The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I mean, The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act. And I've thought about it a lot lately and said to myself, "There's really a good book in here, underneath all the sort of spurious energy that cocaine provides, and I ought to go back." The book is about 700 pages long, and I'm thinking, "There's probably a good 350-page novel in there."
- Stephen King in a Rolling Stone interview.
You got that right, Uncle Stevie.
Bobbi Anderson is a writer living outside a small Maine town who trips over a hunk of metal sticking out of the ground while walking in the woods with her dog. She finds herself strangely compelled to dig it up, and she soon realizes that she’s stumbled across a flying saucer that has been buried for thousands of years.
Bobbi’s friend Jim Gardner is a poet with a love of booze and a deep hatred of nuclear power. After going on an epic bender Gardner visits Bobbi and finds that she has worked herself ragged and lost several teeth while digging up the ship. She’s also started making all sorts of home improvements like fixing her aging water heater up with what appears to be a fusion reactor. Bobbi convinces Gardner that they need to excavate the ship themselves, and he agrees to help. But the ship’s influence grows as it is unearthed to the point where the nearby townsfolk also start spitting teeth and coming up with clever ideas of their own.
The King quote I led with really sums up this book. There’s an intriguing idea at the heart of it and some nice character stuff particularly when it comes to Gardner. However, its coke-fueled writing is so evident that you expect to see leftover powder and dried blood spots from King’s nose on every page. There’s just too many tangents that go in useless directions, and it really gets out of control when he starts telling all the stories happening in the nearby town of Haven.
Detailing the takeover of the population of a small town via snapshots of the locals is something King does well in other books like Salem’s Lot, but he could never draw the line here between relevant character details and useless information. In fact, it almost seems at times like he was starting different novels. One has beloved civic leader and police constable coming to suspect that there is something very wrong happening and doing her best to hold out from it. Another has a reporter starting to unravel the mystery of what happens in Haven, but since all he is doing is uncovering what we already know his whole thread is pretty much useless anyhow so learning all about his relationship with his passive aggressive mother is especially pointless.
King also has problems in dealing with things logically from a plot standpoint. He prefers vague supernatural threats that he can routinely increase or reduce the powers of as needed, but when he has to put physical rules to them things fly apart. Here he can’t even nail down exactly how the Tommyknockers are transforming the people. It’s definitely a gas that seems to come off the skin of the ship as it’s exposed. That’s a good concept (Although why aliens would coat the outside of their ship with something that would spread on contact with Earth air is a valid question.) but the ship also exudes something akin to electromagnetism that effects electronics and radio waves.
You could make the argument that there’s no reason it can’t be pumping out both gas and some weird alien radiation. Which is true, but it gets messy when it comes exactly which thing is doing what, and King practically broke his back trying to draw parallels to the TK ship and nuclear reactors so you can see what he's trying to do. However, Gardner is immune to the Tommyknocker transformation because he has a metal plate in his head so that seems to indicate that it isn’t caused by the gas, but it is repeatedly shown that others can avoid its effects by not breathing the air. It just isn't consistent at all. There is also a whopper of a continuity error right at the heart of this that shows that King wasn’t thinking through the details. (view spoiler)[A huge deal is made out of how the sling that lowers Gardner and Bobbi into the excavation pit requires one person to be up top to operate it, and that element plays a pivotal part in the climax. Yet at the moment when they reach the hatch both of them are down in the hole at the same time with no one else around. Oops (hide spoiler)]
He also didn’t think through the implications of including the usual Easter eggs to his other works. The town of Derry exists here along with a direct reference to IT as well as other books, and that seems harmless enough at first. However, the end of this one would literally be the biggest story in human history. So that means the Stephen King universe should include it and the aftermath, but it doesn’t. Yeah, yeah, I know. The Dark Tower has many levels, blah, blah, blah. You can believe that if you want, but it increasingly feels to me that the references aren't so much clever winks to reader as they are lazy tricks that undermine the story King is trying to tell at the moment.
Plus, Stephen King just plain sucks at writing about aliens. He proved it again in Dreamcatcher, and if you read that whole interview I linked to you’ll see that he also doesn’t like that one much either and blames the Oxycontin he was on following being struck by a car. So that’s two bad books about evil aliens he wrote under the influence. I’m sensing a trend here.
Aside from the drugs though there’s an element of King’s personal outlook that makes him trying to do an alien invasion story problematic. Like a lot of Baby Boomers he has a general distrust of the guvment, and Uncle Stevie’s distaste is so strong that he just can’t imagine them doing the right thing. He also has some anti-tech tendencies and doesn’t think much of science. (The Stand is a prime example of this.) So the aliens are evil, but he also doesn’t think you could trust anyone in authority or with scientific expertise to do anything about them. That’s when King’s anti-establishment nature is at war with his own plot. It's like his alien stories are trying to be both E.T. and The Thing at the same time, and it just doesn't work like that.
For example, we get a long conversation when Bobbi (Who is part-Tommyknocker at this point.) is trying to convince Gardner that they can’t call ‘the Dallas police’, and that’s a big point that wins him over because he’s an anti-nuke protestor who doesn’t trust the powers that be with an alien ship. So that means that an alien influenced western writer and a drunken poet who shot his own wife are supposed to be the ones we trust to deal with the discovery of aliens? And yeah, I get that this is a con job to get Gardner to help dig up the ship, but that thread of thinking that the Feds would somehow be even worse than murderous aliens runs through this and Dreamcatcher in defiance of internal plot logic.
I mean, do we really believe that some idiot would be so distrustful of government agencies and science as well as have such a strong belief in crazy conspiracy theories that he would shun the system and instead choose to side with a hideous monster in human form who is telling him nothing but lies? Oh….. Never mind.
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