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Dreamcatcher: A Novel
In Danse Macabre, an
engaging nonfiction exploration of cinematic and literary horror, Stephen King wrote
nostalgically about the science fiction films of his 1950s boyhood. Movies like Earth vs. the Flying
Saucers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers were frightening on more
than one level. According to King, the films touched phobic pressure points in
the culture at large, which during the 50s had an undeniable component of Cold War
paranoia. The authors latest novel, Dreamcatcher,
is an updated alien invasion epic with all the classic trimmings of UFO sightings,
extraterrestrial fungi, telepathic mind control, and slimy bug-eyed creatures baring sharp
teeth and lethal tentacles. Political paranoia isnt a subtextual concern. (There are
a couple of references to a disputed Florida Presidencyclearly a
last-minute addition to the book before it went to press.) As for phobic pressure
points, Kings discarded original title for Dreamcatcher perhaps says it all: Cancer.
The story centers on four men in their late thirties, friends since childhood, meeting in the Maine woods for their annual autumn deer hunt. This years reunion finds each of the men burdened with midlife woes. Henry Devlin, a psychiatrist by trade, is sunk in a suicidal depression; Gary Jonesy Jones, a college history professor, is mangled in body and spirit after being hit by a car; Joe Beaver Clarendon, a carpenter, is divorced and aimless; and Pete Moore, a salesman, is bottoming out from alcoholism. There is a fifth friendsomeone the others havent contacted in yearswho has mysteriously reappeared in their collective thoughts. His name is Douglas Duddits Cavell, born with Downs syndrome and now suffering the added insult of leukemia.
The strongest material in Dreamcatcher is comprised of flashbacks to the junior high school days of the principle characters. Henry, Jonesy, Beaver and Pete befriended Duddits after rescuing him from an assault. King has always had a knack for portraying the terrain of adolescence: the boastful profanity and sex talk of close friends, the casual cruelty of bullies, and the loneliness of kids who are perceived as different by their peers. Duddits is a risky creation. With his ever-present Scooby-Doo lunch box and impaired speechFit neek? (Fix sneaker?)he often seems on the verge of being crassly infantilized by the author. But by the end of the novel, our perceptions of the character are overturned and he emerges with a kind of unsentimental nobility. (The inspiration for Duddits may have come from the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, who placed a ten-year-old boy with autism at the center of his 1964 novel, Martian Time-Slip.)
While Dreamcatcher breaks no new ground, it doesin the words of the rock band Spinal Tapbreak like the wind. The alien fungus plants itself inside our lower intestines and wreaks gaseous havoc. Riffing on the notorious chest-burster scene in the movie Alien, Kings otherworldly creatures are hatched with a similar explosive force from their victims rear ends. One doesnt have to trace the genealogy of scatological jokes from Chaucer to Howard Stern in order to appreciate George Carlins succinct truism: Farts are funny. Dismissing Stephen King as juvenile is beside the point. His gleeful wallowing in the most literal and offensive sort of bathroom humor gives Dreamcatcher the hilarious kick of an unfettered Lenny Bruce routine.
King doesnt leave a lot to the readers imagination. If we smile knowingly at an insane Air Force officer with the name Kurtz, its a safe bet that another character will blazon the allusion in neon so no one misses the joke: Perlmutter had read Heart of Darkness, had seen Apocalypse Now, and had on many occasions thought that the name Kurtz was simply a little too convenient. And for anyone not up to speed on the metaphoric connection between the alien fungus and the ravages of cancer, its spelled out for us: ...the crud was dining on him the way the cancer that killed his father had dined on the old mans stomach and lungs. At moments like these, the authors pulp-driven sensibilities get the better of his literary instincts. It reveals a lack of confidence in the material, a fear that readers wont look beneath the surface of the text unless a running commentary does the work for them.
The novel isnt as focused or tightly written as Bag of Bones or Hearts in Atlantis, both of which brought King a new level of acclaim in recent years. Overall, Dreamcatcher is uneven and formulaic, interspersed with some ingenious set-pieces (especially good is an extended sequence with one of the characters locked inside his own mind battling an alien for control of his memories). Fans will be intrigued by the autobiographical elements of the story. Dreamcatcher was written while King was undergoing painful physical rehabilitation after being struck by a reckless drivers van in the summer of 1999. The character of Jonesy experiences similar injuries. Last year, King published an eloquent nonfiction book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, that discussed his harrowing accident in detail. Also contained in On Writing is an oddly relevant childhood memory: an abusive babysitter used to playfully sit on Kings head and fart in his face.
- Bob Wake