Tuesday, June 17, 2014

When You Heard Hoofbeats, You Didn't Think Zebras: Considering "Mr. Mercedes"

Stephen King's newest novel, Mr. Mercedes, is now two weeks old, sitting comfortably atop various bestseller lists (including the New York Times, still the standard-setter of such lists) and earning mostly positive notices from those who care about such things.  I don't know what the reaction has been within the King community, because, frankly, I'm separated from most of those communities, and it's probably good riddance on both sides of that equation.  It certainly is on this side.  So whether the reception has been positive, middling, or negative, I do not know.

To be honest, it took me a while to figure out exactly what my own reaction had been.  My first review was positive, but as I began the process of allowing the novel to settle in, I began to feel a bit less persuaded by it all in some ways, and even more impressed by it in other ways.  It's a complicated reaction to a fairly uncomplicated book, which makes me wonder: is it an uncomplicated book?

Well, tonight, I'm going to explore a few of the elements that work for me, and a few that don't, and let's just see where we end up, eh?


Unless the British have made some genuinely Hogwartsian advances in printing technology, I don't think the actual UK hardback rains.  Even so, I like this cover a lot.  Probably not enough so as to cause me to get a copy shipped across the drink to me, but never say never.


Before we proceed, a warning: I will wear no spoiler gloves during this post.  So if you've not read the novel yet, this is not written with you in mind.
  

PRO #1 -- THE BACKDROP

One element of the novel that struck me right away was the setting: the latter years of the previous decade.  In and of itself, there is nothing extraordinary about that.  Stephen King frequently writes from the vantage point of the present (or, in this case, the very recent past).  However, when he does so, he frequently writes in a sort of "universal now" mode, by which I mean that the year in which the story is set is irrelevant.  Does it matter when Doctor Sleep or Duma Key are set?  Not really.  Assuming that technological advances don't begin taking place at a preposterous rate of advancement, people sitting down to read those novels in the year 2054 are likely to still be able to read them from a "this is now" sort of mindset, the way we today mostly still do with Carrie or The Shining.

Mr. Mercedes is not written in that mode.  When I say that it is set in 2009-2010, I mean that it is about 2009-2010, at least as much as it is about a retired detective going extra-legal to try to track down a serial killer.  Consider the opening chapter, a masterful bit of writing in which we meet a few victims in their final hours.  Assuming that you have at least a general idea of what Mr. Mercedes is about when you sit down to read it, then you probably get the idea pretty quickly during this chapter: these people are doomed.
  
Thing is, they seem as if doom might be in the cards for them even if that grey Mercedes is taken out of the equation.  These poor folks are standing in line for admittance to a job fair, and not just any job fair: one that offers jobs at fine places on the order of McDonald's and Walmart.  For such low-pay jobs, these people are standing in line hours in advance, in the pre-dawn cold, the way some people -- luckier people -- might stand in line to get concert tickets.  And even as early as the chapter point-of-view character arrives, he's already way farther back in line than seems tenable.
  
This, ladies and gentlemen, is despair in action.  Not, one imagines, coincidentally, King drops a mention of The Grapes of Wrath; these folks may as well be in the Great Depression, for all the good the differences between it and the Great Recession are doing them.
  
Elsewhere in the book, other signifiers of the Times In Which We Live come through clear as a bell: as Mr. Mercedes plays out, we get occasional mentions of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, gay rights issues, the crumbling fortunes of big-box retailers like Circuit City, the dreary landscape of reality television, anti-1% sentiments, the ever-present threat of computer viruses to the technologically unsavvy, terrorist panic, sniper mania, and so forth.  Few of these bells are rung very loudly; but their chiming is constantly present in the background of the tale, and the cumulative effect -- on me, at least -- was that Mr. Mercedes feels like one of the most in-the-now novels King has ever written.  As much as anything else, it reminds me of Roadwork, that "novel of the energy crisis" that seemingly distilled the anger and panic over mid-seventies American turbulence into the tale of a grieving father looking for a violent way out of life.

As perhaps befits our times, Mr. Mercedes is a pulpier, less focused tale than Roadwork.  It is also sunnier in its outlook, in that King holds out hope of Good triumphing over Evil; but it's also bleaker, in that the triumph is seemingly entirely of a personal nature, with no hints -- even vague ones -- that the broader picture might be capable of clearing up.  "I guess this is the world we live in now," King seems almost to be saying; "isn't that fucked up?"

It is fucked up.  And so is Brady Hartsfield, the novel antagonist.  Boy, is he.  He's a serial killer (arguably; his status as such is debatable) who in some ways typifies all of those churning fears listed above, and in other ways stands in opposition to them; he is both of his time and outside of it.  I don't mean anything supernatural or science-fictional by that; I mean merely that in terms of his computer skills, his technological acumen, his callousness toward life, and his casual (if entirely hidden) set of prejudices (toward black people, gay people, fat people, old people, you name it), he is kind of a model for what many of secretly believe the average commenter on any given Yahoo! news story might be like.  Except that he is more motivated and active.  But otherwise, he is a bubbling cauldron of hatred of all stripes, and I could not help but make the connection: he's your average internet troll, but with the willingness to actually go into the world and cause some damage.
  
At the same time, he strikes me as being a sort of bizarro stand-in for the increasingly-fading Era Of White Man's Dominance.  Someone with his brain and technical skills ought to, by all rights, be earning a shitload of money somewhere.  Instead, he brings pizza home to his drunk mother after working two menial jobs.  Ignore all the murder and psychosis for a moment, and see the backbone: it is that of the majority slowly becoming the minority.  It is not by any means a major element of the novel, but it is there, I think, and it's part of what makes Hartsfield a compelling villain: he is both a symbol of the modern world and a symbol of the world that it has replaced.


PRO #2 -- DET. WILLIAM HODGES (RET.)

If Brady is a dual symbol, then so is Hodges, except that he is a more stable fellow than Hartsfield.  As a retired homicide detective, he is at precisely the right age to be the sort of guy you'd expect to overhear railing against various aspects of the modern world.  After all, he himself is an old white dude; he's being pushed out to sea by this culture, or so the narrative goes.  And sure enough, when we meet him, is is adrift on a wave of bad food and even worse television.  King spends several pages on giving us this version of Hodges, and when I initially read them, I thought he'd maybe spent a bit too much time.

In reconsidering things, I think he spent just the right amount of time.  Hodges sits in his house, watching daytime television in which paternity tests devolve into fistfights and stern "judges" pass sentence on small-claims cases.  I've often found myself wondering what sort of people actually watch shows like that, and the answer King gives is that it's despondent people who watch them.  Worse than that: people who are so despondent that they don't even know how despondent they really are.

If I may digress a wee bit for a few moments, there are two things I'd like to mention as being worth consideration:

#1 -- that in his couch-potatodom, Hodges is of a type with another character in the novel: namely, Brady's mother, who gets drunk in front of the television (Survivor appears to be her jam) in an attempt to forget her misbegotten past.  She's a grosser, more troubled person than Hodges, but they do at least share an affinity for zoning out in front of the tv screen.

#2 -- let's not forget that Stephen King, in the same Richard Bachman guise that brought the angry Roadwork into the world, also wrote The Running Man, which in some way anticipated reality television.  But King/Bachman, in that book and in The Long Walk, foresaw a miserable future in which people would tune into programs to see people killed.  Part of me feels that watching a real-life equivalent of the shows depicted in those books would be more dignified than watching the Kardashians or Judge Judy.  Part of me also feels that Stephen King probably feels that way, and oh, what existential agita it must give the King of Horror to know that even he couldn't -- and didn't -- dream of something as awful as Sarah Palin's Alaska or Toddlers in Tiaras.  Something like The Running Man (the fictional show, I mean) could at least be fought and defeated.  How do you defeat Here Come Honey Boo Boo?

If you're Bill Hodges, it seems that you don't even really try.  You've seen the world; you know that it's done for, and now that you're not entirely in it anymore, you might as well sit back and let its repulsive arms enclose you.

Hodges is an almost wholly successful character, and is certainly one of the better protagonists King has created lately.  But he is not fully himself when we first meet him, perched there in front of his television; he is a broken, defeated man for whom fighting is no longer even an option.  But, like many another great protagonist, his salvation arrives in the form of an archnemesis.  Brady Hartsfield, perhaps displacing some of his feelings about another couch potato he knows, decides to try and tip the old man over from apathy into suicide, and in so doing, he awakens Hodges' sleeping, but by no means dead, sense of purpose.  Without Hartsfield sending Hodges that letter, it seems likely that the retired detective would have simply lived out the remainder of his years in front of that television; with Mr. Mercedes in the picture, Hodges has motivation and drive again.  Batman has found his Joker; Sherlock has found his Moriarty.  

From there, the novel treats Hodges as a sort of retirement-age wish-fulfillment.  He not only gets to defeat a dastardly villain, he gets to accost some young punks, he gets to mentor a young man with a hugely bright future, he gets to fuck a hot younger woman, and he gets to help nurse another young woman out of mental infirmity into useful health.  You can practically feel Stephen King bellowing "RETIREMENT IS FOR DORKS!" and pumping a jubilant fist in the air during some sort of "old guys can still be badasses" rally.  He sells the concept quite capably, and because of that, I'm curious to see what he's got in store for Hodges in the sequel, Finders Keepers (out in 2015).


CON #1 -- JIVE TALK

Look, man, I love a bit of post-racial satire as much as the next honk mahfah.  I believe very strongly that if you can find a way to laugh at idiotic notions like racial bigotry (and other types of it as well), then you can gain a power over it.  Bear in mind, of course, that I'm a pudgy middle-aged white dude who has never had much in the way of struggles during the course of his lower-middle-class (yet nevertheless relatively cushy) life.  So that means one thing to me whereas it might mean something entirely different to somebody else.  As such, when engaging in Mel Brooksian racial satire, it's kind of important to know your audience.
  
Let me give you an example.  I had a friend -- a black friend, ya kennit -- in college with whom I was able to engage in all manner of atrocious racial jokes.  I can't remember how we struck up this peculiar bond, but strike it up we did.  I think it might have actually been a result of the topic of Blazing Saddles coming up.  In any case, we worked in the same office, a media relations office that played host to local and (occasionally) national media members.  Well, he and I were at the office late one night working on separate projects, and at one point, we found ourselves engaging in the sort of mock insults that we frequently engaged in, which involved every racial slur we could possibly think of slinging at one another.  All in good fun; all from a standpoint of being comfortable with each other and knowing that each had an ally in the other.  It was grand old fun, as only elaborate inside jokes can be.

Thing is, the office wasn't empty, and we didn't know it; there was a reporter from what might fairly be called a major national magazine sitting there, hearing it all.  We both realized it at the same time, and in my mind, the scene plays like something out of a sitcom: we are both yapping racial slurs at one another, laughing, laughing, laughing, when all of a sudden we simultaneously sense that something is wrong.  We turn our heads in the same direction; cut to the national reporter -- who, of course, is a black man -- sitting at a desk with his fingers poised in mid-type above the keyboard of his laptop, looking at us with a slack-jawed look of astonished horror on his face.  My friend and both both begin talking over one another, trying to explain, "No, man, it's not like that, we're just messin' with each other!"

But, see, it was beyond explanation.  Unless you were either my friend or me (or one of several other friends who were in the same band with us), it made no sense.  It was, literally, inexplicable.  The reporter just blinked at us for a few moments and then went back to typing his story, which presumably was a bit more difficult to concentrate on for at least the next few minutes.  Nothing ever came of the incident, but I suspect that he probably still tells a very different version of it to friends and colleagues to this day.
  
That's the thing about inside jokes, though; you've got to be careful who's listening, otherwise you run the risk of being misunderstood, and i a major way.

So it is, I think, with the odd, offputting relationship between Hodges and Jerome, his young, Harvard-bound friend who not only serves as his primary technical adviser, but also as his lawnboy and as his Token.  Now, lest I be misunderstood, I want to be very clear about this: I don't think that Stephen King is a racist.  Nor do I think that his depiction of Jerome's jive-talk is racist.  It's clearly -- explicitly, even -- satirical in nature.  It's an inside joke between Hodges and Jerome, just as surely as the ones me and my friend shared.

So when I say that this jive-talkin' business is a negative for the book, please understand that I'm not accusing Stephen King of racism.  I am, instead, accusing Stephen King of a rare instance of failure in character building.  Because whereas I might be able to bring some personal experience to bear in the matter of Jerome's "Tyrone" persona and its dialect, I suspect that a great many potential readers might be more like the proverbial national reporter, sitting in the corner sort of horrified at what they are witnessing, and hoping that nobody will notice them noticing.  King's error, I think, was a simple one: he did not give us any insight into how this inside joke between Jerome and Hodges got started.  Inside jokes are all about setup and context, and you cannot simply skip to the punchlines in trying to deliver them to a new audience; that is contrary to how they work.  Here, King wants the punchlines (such as they are) to land effortlessly, and for the result to be that we develop a bond with Hodges and Jerome just as they have developed a bond with each other.

It doesn't work.  It isn't an outright failure; I get the idea, so I can sort of shoehorn myself into the position King wants me to be in.  But in so doing, we've gone from what sought to be an effortless thing to an act of willful effort on my part; King has forced me to force myself into that friendship, whereas I ought to have been there when the friendship began.  It's a misstep.  Not, for my tastes, a crippling one (the way the internal language of the marriage in Lisey's Story was); but it might well cripple the novel for some readers.  It seems to have crippled the novel for Dog Star Omnibus to some degree, and Bryan McMillan in his review of the novel there is right to refer to The Plant as another such instance of King's occasional fascination with having a well-to-do black man parody Stepin' Fetchit caricatures for no particularly good reason.  
  
McMillan also, quite rightly, calls out King's predilection for having his villains be racist scumbags, thereby allowing him to give voice, via their mouths and brains, to all manner of horrid bigotry.  If I am interpreting his thoughts correctly, McMillan feels about this the same way I feel about having a villain run over a puppy or a kitten or something in a movie: it's a lazy sort of shorthand for spelling out that This Is A Bad Guy.  Amazingly, that Dog Star Omnibus review is the first and only review of Mr. Mercedes I've read that even gets close to criticizing the novel's racial elements.

For my part, I'm less troubled by the specifics of what King does with Jerome's "Tyrone" routine than I am with his failure to do it correctly.  He probably should have just not done it at all, but if he HAD to go that route, it's seriously problematic for him to have done so without giving us the proper context for it.


CON #2 -- M.I.L.F. ACTION

Yes, Brady Hartsfield has some hot son-on-mom action.  There's not much to be said about that.  I'm listing it as a negative, but my reason for that is a bit unfair: it's not so much that I think it works against the novel (it doesn't), but because it was THE THIRD GODDAM NOVEL I READ IN A ROW that included a major subplot about parent-on-child incest.  Between Robert McCammon's They Thirst, Tabitha King's Caretakers, and Mr. Mercedes, I began to fear that I'd made some genuinely regrettable choices about the sorts of books I was reading.  There are some thing you just don't want to become a trend.  (Happily, Peter Straub's Floating Dragon ended that nasty little streak.)

It's unfair for me to give King a demerit for this.  In fact, the icky relationship between Brady and his mother is one of the novel's most successful elements.  It's horrific, but also brutally sad.  As origin stories for serial killers go, it's one I can buy into, and the payoff -- in which she accidentally eats the poisoned hamburger meant for Jerome's dog -- is both wonderful and awful.  Wonderful because I really did not want poor innocent Odell to get killed, but also awful because, good lord, even an incestuous monster deserves a less agonizing death than that.


CON #3 -- SERIAL KILLER AS SUPERMAN STRIKES AGAIN

This is a mild complaint, but I'll make it anyways: Brady "Mr. Mercedes" Hartsfield is, like many fictional serial killers, so competent and all-knowing that he almost turns into a supervillain.  I understand: it's a trope of the genre.  And it doesn't bother me all that much.  It's just that when a guy is as competent as Hartsfield is, capable of getting away with the things he gets away with, does it not strain credulity that he would fail to put a note on that poisoned hamburger?  Something like "this has been poisoned and will kill you DO NOT EAT"?  You know, just in case?

In fact, he occasionally seems so competent that it feels almost impossible for anyone to defeat him.  He's hardly the first fictional killer about which that could be said, and I understand that the idea is to make the hero seem more virtuous by making the enemy against which he fights increasingly evil.  It's just that, for me, things like that can go too far, and I'd argue that they go a wee bit too far here.  The tone of the opening chapter -- so bleak, so dismal -- eventually gives way to something that is a bit more generic (in the sense of being of a specific genre), a bit pulpier, a bit more cartoonish.  The good of that -- Hodges' resurgence, and especially his relationships with Janey and Holly -- outweighs the bad, so this is, again, a mild complaint; but it's a complaint nonetheless.


*****

I'm running out of gas here, so let's resort to bulletpoints for the remainder of the post:
  • Hartsfield creates a profile for Hodges at Under Debbie's Blue Umbrella, complete with a username: kermitfrog19.  Now, if I'm somehow missing something here, somebody clue me in, but . . . since when did you need ONLY a username on a website of that nature?  Wouldn't you also need a password?  Especially for a site that is as security-conscious at UDBU allegedly is.  This feels like a weird gaffe on King's part, and I'm surprised nobody caught it in the editing process.  Whatever King's editor is earning, it's too much, in my opinion; King (or his publisher) is not getting his money's worth.  Other than this misstep, I find the extent to which the novel buys into the computer culture to be very persuasive, and admirably of-its-time.
  • Another misstep, this one of the anachronistic variety: when Janey is telling us the backstory of her sister Olivia, she mentions that Olivia was going to take Janey to see U2 when they were younger, but that her illness prevented it.  The context of this implies that this was while Janey was still in high school.  Soon thereafter, Janey mentions that Olivia got married in the late seventies, and that after her marriage, she and Janey drifted apart.  Well, okay.  But U2's first album didn't come out until 1980, and did not play in America until December of that year.  So this timeline does not match.  Is that a big deal?  No, not really, but I'm a big U2 fan, so I noticed.  Let's just assume Janey got some of her details wrong.
  • By the way . . . "kermitfrog19"?  19?!?  Is King cluing us into something here?  He's no dolt; he knows that XX% of his audience is going to react any and every time a "nineteen" reference is made in his works.  And there's at least one other.  Apart from that, the only Dark Tower connection I can see here is the intimation that Mr. Mercedes is set in the Keystone Earth reality of Song of Susannah; there are references to the movie versions of both Christine and It, both of which Hodges has seen.  Working against that somewhat is a potential Doctor Sleep crossover: the boy-band Hartsfield plans to bomb is 'Round Here, the same boy-band that Abra loves in that novel.  Thing is, Doctor Sleep takes place in the same reality as It, by virture of Dick Hallorann's appearance in both; so this must mean that 'Round Here exists on multiple levels of the Tower.  Yay...?
  • One other fun crossover: a roadie at the 'Round Here concert wears a Judas Coyne t-shirt.  Coyne is the main character of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box.  There may be other crossovers that I missed, and if so, I'd be happy to hear about it in the comments.
  • The novel is written almost entirely in the present tense, which is one of the few times King has ever adopted that technique for a novel.  In fact, I'm not sure he's ever done it; I'm too lazy to go scour my bookshelf and find out definitively.
  • One of my favorite lines from the novel: "Life is a crap carnival with shit prizes."
  • Where, exactly, is this novel set?  Unless I am mistaken, the city is never named.  I believe it to be somewhere in Ohio, but I'm not sure.  This is a much vaguer tactic than King typically follows in terms of the setting, and I'm immediately intrigued as to why he might have done such a thing.  Is there some sort of a reason for it, in the story sense?  Or is he doing it to somehow make the novel's themes seem more universal?



Ultimately, my takeaway from Mr. Mercedes is that it has some serious problems, but that it also has some serious virtues.  It's a vital work, and an entertaining one, and I'm intrigued to see what King has in store for the sequel; I'm not entirely enthused, but I am definitely intrigued.  I'm glad to see my favorite author continuing to refuse to just do the same thing over and over again.  He is still writing as though writing is much more to him than merely something to do, or (worse) a paycheck to be earned; anyone accusing him of either of those things isn't paying attention.

I don't need every time at bat from him to result in a home run; not every book can be 11/22/63, or even Joyland.  I'd say Mr. Mercedes gets on base, and that's a pretty good result.

22 comments:

  1. (1) Brady as the ultimate internet troll or just the internet troll as terrorist is a great insight. And it's intriguing to consider him as he and Hodges as relics from a fading age of White Dominance. Even more intriguing when you consider the kind of world King has filled in around them, i.e. this new age is characterized by economic ruin, distrust, environmental devastation, nihilism, incest, spiritual bankruptcy, and random acts of mass violence. It's either scar tissue (Brady) or just another thing to put your pants on for (Hodges.)

    (1.5) Well, so to speak (re: Hodges.)

    (2) I'm glad you mentioned the wish-fulfillment thing, as that occurred to me too. I kept trying (in my review) to work in references to the movies Gran Torino and Taken as two poles of this sort of narrative. Mr. Mercedes struck me as smack dab in the middle of those - not quite the overt Dad blows away the terrorists and preserves his daughter's virginal purity of Taken, not quite the honest appraisal of Gran Torino, somewhere in between. Hodges certainly gets his guts ripped out (and a heart attack) for his renewal of purpose. Couldn't make it work so I left it out, but I'm happy to leave these half-baked thoughts here in response.

    (2.5) Along those lines it amuses me to think Hodges gets a job as a skip-tracer. I can't think of a single protagonist with that profession. I was ready to bail on all of this when I got to the end of Mr. Mercedes, but that single detail might hook me back.

    (3) That is pretty funny about the incest reading streak. Glad Peter Straub came along to break up the pattern.

    (4) How do you kill Honey Boo Boo, indeed?

    (5) Man, you said it re: King's editors. I have some serious questions for all of them.

    (6) Good point re: 'Round Here. I thought the same thing reading it when It and Christine were explicitly referenced as works of fiction but did not take the connection further to ask the Dick Hallorann question.

    (7) And good question re: setting. Cleveland is referenced several times but I don't believe the town where everything takes place is mentioned, unless it's in the citation received at the end and I missed it. Or missed it elsewhere.

    (8) I - as I imagine many other readers can - can definitely relate to that story of you and your co-worker and overheard-personal-jokes/rapport gone awry!

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    1. (2) Considering "Mr. Mercedes" as a sort of spiritual cousin to "Gran Torino" and "Taken" is a cool idea. Very apt. Speaking of things you meant to mention, I meant to bring up the similarity Hodges has to the detective who shows up at the end of "A Good Marriage," and how they both remind me of the detective in "The Exorcist." But I forgot it, so this comment will have to do!

      (3) Yes, that was enough to make me happy I was reading "Floating Dragon," apart from the fact that it's a pretty good book. Boy, there sure are a lot of spiders in it, though. A most fucked-up book, but without incest, praise jeebus.

      (5) I swear, they've just given up. I mean, sure, it must be a difficult and somewhat thankless task to edit a guy who is quite literally a world icon of pop culture, but still . . . Jesus Christ, if they don't want to do it, hand the job over to me! I'll charge less and I'll be better at it.

      (7) A cursory Googling indicates that the setting is never mentioned. And I don't want to say for certain, but that may be a first for a King novel. If not a first, then it's certainly a rarity.

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  2. Establishing a textured, nuanced setting is an essential element in King's work. He does a fine job doing this in Mr. Mercedes, but why did he leave out the name of the city? It's odd.

    Am I the only one who thinks King's younger characters aren't as convincing as they used to be? It's a strange thing to say, given his success at the characterization of young people in so many of his novels, but I had a hard time buying some of the dialogue/actions in Mr. Mercedes and Dr. Sleep.

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    1. To be honest, I think that's always been a bit of a failing in his books. The kids in "It" seem relatively kid-like, but many of the others -- "Firestarter" being the chief offender, with "Cujo" coming up close behind it -- include kids that don't, to my ears, sound like kids. Actually, "The Shining" is a particular offender in that regard, but I'm letting Danny off the hook because I assume his telepathy has made him more advanced than his years.

      As for leaving out the name of the city, I'm going to say that one of two things is the case here. Option #1 -- King just forgot about it. Option #2 -- he was going for some sort of Everywhere, U.S.A. effect. Which, given some of the book's content, seems like a possibility for me.

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  3. To address the elephant in the room, this is the net result of putting a hell of a lot of thought into it (most of it involving what it must be like to grow up in the 60s under such sources of humor as Mad Mag, Nat. Lampoon, and Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Lenny Bruce).

    On the one hand, I can't help thinking it's wrong for people to define their lives in terms of either race, or racial slurs, and thereby limit themselves in terms of who they can be, not as ethnicities, but just as people. On the other hand, there's that part of my thinking that noted some eyebrow raising elements regarding Native Americans in certain DC comics panels.

    Add both up and the result is....The room feels like it's spinning, and as I write this I swear I can feel the beginning of a headache at the very back of my skull. It is a problem, and what's disconcerting is I don't have all the answers.

    To move on to questions of continuity.

    I went back to this web page to see if could find a list of how many references King's works make to one another:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_King_works_related_to_The_Dark_Tower_series

    My initial reactions was: My gosh, what a mess.

    The sorta sad truth seems to be that all these references King puts in his work perhaps aren't as well thought out as they should be, or at least not once it's gone as far as it has. However, a bit more thought has given me hope that it's not entirely hopeless.

    From what I can tell, at least, there are two ways of looking at all these interconnected references and their relation to the Tower series.

    The first, exemplified by Bev Vincent, is to see the King-verse as a multi-verse with the Tower world at it's center in some fashion that I admit doesn't seem very clear to me.

    The second view might be called the "Inscape Hypothesis", and it owes a lot to Joe Hill's N0S402. In that book, Hill outlines the idea of Imagination as having the ability to (at least briefly) turn fictions into reality. On this reading, the Tower series, along with several other in-book happenings are really just cases of fictions that have come to life on their creators (such as Sam Landry, Thad Beaumont, Vic McQueen, Charles Manx and Scott) on of whom just happens to be a fictional version of Stephen King.

    My own final conclusion, based on checking over the various references, and how they relate to one another in various texts, is that, of the two options, the Inscape Theory seems the more viable. All of the non-tower stories relate to each other as if they were (so to speak) the reality, and books like the Tower series were fiction.

    To be concluded.

    ChrisC

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    1. Continued from last post

      To give examples:

      The fictional version of King is mentioned in the series Kingdom Hospital, and the Hospital is later mentioned in Lisey's Story, plus Castle Rock figures in both tales.

      Paul Sheldon and Mike Noonan are also mention in Lisey, which ties the fictional King not only to Castle Rock, but also Derry.

      The one problem text in all this is Song of Susannah and concluding volume of the Tower series. There, the exact nature of whether or not the Tower characters are real, or fiction come to life is debated briefly, and rather poorly, with no real definitive conclusion seeming to be arrived at. From my own reading it's pretty clear this was something King may have wondered about, but ultimately couldn't resolve in ay satisfactory way for himself, so he let the issue go with no real resolution.

      In retrospect, while I wouldn't take the fictional version of King out of the Tower series, his parts are the only ones where I'd suggest some minors revisions to make the nature of things more clear. For instance, during the accident scene, the following line of dialogue could have been inserted:

      Singer: I'm a big fan of your work. What was that one, it had the clown.

      King: It.

      Singer: YEAH! Man, that was scary.

      King: Clown's not mine

      Singer:...Pardon?

      King: The clown was all Bill's idea.

      Singer (looks blank)

      King: Bill Denbrough, the author. Heard of 'im?

      Singer: Oh yeah!. Man, he writes scary stuff...Er, that is...

      King: All if had was the idea for this great big monster story, and I had no idea where to go with it. Bill suggested I make my monster an evil clown. I have no clue where he got that idea.

      That series of dialogue, or something like it would at least have situated the story more, and clued the reader into the nature of the fictional reality of the fictional King (why do I get the feeling Philip K. Dick is laugh at me right now?).

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    2. Continued from last post.

      Anyway, I think the testimony of King's other books make such dialogue at least a reasonable alternative explanation.

      To conclude on some interesting thoughts. Hill elaborated on his Inscape idea in an interview with the Onion:

      "Hill: I also think that you’re stuck writing—the book has this idea that everyone carries around an Inscape, that they have an inner landscape furnished by the products of their imagination. An inner world of thought, where emotions are as real as gravity. And that’s really a bizarro concept; I think that’s basically true. And my dad did a lot to furnish my inner landscape, and that’s a world I want to own all of, not just a little corner of. So I think that means acknowledging something.

      "AVC: The Inscape concept almost amounts to a Unified Field Theory that incorporates and explains all horror and fantasy stories. Is that an idea you want to develop further, to use in other books?

      "JH: Absolutely. I actually said at one point on Twitter about a year and a half ago, when I was working on NOS4A2, that NOS4A2 was my underlying theory of everything. That it makes an argument that the rest of my writing is acting from. And absolutely at some point—one thing I’d like to do is, in NOS4A2, we get this throwaway story about this girl who has a wheelchair, and once she’s in it, she has access to a unique power. And I’ve already got a whole novel figured out for that character, called The Crooked Alley. I don’t know when I’m going to write it, but I see the shape of that story very clearly.

      "AVC: The Inscape map in the book features a reference to Pennywise from It, and the Treehouse Of The Mind from your novel Horns, but “Orphanhenge” wasn’t familiar from past fiction. Is that an upcoming story?

      "JH: [Laughs.] I have an idea for a book called Orphanhenge. I don’t know whether I’ll ever write it, but I have an idea."

      All that is interesting at least as a concept for how both Hill's and King's work connects. In terms of Mercedes, I'd say it takes place in the same world as Derry, the Rock, the fictional King et.al. for reasons given above.

      As for the story itself, it works well enough. I don't know if it's the kind that can support a series. It seems more self-contained than Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe, but we'll see.

      ChrisC

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    3. Call me crazy... but I kind of love that Bill Denbrough bit.

      Sorry to leave such scant reply, but that really works for me and just wanted to say so.

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    4. I'll admit the Denbrough bit may not be the best idea, but it was all I could think of that might even out the obvious rough bits in the King-verse.

      The texts I was sort of basing off of was a line in Full Dark, No Stars where the main character of Fair Exchange mentions how Mrs. Denbrough empties her trash on his yard. When I first read that I thought "That can't be his mom, is it?" After giving it some thought, it seemed more likely that Stuttering Bill had apparently moved back to Derry, and is now sort of a local contemporary with the fictional King.

      My way of looking at the fictional King, in the above scenario, would then be that he's written books with the same titles as his real world counterpart, however the plots would all obviously be different from how they are in real life.

      Like for instance, It would be about something else removed from Derry (though perhaps informed by it) and the fictional Cujo book would have nothing to do with Castle Rock, and the fictional Misery might even be a non-fiction piece about the events that happened to Paul Sheldon.

      At least there's one fan theory, anyway.

      ChrisC

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    5. The way I look at it is that there are multiple levels of the Tower, and there clearly must be a good bit of overlap between the two. So might there be a fictional version of "It" on more than one level? Yeah, sure. I could get with that.

      I'd like to eventually create my own detailed guide to crossovers, and see if the whole thing can be plotted out in a way that makes sense (i.e., assigning "levels" to the various novels and stories and seeing what really does cross over and what doesn't). That'll be a whopper of a project, though, and it isn't happening anytime soon.

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    6. so here's a crazy (?) theory that I haven't seen anyone else come up with (there may be good reason for that):

      Bill Hodges and Brady Hartsfield are the same person. Both have the initials of BH, and there are some other things that seem to point in that direction (or can be interpreted that way, if you squint just the right way) - mostly just instances of Brady knowing stuff that Bill knew already, or thought very similar.
      neither of them actually *meet* one another (I don't think), so it could be worked that Bill simply invented Brady as a way to deal with the fact that it was the one case that he never solved.
      It's unfortunately been a few months since I've read the novel, and so I can't think of them off-hand, but the theory is there, and if anyone wants to do some debunking (or finding instances to build it up), I'm happy to hear 'em.

      I don't know how much credence I'm actually putting in this theory, but just figured I'd throw it out there for discussion.

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    7. Well, I can tell you precisely how much credence I'll be giving that hypothesis: none whatsoever.

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    8. I'm so confused... but I tip my cap to your gumption, here. If you've got details, I'm listening.

      How is it possible that this would be the case, though? For starters, how does the ending, where Hodges' Scooby Gang captures Brady and no one says "My God, it's Bill Hodges, in drag!" (or something) square with things? Or does the pov of Hodges/ Brady omit such things, being from the same split personality? So his convalescence and Brady's waking up are really the same thing. I can't say I buy it, just trying to figure out which plot details preclude or encourage such a direction.

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    9. Dr. McMolo, I applaud your diplomacy. I tried to go that route myself, but can't do it.

      The idea is a stupid one, quite frankly. I apologize for being that rude/blunt about it, but it's just fucking dumb, and I've got no tolerance for "theories" (I feel a bit as if I'm overvaluing it by even allowing it that designation) like this one. At what point did willful ignorance of the text become a virtue?

      Brady sells Jerome ice cream. Jerome has a friendship with Hodges. If Hodges and Brady were one and the same, I think Jerome would probably notice. Unless he was too busy satirically using Ebonics, that is. I also think Brady's mother would have been very surprised when she gave birth to a middle-aged man.

      Ugh. I feel dirty having this conversation. This must be what Andy Dufresne felt like as he exited Shawshank (minus the hope).

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    10. " I also think Brady's mother would have been very surprised when she gave birth to a middle-aged man." LOL - not laughing AT anyone, of course, but that cracked me up. Because it's true: there's an awful lot of holes that the text itself punches in this idea. It's mostly holes, to me - that's why I was / am curious how on earth Chris could entertain this idea. I mean, doesn't the text clearly circumvent the theory?

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    11. I think I might be miscommunicating my idea. I didn't mean that Hodges was dressing up as Brady, or parading around as the killer. I meant simply that he created him in his mind. Think Fight Club.

      It might play better if I turn it around - maybe Hodges is the one that doesn't exist. Brady created him in his mind - and all the events that we see happen with Hodges are simply the delusions of that twisted young man. (It would go a long way to explain why Hodges does some of the questionable actions - like putting Jerome in danger all the time, or not calling for backup, and not getting fired at the end.)
      Granted, that would mean that Jerome somehow figured out Brady was the killer (or at least was planning on detonating the bomb) in some OTHER way - since Hodges isn't real.

      Of course, all of this Fight Club theory is just a silly way of looking at the book differently. I didn't intend anyone to take it seriously, and certainly didn't intend to cause such irritation.

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    12. I probably have more patience for such things than Bryant does. (Not to speak for him, but from prior experience. Anyway, no irritation on my end; I get a kick out of silly alternate-takes on things, even when I disagree with them. I enjoy the process of "what if"-ing things and seeing if the alternate explanation is at least plausible. If so, it deepens rather than dilutes my appreciation of the original text, as I like it when things, however intentionally or unintentionally, successfully become symbolic of other things. (And if not, hey, no harm done.)

      Here, tho, I'm of the opinion that the facts established in the book don't allow for such a reading. The physical, distinct reality of both characters is established in too many places for it to work.

      It might have made it a more enjoyable book for me to read, had this been the case, ironically. Or maybe I'd have accused him of "Secret Window"-ing me.

      "Ya Secret-Window'd me, King!" he yells at no one in particular...

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    13. "Of course, all of this Fight Club theory is just a silly way of looking at the book differently. I didn't intend anyone to take it seriously, and certainly didn't intend to cause such irritation."

      I have to confess that it really DOES irritate me. But then, I'm a grumpy old sourpuss, so it's to be expected.

      The source of the irritation is simple: there's just no credence to the theory whatsoever. In fact, the novel offers abundant evidence for how it's NOT the case. So really, what you're arguing for -- even though "arguing" is probably the wrong word -- is the notion that a reader can simply impose whatever reading on a book he/she wants to. For example, if one wishes to take the stance that "Mr. Mercedes" is actually set on a holodeck and the characters/situations are merely simulations being run by Captain Picard between episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," then theoretically, one is totally free to read the text that way.

      And I guess this is where I become a bit of a fascist, because I kind of DON'T believe in having that freedom. Not unless the text supports it on at least a semi-conscious level.

      As for the "it's all a figment in the deranged mind of __________" thing, well, I just don't buy it, even as a concept. If you can read "Mr. Mercedes" that way, then you can read ANY novel that way, and I cannot and do not support that idea.

      Again, apologies for being rude about it. This is what happens when Bryant gets too little sleep.

      The conversation has been worth having, though, if only for "Secret Window" being turned into a verb.

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  4. At one point the text mentions a freighter on the lake near Olivia's old house. If a lake is big enough to have a freighter on it in Ohio wouldn't it have to be on lake Erie?

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    1. I would think so, assuming -- and this is by no means a given with King -- that the story is set in our world and not a parallel universe with different geography. I wouldn't think he'd be doing any sci-fi stuff like that in this particular book, though.

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  5. I just read that Stephen King got the idea for Mr. Mercedes after seeing a local news story from Cleveland which is on Lake Erie. Perhaps he went ahead and based the story there but decided to not mention the city's name for some reason.

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    1. That certainly does seem to narrow it down a bit. Thanks!

      I suspect he must have a reason for not naming it; I'll be curious to see if that plays into the third book in any way. Or he may have been going for an Anytown, U.S.A. sort of vibe.

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