Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stephen King: Dreamcatcher (2001)

Dreamcatcher was the first novel Stephen King published after his near-fatal accident in 1999. Because he was unable to sit at his desk for extended periods of time, he ended up writing the first draft of the novel by hand, in only six and a half months.

King states (in the afterword): "To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven't been for years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored."

Dreamcatcher takes place over a few days in November 2001. A group of four old friends from Derry, Maine - Joe "Beaver" Clarendon, Pete Moore, Henry Devlin, and Gary "Jonesy" Jones - have gathered for their annual deer hunting trip at a cabin deep in the woods of the Jefferson Tract. There have been reports of strange lights in the sky - and things begin going wrong when they find a lost and disoriented hunter named McCarthy wandering through the woods.

McCarthy is in some serious distress - there is an alien presence growing in him that will be expelled only by moving his bowels (hence, the wonderful term for these invasive creatures: "shit-weasels"). King delights in describing McCarthy's (and a few other characters') odious farts and thunderous belches as the alien grows and moves within him: "brutal and meaty", with a "sulfurous rotten-egg odor", "a long, purring fart that sounded like ripping cloth", "a deflating rubber toy", "an untalented child blowing over a piccolo". One character's bad breath is "a mixture of ether and overripe bananas" and a belch sounds like "a factory machine which has been put under severe strain".

The men eventually learn that an alien spacecraft has crashed in the Maine woods and the surrounding area is now sealed off. Everyone in the area - residents and hunters - are rounded up and placed in a military camp, in an operation led by a military madman named Kurtz. Complicating matters is that a fierce snowstorm is on the way. Dreamcatcher is the story of how the aliens' desire to spread the virus across a larger area is eventually defeated. And it is up to the four men - who reunite with an old friend from their childhoods - to stop this murderous contamination.

So: Is Dreamcatcher the tale of five friends who must bond together to overcome an alien invasion? Is it a military/alien thriller? Is it a supernatural, multi-dimensional science-fiction tale with telepathic characters? It tries to be all three. And it has elements of It, The Tommyknockers, and "The Body".

Heidi Strengell, writing in Dissecting Stephen King: From The Gothic To Literary Naturalism:
Including both dream sequences and numerous shifts in time, the complex novel has three levels. It can be viewed as a science-fiction parody, as a tale of horror, and as a comment on the absence of responsibility.
Dreamcatcher never felt parodic to me, and despite the graphic descriptions of the cancerous "shit-weasels", it was neither horrific nor scary. Indeed, the race to prevent the alien virus from being dumped into a Massachusetts water reservoir unfolded almost in slow-motion. It was clear the aliens' plan would be thwarted; it was simply a matter of slogging through the pages to see how it happened.

I would agree with Strengell that King (once again, as he has several times throughout his lengthy career) highlights the government's lack of concern for its citizens and, in this novel, its willingness to murder hundreds of them to keep the true nature of the alien menace a secret. Commenting on both The Tommyknockers and Dreamcatcher, Strengell writes:
In doing so, he shows how technology for its own sake may not be progress at all and how little the government take responsibility for its citizens. By acknowledging that scientific progress has done little for humans as moral beings, King pleads for the restoration of the dignity of the human being.
Some other random notes:

Jonesy is an assistant professor of history at a small Boston college. He is a "lifelong connoisseur of horror movies, suspense novels, and mysteries" and was struck by a car earlier in the year (suffering injuries extremely similar to what King suffered). Having read elsewhere that King was on-point in his descriptions of Jonesy's pain and rehabilitation, I was surprised that there was so little of it in the novel.

In a nod to It, there are several mentions of how children often go missing in Derry. "There have been a lot of child disappearances here over the years ... but nobody talks much about it. It's as if the occasional missing kid is the price of living in such a nice, quiet place." That confused me, because I had thought, from reading It, that Derry was a disgusting town. Even in this novel, King says Derry was built on "what was once swampland shunned even by the Micmac Indians who lived all around it". (King also mentions Derry's "ancient and incredibly complex systems of drains and sewers".)

King is still capable of some great writing. When Henry Devlin inspires the captives to revolt against the military and attempt an escape, the narrative comes crackling to life, like a small fire after some lighter fluid has been tossed on it. The reader works furiously, taking in the words quickly, feverishly, as the action unfolds. King has always been good at describing utter chaos and the complete destruction of a compound, estate, town, country, etc. And King is an expert at showing the bonds of friendship between boys on the cusp of being teenagers, though his characterizations here remain a far cry from his best work: "The Body" and It.

Jonesy's body is inhabited (taken over, really) by one of the aliens, who Jonesy dubs Mr. Gray. Towards the end of the novel, King intimates that Mr. Gray never existed; he was simply a part of Jonesy:
Mr. Gray is the phantom limb you still feel, the one you could swear is still there. ... They never existed as actual creatures aliens, ETs. The grays as physical beings were always created out of the human imagination...
This raises several questions about King's narrative, since for hundreds of pages he has been writing as though the opposite was true. This - and other plot twists - gives a reader the impression that King is simply making up stuff as goes along, whether it jibes with earlier portions of the book or not. (Also, the use of telepathy between the characters is extremely convenient as characters can magically know things they have not actually experienced.)

Ultimately, the 617-page book is a dull mess. (One site ranked it #62 of King's 64 novels.) My biggest complaint is the extended Jonesy/Gray sequences do little to move the plot forward. King could have told this story in at least 200 fewer pages, perhaps 300 fewer.

The Stand and It are huge novels, and two of King's best works. (I also have a strange affection for the well-hated The Tommyknockers.) However, since the mid-80s, King's various doorstoppers - Needful Things, Insomnia, Desperation, and Dreamcatcher - have been a big disappointments. Instead, King has excelled only when writing on a smaller canvas: Dolores Claiborne, The Green Mile, and two-thirds of Rose Madder.

Next: Black House (written with Peter Straub).

5 comments:

laura k said...

a military madman named Kurtz

This is a reference to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

laura k said...

Next: Black House

Every time I see this, for a split-second I think you're reading Dickens.

allan said...

This is a reference to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

The narrator notes this. (King isn't often subtle.)

allan said...

Every time I see this, for a split-second I think you're reading Dickens.

I actually took Bleak House to work yesterday! Not sure if I will read it now, though.

laura k said...

The narrator notes this.

The narrator himself notes this?? Yikes! King wants to make sure his audience understands?