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 author’s 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 isn’t a subtextual concern. (There are a couple of references to a disputed “Florida Presidency”—clearly a last-minute addition to the book before it went to press.) As for “phobic pressure points,” King’s 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 year’s 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 friend—someone the others haven’t contacted in years—who has mysteriously reappeared in their collective thoughts. His name is Douglas “Duddits” Cavell, born with Down’s 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 speech—“Fit 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 does—in the words of the rock band Spinal Tap—“break 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, King’s otherworldly creatures are hatched with a similar explosive force from their victims’ rear ends. One doesn’t have to trace the genealogy of scatological jokes from Chaucer to Howard Stern in order to appreciate George Carlin’s 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 doesn’t leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. If we smile knowingly at an insane Air Force officer with the name “Kurtz,” it’s 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, it’s spelled out for us: “…the crud was dining on him the way the cancer that killed his father had dined on the old man’s stomach and lungs.” At moments like these, the author’s pulp-driven sensibilities get the better of his literary instincts. It reveals a lack of confidence in the material, a fear that readers won’t look beneath the surface of the text unless a running commentary does the work for them.
The novel isn’t 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 driver’s 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 King’s head and fart in his face.
– Bob Wake