.  I think eldritch horrors or the mundane become monstrous.  His strength is in portraying the horror that lurks underneath the veneer of normalcy, and I think that's part of why The Tommyknockers isn't a great book.  Aliens are too out there.  But the story is saved from going completely off the rails by its grounding in good ol' rural Maine (ayuh) and some set pieces that are truly, flesh-crawlingly creepy.

Warning:  Here be spoilers aplenty!

Bobbi Anderson is happy with her life, even though she's not successful in the popular use of the term.  After inheriting her granddad's farm in Haven, Maine, she's spent more than a decade in the rural community, writing westerns.  Her companion is a beagle named Peter, and if her old lover and former professor Jim Gardener comes up for a visit, well, so much the better.  But life is pretty good.  Until she falls over something on the forest floor.

It's not a rock or a root or anything natural.  It's smooth and strangely alluring.  Bobbi is compelled to dig it up.  Soon, her entire life revolves around the excavation of this object, which quickly reveals itself to be a massive flying saucer.  The more time she spends in the presence of the object, the stranger Bobbi becomes.  She buys bucketloads of batteries and constructs cold-fusion engines for her water heater and levitating pickup trucks.  Peter retreats from the brink of death, his cataract shrinking and his youthful energy returning.  Soon, the influence of the alien vessel reaches beyond Bobbi's farm.  All of the inhabitants of Haven become affected.

And now, a brief lesson on how to tell if you have been corrupted by strange alien energy/mind waves:

  • Have your teeth started falling out?
  • How about your hair?  Is it falling out in clumps?
  • Do you sleep?
  • Do you have a compulsion to go dig up a giant flying saucer?
  • Are you forgetting things?
  • Have you found your house littered with gadgets that you don't remember making?
  • Are you bleeding from one or more bodily orifices?
  • Are you forgetting things?
  • Have you developed telepathy?

Meanwhile, Jim Gardener joins a poetry tour of New England in order to make some much-needed cash.  It's a thankless job that requires him to work with someone he truly hates, but eh, you can't fall much lower.  Who's going to hire a guy that shot his wife in the face (it's okay, his ex-wife is still alive).  Who's going to hire an alcoholic who goes on benders so epic that entire weeks are lost to him?  Who's going to hire a guy who got arrested by the Feds for bringing a concealed weapon to an anti-nuclear power protest?

After a sort of mental breakdown after a college poetry reading, Gardener contemplates suicide, but suddenly senses that Bobbi, his old flame, is in very serious trouble.  So, instead of jumping into the ocean, he heads up to Haven, where he finds Bobbi emaciated, exhausted, and strangely cagey about Peter's death.  Quickly, he realizes that the eerie green light flashing in Bobbi's shed, the half-buried ship, and the townspeople's strange and homicidal behavior is all connected, so he keeps himself in a state of perpetual inebriation.  This, along with a large metal plate in his skull, renders him mostly immune to the effects of the alien ship.  He does not "become" like all of the other Havenites.

As the "becoming" progresses, more people start dying under suspicious circumstances.  The last 70% of the book is a chronicle of a mishmash of characters doing random things, all while Bobbi and her buddies keep "becoming."  The day is saved at the very last minute by the arrival of every Federal agency ever, and by Jim Gardener, whose corpse ends up on the spaceship as it zooms back into space.

A lot of the story just doesn't make sense, because it really should have been cut.  Like how the air in Haven is toxic to outsiders and causes transformations, but there's also some sort of weird radiation from the ship that causes the same transformations.  Is it one or the other?  Both?  Gardener goes on long tirades about The Evil of Nuclear Power and lets Bobbi and her friends continue building their amazing machines because it might save the world from Evil Nuclear Power.  Why does the presence of metal in human bodies prevent the spaceship from affecting them?

However, some characters and situations are exquisitely weird and creepy.  Bobbi's hated Sissy, an indomitable force of nastiness, marches into town with a head full of metal teeth.  The town constable consoles herself in her childless, widowed state with a house full of dolls, and then the dolls start talking to her.  And the revelation of what is inside the shed is expected, but no less terrifying.  Poor Peter.

All in all, this was a fun book to read while traveling, but it's not a crucial read.  Skip this in favor of Revival or The Stand or 'Salem's Lot.  

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