Monday, September 15, 2014

1987: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

The Author:

Stephen King (1947-    ) was born in Portland, Maine.   His father abandoned the family when King was two, leaving his mother to raise King and his older brother.  King attended the University of Maine, earning a B.A. in English in 1970.  King and Tabitha Spruce had their first child in 1970, and married in 1971.  Their second child, Joseph Hillstrom King, was born in 1972.  (He, like his mother and father, is a writer.  He writes under the name Joe Hill.)  King taught high school and supplemented his wages by selling short stories to magazines. 

In 1973, he published his first novel, Carrie.  The first of his novels to make the annual top ten bestsellers list was The Dead Zone (1979).  Between 1980 and 2012, King appeared on the annual top ten list 34 times, in one case having three books on the same year's list. He has since written multiple non-fiction works, as well as serving as a columnist for entertainment weekly.  At current count, King has published twelve short story collections, two comic series, six books of non-fiction, fifty-six novels, seven novellas, ten screenplays, and a musical libretto.

The Book:

Length: 747 pages
Subject/Genre:  Alien invasion/sci-fi-horror

The Tommyknockers is one of the few books on the list that I'd already read.  Widely regarded as one of King's worst, The Tommykockers takes place in Haven, Maine, where Western novelist Bobbi Anderson discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the woods.  As she begins to excavate the wreck, the people in the town start changing, becoming more and more like the alien species that visited long ago.  They develop an amazing technical ingenuity, but don't necessarily understand the concepts behind their inventions.  As Bobbi says "As I say, we've never been very good understanders. We're not a race of super-Einsteins.  Thomas Edison in space would be closer, I think."  However, the townspeople become increasingly psychotic and dangerous.  Bobbi's friend, poet James Gardener (Gard), is immune to the the effects of the change because of a metal plate in his head, and it's up to him to stop the people of Haven, and the alien technology, from wreaking havoc on the Earth.

While complaining about a Stephen King book being long is like complaining about it being set in Maine, The Tommyknockers has the major problem of spending hundreds of pages shifting around minor characters, which gets very repetitive, very fast.  King's tendency to take common-place items and recontextualize them as terrifying consistently fails here.  For example:

"The Coke machine banked back.  It hung in the air for a moment, its front turning back and forth in small arcs that reminded Leandro of the sweeps of a radar dish.  The sun flashed off its glass door.  Leandro could see bottles of Coke and Fanta inside.

Suddenly it pointed at him -- and accelerated toward him.

Found me, Christ---

He got up and tried to hop to the car on his left foot.  The soda machine bore down on him, coin return hooting dismally."  

'coin return hooting dismally' is probably the least scary description I've ever read in a horror novel. The success of The Tommyknockers is a bit surprising considering it competed against two other King books, including Misery.

King's cocaine addiction and alcoholism throughout the 1980s is frequently brought up in discussions of The Tommyknockers.  King himself admits to barely remembering having written Cujo.  There is much to be said for The Tommyknockers as an allegory for King's addiction (this article from The Guardian is worth a look), but that doesn't make up for the overall shortcomings of the novel.   Nevertheless, The Tommyknockers was adapted into a truly awful two part miniseries starring Jimmy Smits (The West Wing, NYPD Blue) and Marg Helgenberger (CSI):

It's pretty much just three hours of all the worst aspects of a made-for-tv sci-fi B-movie.   

I can't really recommend this book for anybody.  If you're a Stephen King fan or looking to get into his books, this is not a good choice.  It's one of his longest and worst books.  

Bestsellers of 1987:

1. The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
2. Patriot Games by Tom Clancy
3. Kaleidoscope by Danielle Steel
4. Misery by Stephen King
5. Leaving Home by Garrison Keillor
6. Windmills of the Gods by Sidney Sheldon
7. Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
8. Fine Things by Danielle Steel
9. Heaven and Hell by John Jakes
10. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Also Published in 1987:

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe


King, Stephen. The Tommyknockers. 1987. New York: Signet, 1988. Print.

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