book-review-the-tommyknockersStephen King
Putnam
1987

The trouble with living alone, she had discovered-and the reason why most people she knew didn’t like to be alone even for a little while-was that the longer you lived alone, the louder the voices on the right side of your brain got.

It begins with nothing more frightening than a nursery rhyme; yet in Stephen King’s hands it becomes an unforgettable parable of dread, a threat from an unimaginable darkness that drags the practical inhabitants of a New England village into a hell worse than their own most horrible nightmares . . . and yours. It begins with a writer named Roberta Anderson, looking for firewood in the forest that stretches behind her house. Bobbi stumbles over three inches of metal, which unusually heavy spring runoff has left sticking out of the soil. A logger’s beer can, she thinks at first, but “the metal was as solid as mother-rock.” It begins with Bobbi’s discovery of the ship in the earth, a ship buried for millions of years, but still vibrating faintly, still humming with some sort of life . . .faint . . . weak . . . but still better left alone. Bobbi then begins to dig–tentatively at first, then compulsively–and is joined by her old friend (and onetime lover) Jim Gardener. Aided by a weirdly advanced technology, their excavation proceeds apace. And as they uncover more and more of an artifact both familiar and so unbelievable it is almost beyond comprehension, the inhabitants of Haven start to change. There is the new hot-water heater in Bobbi’s basement–a hot-water heater that apparently runs on flashlight batteries. The vengeful housewife who learns of her husband’s affair . . . from a picture of Jesus on top of her TV, a picture that begins to talk. Not to mention the ten-year-old magician who makes his little brother disappear . . . for real. The townspeople of Haven are “becoming”–being welded into one organic, homicidal, and fearsomely brilliant entity in fatal thrall to the Tommyknockers.

I’ve read somewhere that The Tommyknockers is not so much a novel but a cry for help. That wasn’t meant as a slam against the quality of the book (though, sad to say, it is probably one of, if not the worst of his novels); the book itself was written and published at a time when Stephen King’s addiction was at its zenith, written while in a haze of cocaine and cough syrup. After it was published (along with three other books of his that same year), his wife Tabitha staged an intervention to get him to break his addictions and save his family.

Of course, I was blisfully ignorant of that fact back when I got around to reading The Tommyknockers when I was 15. As was everyone else who weren’t close to the author, I would assume. All I know is that The Tommyknockers was a long, rambling story about a woman who stumbles upon an alien space craft burried in the woods behind her house, which activates (awakens?) as she begins to dig the thing up, and causes changes to her and the local townspeople. They all start getting odd powers, including super-genius, telepathy, telekinesis, developing a hive mind, those kind of things. All except for her alcoholic poet friend, who turns out to be unaffected because of a metal plate in his head. So it’s up to him to try and save everyone from the alien influence this space ship is having on them, before it’s too late.

As a story itself, The Tommyknockers is a pretty straight-forward science fiction story that had been fattened up with hundreds of pages of disposition padding that, really, could have done well with a good editing. That’s not to say that it was bereft of some genuine chilling imagery here: the magic trick that made a boy’s younger brother disappear permanently especially stuck with me all this time. Regardless, though, you have to admit that The Tommyknockers was basically Quatermass And The Pit set in Maine and sponsored by cocaine. And back when I read this, having just finished up with the equally meandering and long-winded It, The Tommyknockers almost got me to swear off of Stephen King’s output, if not for good, then for an extended period at least.

That said, I do think that you should read The Tommyknockers at least once, if just out of morbid curiosity. And it’s at least not as horrible as the made-for-TV adaptation.

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