Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"The Tommyknockers" Revisited, Part 4: Roundup!



Time to wrap up the look back at The Tommyknockers, and what I've got in store tonight is gathering together some of my leftover thoughts that didn't make it into the first three posts.  So let's get to it.

Book I was entirely focused on developing the characters of Bobbi and Jim, and in the second book, King employs a trick somewhat similar to the one he employed in composing the three-act structure of Christine: he shifts to a new point-of-view.  In Christine, the first part of the novel is told first-person from the p.o.v. of Dennis; the third part is also, but the second is told in omniscient p.o.v., so that we can gain some access into the interior life of Arnie.  The shift in The Tommyknockers is in some ways less severe -- we don't switch from first to third person -- but in some ways is even more severe, because (with the exception of one scene and a few brief mentions), King spends almost 150 pages away from his two main characters.

Now, there's probably a debate to be had -- in the case of both The Tommyknockers and Christine -- over how effective it is (or isn't) to shift the focus of the narrative in that way.  I can't remember whether I cared one way or another when I first read those novels, which probably means that I wasn't bothered by it.  I'm certainly not bothered by it now, in either case.  In Christine, it makes a lot of sense to begin the story by focusing from the outside on how the changes in Arnie affect him, and it makes a lot of sense to return to that p.o.v. for the end of the novel; the middle section, in which the horror of those changes are developed, benefits greatly from the added insights we gain by being inside Arnie's head to an extent.  I'm not a huge fan of Christine as a novel, but I don't think the narrative shifts hurt it in any way.

I like The Tommyknockers quite a bit better than Christine, and so of course, I don't think its narrative shifts hurt it too badly ... although I do think they are more damaging, relatively speaking, than the ones in Christine.  The narrative shift itself is just fine; the damage, which is marginal but noteworthy, comes from the structure King employs once the narrative shift is made.  The chapters tend to focus on one character or another at a time -- this isn't entirely the case, but it's the case more often than not -- and when those characters are engaging, it's fine.  There are some times, though, when the characters don't work as well, though, and those sections drag the novel down a bit.

The complaint I imagine most people would have is that it's a drag to have to spend that much time away from Gardener and Anderson, whom we have (presumably) become invested in by this point: we want to know what's going on with them and their dig, and every page spent away from them is time we're in the dark about that dig.

To me, that's actually a strength.  The shift away from Bobbi and Gard adds tension to the story, precisely because we do want to know what's going on with them; we know there's something going on, and that it's probably important, and we've also got to know that we'll get back to them later, no need to fret.

The first chapter of Book II is all about the history of Haven came to be named Haven, and while it doesn't have a great deal of bearing on the rest of the story, it's good in its own right; it reminds me of the type of elaborate community-building King had just pulled off a year or so earlier in It.

The chapter is mostly about the odd sway that one Preacher Colson was able to gain over the town back when it was still called Ilium.  This carries a few echoes of what ends up happening to Haven decades later in that one might say that Preacher Colson is able to unite the vast majority of the town under some strange sort of spell.  I don't think King intends for us to see anything supernatural or even science-fictiony in Colson's story; rather, I think he's just making a point about the insularity of small towns' group mindsets.

Does this add up to anything?  Not really.  But I still like the chapter.

Chapter 2, " 'Becka Paulson," is about the titular character, and hardcore King fans may be aware that this chapter is a shortened and revised version of a short story ("The Revelations of 'becka Paulson") that was published in Rolling Stone way back in the summer of 1984.  The original version of the story has never been included in any of King's collection, presumably because King has come to consider the Tommyknockers version to be the "real" version.  It is not clear whether King always intended "The Revelations of 'becka Paulson" to be a part of The Tommyknockers or whether he later saw an opportunity to roll it into that larger story and seized upon it; there is no mention whatsoever of the novel in the magazine.

For my money, the original version is superior.  In it, 'becka begins receiving visions from Jesus due to accidentally shooting herself in the head; a bullet is slowly working its way into her brain, and this, presumably, is the cause of everything that happens.  In the novel, there is no mention whatsoever of a shooting or a bullet; clearly, it is actually the alien ship that is responsible for what happens.

But does this actually make any sense?  The townspeople develop telepathic abilities, true, and commune both with each other and with the aliens (or with whatever mental vestiges of them still remain), but the jokey, destructive way in which "Jesus" communes with 'becka seems to be something that happens to her and her only.  In other words, tonally, this really doesn't quite fit with the rest of the novel.  Sure, Ruth's dolls begin speaking to her; but those voices seem to be merely a channel for the normal process of "becoming" that everyone else goes through.  In 'becka's case, she is being directly spoken to, and to my way of thinking, it simply doesn't add up.

Even if it did, it adds virtually nothing to The Tommyknockers.  This is an odd case of me liking the story (in its original form, at least) but disliking its inclusion in this particular novel.

Chapter 3 is about Hilly Brown, young genius and would-be magician.  Generally speaking, I like the story of Hilly, his brother David, and their gramps Ev Hillman.  However, one thing that bothers me about this chapter is that there is a sudden, very odd stylistic shift in the prose.  Consider this passage from page 190: “Mr. Robertson Davies (may his death be postponed a thousand years) has suggested in his Deptford Trilogy that out attitude toward magic and magicians in large part indicates out attitude toward reality...”

I'm rusty on my lit lingo.  What is that: second person?  All I know is, it's odd.  All of a sudden, the story is being narrated; we don't quite slip into the first person perspective, but there's a perspective of some sort, seeing as how whoever is now telling us this story is familiar enough with the writings of Robertson Davies to wish that he not keel over dead any time soon.

It's always possible that King had something grander in mind with this, and that I'm just not getting it, but I don't think so; that just doesn't feel right.  What feels right -- since this chapter in general has a breezier tone than the rest of the novel (the " 'Becka Paulson" chapter excluded) -- is the possibility that this, too, was a short story at some point that King decided to roll into the larger story he was working on at that time.  That's pure speculation on my part, so take it for what it's worth.

Either way, I do like the chapter.  I like Hilly as a character, and the situation with his brother reminds me just a bit of one of my favorite King short stories, "The Jaunt."  I definitely have problems with the style shift and the tone, but in this case, at least the disappearance of David Brown becomes a major plot point in the progression of the story.

One question: how/why is Hilly talking about Tommyknockers on page 200?  That word has previously only been used by Gard, whose mind conjured up the association.  Are we meant to think that Gard passed it along to Bobbi, and that Bobbi in turn passed it along to other townspeople through their groupmind?  I can see how that would work, although since there seems to be no indication of Hilly being a true part of that groupmind this early in the story, I'm not sure I buy it.  It's a small point, but it's something that doesn't quite work for me.

The next few chapters are devoted to the story of Ruth McCausland, the constable who is apparently the only person in town who resists "becoming" simply by virtue of possessing an iron will.  Gard and Ev resist, also, but they've got metal in their heads to account for it.  I suppose I could complain about this: does it make sense that Ruth is able to resist simply through the force of her character?  Probably not.  But the fact is, I like Ruth an awful lot as a character, and I'm engaged enough during her two chapters that I can kinda overlook this aspect of the story.  And anyways, there's nothing in the novel that says this can't happen; Ruth is just the only evidence of it.

We find out about Ruth's death before we actually meet her, which is another odd narrative shift.  We first meet two out-of-town cops who are investigating the Town Hall incident, and then flash back for Ruth's backstory, leading up to what happens to her during the town's becoming.  All in all, roughly sixty pages are devoted to Ruth, and I quite like the way King structures those pages. 

A device he uses fairly often in his novels is the device of informing the reader that a character is going to die soon.  In a sense, the chapter with the out-of-town cops is a multi-page version of the same thing, functioning to set a certain tone for the following chapter, when we actually "meet" Ruth.  Structuring things in that way allows that chapter’s events to have a pre-built context. 

However, because we don't initially have much of the context that we get from that chapter, it causes the one with the cops to be very mysterious (explosions we don't understand, doll parts littering the ground, a severed arm) ... which, since that chapter is entirely from the point of view of outsiders to the town, seems very appropriate.  Very interesting structure tricks King is up to here.  They work for me; maybe they don't for others, but they do for me.

In my previous post, I spent some time considering the various ways in which this novel crosses over with other King novels (and the implications of those crossovers).  However, in doing so, I left a few of whoppers out of the conversation.  No excuse for it, either: I just plain forgot about 'em.  This is why notes are a valuable resource.

The two other crossovers I forgot about, of course, are with The Dead Zone, Pet Sematary, and Firestarter.

In the course of trying to bring attention to his grandson's disappearance, Ev Hillman talks to a reporter named David Bright, who also appeared in The Dead Zone, where he interviewed John Smith.  And lest we think there's any room for the possibility of the two David Brights being different characters, there is also an explicit reference to John Smith (p. 277).  This, obviously, places The Dead Zone into the same chronology.

As for Pet Sematary, here is the passage that references that novel: 

“They had been called Big Injun Woods because it was there that Chief Atlantic had died.  It was the whites who called him Chief Atlantic – his proper Micmac name had been Wahwayvokah, which means “by tall waters.”  “Chief Atlantic” was a contemptuous translation of this.  The tribe had originally covered much of what was now Penobscot County, with large groups centered in Oldtown, Skowhegan, and the Great Woods, which began in Ludlow – it was in Ludlow that they buried their dead when they were decimated by influenza in the 1880s and drifted south with Wahwayvokah, who had presided over their further decline.  Wahwayvokah died in 1885, and on his deathbed he declared that the woods to which he had brought his dying people were cursed.  That was known and reported by the two white men who had been present when he died – one an anthropologist from Boston College, the other from the Smithsonian Institution – who had come to the area in search of Indian artifacts from the tribes of the Northeast, which were degenerating rapidly and would soon be gone.  What was less sure was whether Chief Atlantic was laying the curse himself or only making note of an existing condition.”  (p. 284)
We, of course, know all about the curse in the Ludlow woods if we've read Pet Sematary.  The question I have is this: are we meant to think that the events of that novel are related in some way to the alien ship Bobbi and Gard dig up?  Was it exerting its force in some way for decades previously and causing the intermittent resurrection of dead flesh in the Ludlow area?

If so, here's another (inifinitely nerdier) question: does that make Pet Sematary a post facto science-fiction novel?  I could geek out about that for a while, but I'll spare us all that sort of torment and just move along.

The final crossover is with Firestarter.  The Shop is mentioned several times during the course of the novel, and in its closing pages, the Charlie McGee incident is mentioned: the few remaining Havenites are taken to Virginia to be studied, in a facility that, we are told, "had once been burned to the ground by a child" (p. 556).  So that's another one you can add to the continuity.

Book III begins with another new character: Anne Anderson, Bobbi's domineering raging-C of a sister.  Anne is vividly-drawn, and interesting though highly unpleasant, but I don't think the gambit of bringing her into the narrative pays off as well as King might have wanted it to do.  For one thing, it feels like the only real reason to bring her in at this late stage of the game (almost 400 pages in) would be to use her to illuminate Bobbi as a character.  But this doesn't end up happening at all; all we get is that Anne is a bitch, and somebody nobody would want to live around, and we got that info many, many pages ago.  Seeing that element dramatized just doesn't add much to the mix, frankly.  It's a decent way of revealing the extent of the physical changes Bobbi has undergone, but that's about it.

It's not bad; just not particularly effective.

John Leandro, the reporter who decides to investigate Ev Hillman's wild stories, finally meets his end by being run over by a speeding Coca-Cola machine.  This is a deeply silly idea, but I suppose I'd be a liar if I didn't admit to being a little tickled by it.  It's like something that might have been in Maximum Overdrive, and I'd be curious to know how much the scripting and production of that movie overlapped with the writing of this novel.

In the attempts to get into Haven to assess the severity and nature of the problem, we are told, a fireman dies when his pacemaker explodes.  A similar incident occurs near the beginning of Under the Dome.  I don't see this as a deliberate connection; it's more likely that a man dying by means of an exploding pacemaker is just an idea that stuck with King long enough for him to inadvertently recycle it.

I love the scene in which Torgeson sees the alien ship rising out of the earth.  King does a great job with the imagery here:

“But to Torgeson it did not look like a saucer.  It looked like the underside of an Army mess-plate – the biggest damn plate in creation.  Up it came and up it came; you thought it must end, that a hazy margin of sky must appear between it and the rafters of smoke, but still it came, dwarfing the trees, dwarfing all the landscape.  It made the smoke of the forest-fire look like a couple of cigarette butts smoldering in an ashtry.  It filled more and more of the sky, blotting out the horizon, rising, oh, something was rising out of Big Injun Woods, and it was deathly silent – there was no sound, no sound at all.”  (p. 504)
I'm also fond of the way in which King ends Gardener's story:
“Up and up, out and out – the ship rose, and Jim Gardener, born in Portland, Maine, went with it.  He drifted down through black levels of unconsciousness, and shortly before the final vomiting began – a vomiting of which he was never even aware—he had a dream.  A dream so real that he smiled as he lay in the middle of blackness, surrounded by space and with the earth below him like a giant blue-gray croaker marble.  He had gotten through it. – somehow gotten through it.  Patricia McCardle had tried to break him, but she had never quite been able to do it.  Now he was back in Haven, and there was Bobbi coming down the porch steps and across the dooryard to meet him, and Peter was barking and wagging his tail, and Gard grabbed Bobbi and hugged her, because it was good to be with your friends, good to be where you belonged ... good to have some safe haven to come to.  Lying on the transparent floor of the control room, already better than seventy thousand miles out in space, Jim Gardener lay in a widening pool of his own blood ... and smiled.”  (p. 550)
I wish the novel had ended with that image.  Instead, we go on to find out a bit about the town cleanup effort (as conducted by the Dallas Police), and end on the resolution to the Hilly and David Brown story.  I like the way that story ends up, but it doesn't seem right for the novel not to have ended with Jim Gardener, having heroically saved mankind by piloting that ship out into the unknown.

Well, that's practically all I've got to say about The Tommyknockers.  I do have one final post I'm going to make, but it's going to focus on the movie adaptation which came on television about six years after the novel's publication.  I'll give you a bit of a teaser: it's not very good.  But there are things about it I like, so it won't be entirely a case of me disobeying my mother's advice about what to do in the case of not having anything nice to say.


  1. On the subject of David Bright, the journalist who appears in both "The Dead Zone" and "The Tommyknockers":

    I quote now from George Beahm's book "The Stephen King Companion," which I am currently reading:

    "According to David Bright, a jurnalist who has known King since their college days together, King is pretty much the same person he always was: talented, fiercely dedicated to the craft of writing, very much a family man, and blissfully untouched by the sirens of success." (p. 17-8)

    Bright, then, is a real person! That's kinda cool.

  2. "The narrative shift itself is just fine; the damage, which is marginal but noteworthy, comes from the structure King employs once the narrative shift is made. The chapters tend to focus on one character or another at a time -- this isn't entirely the case, but it's the case more often than not -- and when those characters are engaging, it's fine. "

    Okay, I just commented on the movie-post about the narrative, but you make a good point here. I kind of just rolled with the punch, as it were, but you're right, that second section does kind of stick out, for this reason. I read it as-broken-up by train rides, which just happened to coincide with where the narrative seemed to shift. Luckily for me! So, that should appear on the back cover: "Best Read in 45-minute Train Commute Chunks."

    That's also a good point about the singular way 'Becca Paulson is engaged by the Tommyknocker-man.

    My own answer to your question as to why Hilly uses the "Tommyknocker" word is that that's just the term plucked-from-Gard's mind that then circulates amongst the "becoming." As you mentioned, yourself. It works for me (as does the very-end, which I think has such a great last-line/ image) but that Gardner-blasts-into-space and smiles in his own blood bit is just fantastic. Also a spongeworthy ending.

    I wanted to wait until I'd finished reading and my own blog on it before diving into your reviews, here. Well done, all around.

    Had NO idea about David Bright, and I've read that Beahm book a million times. Whew. What the hell else am I missing in there, I wonder...

    I really liked the grandfather character. I felt genuinely sad for him and was absurdly-touched by his love for his grandson. King has a way of reaching into my chest like Mola Ram and squeezing my heart. (Thankfully, unlike Mister Ram, he doesn't send me into the lava, after doing so.)

    I have to disagree on the beginning of Book 3, though. I kinda/sorta agree with what you say about how it doesn't quite add anything to the narrative, but the writing is so crisp in those sections. He gets some crap for the kind of shrew/bitch women-characters he focused on in the early stage of his career, which is understandable (and more than redeemed, I'd say, by the majority of his other female characters) but he brings them very convincingly to life. I see what you're saying, here, but my vote is: this section works.

    1. Mola Ram, Mola Ram, Mola Ram Surinam (plonk plonk)!

  3. I just finished reading "The Trap" by Tabitha King (published 1985), which contains the following passage:

    "The painted table was invisible under a mountain range of books and papers and magazines: his bills and receipts; canceled checks; tax forms and records; letters from the granddaughter who lived in Alaska; yellowing snapshots, like dry leaves scattered among the papers, of great-grandchildren he had never seen in the flesh; a year or more's accumulation of Field and Stream and Yankee; and paperback westerns, often coverless, bought for a dime from bins in Dewey Linscott's junkstore in Greenspark. His favorites were by J.C. Devereaux, who was really a woman named Bobbie Anderson who lived only a hundred miles mortheast in Haven, a wide place in the road on the way to Derry and Bangor, a fact that amused the hell out of Walter when Liv told him."


    A trio of characters also discuss the possibility of being sent to Shawshank Prison.