Master of the Macabre Stephen King isn’t known for brevity. As his career’s progressed, it seems the books keep getting longer and more difficult to wade through. Not to say finally reaching the end of a given tome is without rewards, but there certainly are times when it’s clear he could have used a little more red ink when making his edits. His latest horror extravaganza, Dreamcatcher, the first full-length novel since the extremely well-executed Bag of Bones, upholds this tradition with a vengeance.
But, let’s take it easy on poor Sir Stephen, currently the best-selling author since Moses was inspired by a short tête-à-tête on a Middle-Eastern mountaintop. After all, only two years ago, he was fighting for his life after being struck by a senile motorist while taking a stroll. Okay. Leeway granted. And it’s vertainly better than such past disasters as Tommyknockers (which King no longer remembers writing, as he was deeply emerged in a cocaine addiction) or forgettables like Gerald’s Game. Nonetheless, Dreamcatcher is not King at his best, the essential problem being that a little too much of it seems borrowed from his vast array of past achievements.
Dreamcatcher, which King wrote entirely in longhand during his period of recovery, revolves around the aftermath of a spaceship crash-landing in the forest outskirts (known as the Jefferson Tract) of Derry, Maine, home of King’s It. Four longtime buddies are taking their annual November hunting trip in their northern woods getaway there’s suicidal psychologist, Henry; uncouth and toothpick-chomping Beaver; car salesman and one-time sprint king Pete; and Jonesy, who recently recovered from near-fatal wounds after being struck by a senile motorist (sound familiar?). The four share a link that’s bound them together since early childhood, to which King inserts repeated flashbacks. As junior high school students, they befriended a boy afflicted with Down’s Syndrome, affectionately called “Duddits” because he could not pronounce his name proper (Douglas). King really shows off his aptitude for dialogue in rendering “Duddits-ese,” which, for the benefit of the reader, is followed by plain-English translation. However, Jonesy, Pete, Beaver, and Henry need no translator they understand Duddits perfectly well, as he becomes the psychic center of their childhood world.
As adults, they’ve each gone their separate ways but maintain the hunting trip as tradition. Unfortunately, this tradition places them at the wrong place at the wrong time. The bizarreness begins when a lost hunter wanders nearby their cabin, nearly getting himself killed in the process. He’s a strange one, missing teeth, emitting a noxious gas, and incubating an alien parasite in his bowels. Meanwhile, the US government, always up for a good conspiracy, sends in a covert branch of the military to clean up the alien infestation, led by a psychotic soldier who calls himself Kurtz, after the equally psychotic character in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now. To say he exacts some extreme measures to contain both aliens and humans throughout the Jefferson Tract would be an understatement. All the characters’ paths cross and intertwine in an elaborate plot worthy of a King novel, coming to a head in a very long and drawn-put chase scene which takes up nearly a third of the book. As he’s apt to do, King starts out strong, but ends his tale in a mess of improbabilities and anticlimaxes.
King fans like to draw innumerable arbitrary lines marking the cutoff from “Good King” (The Shining, It) and “Bad King” (Insomnia, Gerald’s Game). Most of these are chronologically oriented: King was solid and scary right up to around 1986, when It, the monster novel to end all monster novels, was published. Others postulate that King is good when he really tries to be but often falls short either because he failed to chop a few hundred pages out or resorted to blood and gore to instigate the reader’s fright instead of relying on suspenseful storytelling. Let the debate rage on, because even when King is sloppy, he’s still intriguing and leagues ahead of his horror-writing cohorts. Bag of Bones may very well be held up as his shining (excuse the pun) achievement in modern-day gothic literature. This is unlikely to be the fate of Dreamcatcher, which ends up reading like a reflective surface of various other King pieces; Tommyknockers, “The Body” (filmed as Stand By Me), It, and The Stand are a few of the more obvious works echoing throughout the book. Beyond the acts of self-plagiarism are moments where King regresses into describing the action in terms of other works, mostly movies, that clearly have influenced this tale, such as Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The X-Files. It’s almost painful to see King overtly describe the events as a sort of “Independence Day . . . in the forest.” It would be one thing if these references seemed to carry some thematic relevance to the story, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Dreamcatcher is simply an example, whatever your definition, of Bad King.
Again, it’s wise to note, even a lacking King is enjoyable to read. The strength of his prose rests on his unobtrusive style and ability to peg human motivation. For this reason, Dreamcatcher reads quite beautifully, and the characters are memorable and evoke sympathy. Plainly put, King writes likable characters who you don’t mind getting to know, even if it does run the course of 600-plus pages. It is definitely not his worst novel, just as it’s definitely not his best. This isn’t going to be the book you’ll hand to someone who’s never read King before, but it may be one for the die-hard King fans, if only to see him make up for the alien-ridden debacle of Tommyknockers. No bounce, no play, Mr. King. But we’ll be waiting to see how you perform next round.