The Book Club


Dear Sarah,

I need to tell you at the outset that I’m a huge Stephen King fan. I can remember the very weekend I started reading him, in 1979, when I curled up with The Shining and never looked back. My taste for him has waxed and waned over the years, but there’s no one like King for nailing your attention to the page. He’s the least cynical of popular writers; where other filthy rich writers with a fat franchise repeat themselves over and over (hell, even the dead ones, reincarnated by their publishers with the help of hungry ghostwriters), King is always trying something harder and more interesting than what he’s done before. Pet Sematary is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever read, and I thought Hearts in Atlantis, of two years ago–a book of contiguous novellas, if that’s the right description–was marvelous.

I tell you all this because I found Dreamcatcher pretty disappointing. Bluntly, I think it has more of the author’s vices (excess, especially) and fewer of his virtues than almost all of his work of the last six or seven years. The typical pattern of a Stephen King novel is that it starts out subtly: The life dilemmas of an Everyman–mourning for a loved one, dealing badly with age, being haunted by a past misdeed–blossom into something stranger and wilder. The premise almost always gets a little (or a lot) over the top by the end–how he does love to pile effect on effect–but usually he has built toward this stage so effectively that you just shrug and take it all in stride. Dreamcatcher follows almost the opposite pattern: It starts out with big, repulsive doses of premise and continues at that pitch almost all the way through; you have to dig down for the most gratifying thread.

But let me step back and give the book a fair introduction: Dreamcatcher is set, like so much of King’s fiction, in Maine. It centers on a group of four friends, now nearing 40, who get together each fall to hunt deer. As children, Henry, Pete, Beaver, and Jonesy befriended (and rescued from the local bully) a boy with Down syndrome; their championing of “Duddits” has always buoyed their sense of themselves as good people, but it also (dark music up) Changed Them, vesting them all with bits of ESP.

When the curtain rises on their annual hunting trip in this particular year, there happens to be a massive alien invasion taking place in their neck of the woods. … The aliens, who seem to be rather weak, gray beings, poorly equipped to survive the Maine winter, bring with them a creeping, moldlike red growth they call the byrus, which feeds on anything in its path–including human flesh–and imbues its victims with the power of telepathy. They also breed, in the intestines of the unluckiest earthlings they encounter, some truly grotesque, raccoony little sidekicks known by some of the novel’s characters (for reasons that will be all too clear) as “shit-weasels.”

The basic action of the book–I’ll try not to give too much away–has Henry and Jonesy, with the help of the adult Duddits, racing to stop the alien plot, pursued by the cartoonishly mad Abraham Kurtz, who leads the special-ops military types who are trying to contain the alien invasion but has a personal vendetta of his own to pursue. (Just in case you missed the Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now connection, characters in the book repeatedly underline it.)

Jonesy is the King alter ego in Dreamcatcher, which King wrote while recuperating from his terrible hit-and-run accident of a few years ago. Jonesy, too, was hit by a car a few years before the action of the book; that event, combined with the events of childhood, has made him the ideal medium for a sort of alien body-jacking. Most people, it turns out, die so quickly from the byrus that they’re not very useful as hosts. But Jonesy can’t catch the byrus (only its paranormal effects), so an alien presence known as Mr. Gray infests Jonesy’s body for most of the novel.

And this is the much better, slimmer book that shines through the 617 pages of Dreamcatcher. Let’s see if I can explain it: Gray (who is himself just a sort of manifestation of the byrus) kidnaps Jonesy and his mind; but Jonesy manages, through the power of his childhood memories, to secrete a part of his mind behind what he visualizes as the locked door of a small office that played an important role in his childhood. So his body is inhabited by both the mind of Jonesy and the mind of the alien, and both are in turn observed by the part of Jonesy’s mind that he’s managed to wall the alien out of. This little remnant of Jonesy does its crafty best to turn Mr. Gray into something like a human–showing him the pleasures of human life, such as rage and excitement and bacon and even murder–in a race to stop him from trying to do what aliens always do, which is destroy the planet.

King does a wonderful job of dramatizing what is a completely intrapsychic plot line; the chapters in which Jonesy explores his strange predicament–literally furnishing the little office of his innermost thoughts–have the vivid quality of dreams, both concrete and wildly associative. I thought these parts were nothing less than brilliant.

But they’re surrounded by so much sound and fury, so many guns and gougings, so much mystic hugger-mugger and so much operatic scenery-chewing from Kurtz. (OK, and so much farting.) There are lots of good scenes in which King plays with the possibilities of a great outbreak of infectious mass telepathy; but there are also more greats gobs and dollops of simple grossness than even the usual Stephen King novel has.  

King’s publisher has made much of the fact that this is his first novel since his accident, written longhand through months of pain and hair-tearing rehabilitation. It does have the quality of having been written in a rage of energy that stops for nothing, and good for him. But all in all, I thought it was a bit of a mess.

What did you think? I’ve been wondering if the byrus had a special resonance for you, living there in (and reporting on) the land of hoof-and-mouth disease. …