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By Stephen King
There was a time in my life when the arrival of each new work of horror from master of the macabre Stephen King would bring me joy. I can remember waiting with a great deal of anticipation for each new novel to hit the shelves, and spending the downtime between releases re-reading all of my old favorites…but then, things changed.
King’s fiction shifted, I guess, switching from classic frightfests like The Shining and morphing into something new, something different…something far more pretentious. My compatriot Grouch has done a nice job of delineating this change by calling the older works in the King canon the ‘classic King’ and the newer, seemingly more concerned with being literary than good, works the ‘noveau King’. I like those titles—they fit—so I’m going to use them here.
Grouch and I certainly agree on the notion that the older King is the better King (by far), but we do have a differing opinion of what book specifically marks the end of the classic King era and the birth of the noveau King style. I’m a little more generous than Grouch, I guess—he cites Pet Sematary as the end of the classic period, while I think It (which was published after Pet Sematary) was King’s last really great (although a little overlong) novel (and to be fair to Grouch, he’s not read It).
Yet, even after the end of the classic King period, I stuck with Steve—I’m not sure why, exactly…probably mostly out of loyalty to a man who’d played a major part in inspiring my love of the genre, and a blind sense of hope that he’d get things back on track at some point. I slogged through overwritten and uninspired books like Needful Things and Insomnia, I suffered through the boring Gerald’s Game, and I scratched my head and wondered what the point of Dolores Claiborne was, just like a lot of other King fans. However, there comes a point where you just have to let go of the past and accept that things will never be the way they were again…and as such, I gave up on King and moved on to other haunted moors.
Then, recently, an advanced reading copy of King’s newest book, Dreamcatcher (his first novel since being hit by a motorist roughly two years ago) showed up on my doorstep. I approached it with trepidation, but ultimately gave in to its siren-like call and plunked down to see if the Maine man could recapture the magic of his youth—and the answer to that question is both yes and no.
Dreamcatcher is sort of a departure for King, something of a cross between Alien, The X-Files, and King’s own novel The Tommyknockers.
Beaver, Henry, Jonesy, and Pete are four guys who’ve been friends since childhood. They’ve grown up together, experienced life together, and managed to keep in touch long after most childhood chums would have drifted apart into their own lives.
Part of this attributable to the fact that they all ‘see the line’--a King-styled euphemism to say that they’re all vaguely psychic in some way. The other part of it is attributable to their friendship with a man-boy afflicted with Down’s Syndrome named Douglas Cavell—who everyone affectionately refers to as ‘Duddits’.
The story involves an alien invasion starting in the woods of northern Maine. Henry, Jonesy, Beaver, and Peter just so happen to spend each winter in the woods, staying at Beaver’s father’s old cabin, hunting deer. However, things take a turn for the bizarre when a lost hunter wanders into their camp—spouting some noxious gas and carrying an alien parasite in his stomach.
The government knows what’s going on, and they’ve sent in one of their best, a psychotic soldier named Kurtz (who’s clearly inspired by Apocalypse Now) who has orders to quarantine the area, kill the aliens (who spread themselves through a weird, golden-red fungus called Byrus), and destroy any and all humans who’ve come into contact with the contagion. The only problem is, the last surviving alien has infected Jonesy (who’s immune to the effects of the byrus, which can include growing a parasitic ‘sh*t-weasel’ in your stomach…one that will eventually devour you from the inside out on its way into the world) and is using him in an attempt to escape the quarantine zone and spread the byrus to the outside world.
Same Sh*t, Different Day; or Familiarity Breeds Contempt
One of the major problems with the work in the ‘noveau King’ canon is that it’s rarely imaginative. Each new work tends to recycle major plot elements, themes, ideas, or characters from earlier works. How many King novels have featured writers as protagonists? How many have had a precocious child (often with psychic abilities)? How many books have ended with ‘a storm of the century’?
Dreamcatcher continues this trend, borrowing liberally from earlier King works. There are elements of his novella The Body here (the four childhood friends who come of age together), there’s the child-like Duddits and his psychic abilities, and the plot itself is really little more than a reworking of King’s earlier novel The Tommyknockers (the alien’s presence inspires telepathy, people start losing teeth, etc.). In many ways, King’s autocannibalizing his own work in the same way his ‘sh*t-weasels’ are devouring their hosts.
King has always been guilty of being self-referential, sprinkling in characters from earlier works, mentioning events from earlier novels, etc.. There’s always been something cool about that—it’s sort of a little nudge and wink from the author to his longtime fans, I suppose. Unfortunately, King’s not simply doing that anymore—instead, he just borrows ideas, situations, characters, and themes wholesale. No matter how good a particular book may be, I don’t want to continue reading it in different variations ad nauseam (which is what I like to refer to as ‘Dean Koontz disease’—only his books were never good to begin with).
This over-reliance on regurgitated ideas is ultimately what keeps Dreamcatcher from being one of the better books of the noveau King era. Most of the other earmarks of classic King-style fiction are here—likeable characters, the attention to the small details that make us all human, some scary moments, and several gore sequences guaranteed to have you squirming in your chair.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from one of the other major problems of the noveau King era as well—an affliction I like to refer to as ‘literary elephantitis’. Weighing in at over 600 pages, Dreamcatcher isn’t so much a book as it is a paperweight, a piece of workout equipment, or a potential weapon. I’ve nothing against long novels, provided they tell me a story that requires that length to tell it properly. This book, and many of King’s recent efforts, do not require this many pages to tell the tale. Everything here is longer than it need be, including a 150-page climactic chase scene that really drags on for quite some time before arriving at a vaguely underwhelming conclusion.
Still, it’s hard to hold the length against King—because reading King isn’t so much like reading as it is being told a story. King’s literary voice is in as good a shape as ever, and his prose (while never the most flashy around) still manages to suck you in and lull you with its rhythms.
While it must seem like I really didn’t enjoy Dreamcatcher, I did. There are flaws here, for sure, but there’s also a hint of the classic Stephen King lurking in these pages—which is at least somewhat promising for fans of genre fiction.
Here, as is generally the case, the characters are the real strong point. Say what you will about King’s shortcomings as an author, but one area where his work consistently shines is in the creation of believable protagonists. His antagonists (at least since the last appearance of good ol’ Pennywise the Clown) may leave something to be desired (as Kurtz does here), but his heroes are generally the right combination of Superman and Clark Kent.
The standout character here, for me anyway, is Duddits. The fact that Douglas Cavell is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome and spends much of the novel speaking in what can only be referred to as ‘Duddits-ese’ (necessitating a translation after each time he speaks) seems like it was little more than a cheap ploy to get an audience to feel for the character—and maybe it was…if so, it worked. There’s something endearing about this man-child who’s been dealt a rotten hand by life, yet never gets down about it. Maybe it’s his child-like innocence, his Scooby-Doo lunchbox, or the fact that there’s really more to him than meets the eye…but whatever the reason, I found him far more interesting than the standard King kid character (a la Danny Torrance).
The other strong point is King’s prose. King seems to know his limitations as a writer (not that that keeps him out of trouble) and while he does tend to over explain things (particularly at the end), his prose is so simple and easy to read that you almost don’t mind. I think it’s this, more than anything, that has kept the average reader (who doesn’t read many 600-700 page books per year) returning to his work.
In the end, Dreamcatcher is a solid novel that could have been better. However, it does enough things right to make it a fairly enjoyable (and relatively quick for being over 600 pages long) read. There’s not a lot of horror here (the book comes across as more of a thriller than anything in the latter chapters), but the story and characters are interesting enough to keep you turning the pages to see how it all turns out. While this isn’t classic King by any stretch of the imagination, it is a small step in the right direction. Dreamcatcher is well worth checking out.
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