Signet, 1997, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various
Desperation, Stephen King: Signet, 1997, 547 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-18846-2
The Regulators, Richard Bachman Signet, 1997, 489 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-19101-3
Any way you look at it, Stephen King is an interesting author. Springing to national fame after two unusually successful movies adapted from his novels (Brian DePalma’s CARRIE and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING), he has reigned over the bestseller lists for more than two decades. While lesser authors might have comfortably rested on their laurels, releasing formula novels every year or so, King is a genuine writer who’s not afraid to take risks. These risks don’t stop at what he write, but also extends at how they’re published. To promote Insomnia in 1994, he travelled through the United States on a motorcycle to do signing in independent bookstores. He agreed to publish The Green Mile in six small instalments, like the serial novels of yore. In 1996, he simultaneously released two novels: One under his name, and the other one as his pseudonymous alter-ego, Richard Bachman (also known as the author of Thinner and The Running Man, among others)
The experiment doesn’t stop at the simple simultaneous release of two books. Where it gets really interesting is that both novel share their cast of character, the name of the villain and even some common lines. Up to a certain point, one can argue that the events of both novel sport a common history.
Nevada, 1858: In the middle of nowhere, a small town has sprung up around a mine. The soil isn’t exactly stable, so the company hires Chinese personnel willing to work for almost nothing under horrific conditions. One day, while more than forty men are working underground, the mine caves in. Accident or totally intentional event? In any case, the mine is re-discovered more than a century later, as a blasting uncovers the mine shaft.
Here, the stories part ways.
In Stephen King’s Desperation, the action stays in the small mining town of Desperation, Nevada. During the first hundred pages of the novel, various visitors are brought together in the town’s jail by a crazy policeman. Few remain alive in the town, and who knows if the policeman has anything to do with this? For that matter, even the few surviving citizen of Desperation seem ready to swear that the policeman isn’t his usual self…
In Richard Bachman’s The Regulators, the action stays in Wentworth, Ohio. More particularly, in the suburban picture- perfect Poplar Street. It’s a superb summer afternoon until a paperboy is killed by a shotgun blast fired from a futuristic red van. Before long, half the street’s residents are dead and the other half are waiting for the next devastating attack. It doesn’t help that Poplar Street isn’t in Wentworth any more…
You can read one or both novels in any order; neither is sequel or sideshow. There are, however, interesting bonuses to be gained from doing what this reviewer did and reading both concurrently, fifty or a hundred pages at a time in both: backstories are fleshed out in one novel but not in another, subtle personality changes take more significance, background details seem more pertinent. The fate of characters isn’t identical, of course. Some survive to both, die in one or die twice.
As interesting as the concept is, however, one almost wishes that the interplay between both works could have been deeper, even maybe up to an absurdly almost-postmodern point (one character could “know” something learned by the other book’s character, and similar tricks). In any case, the experiment raises interesting questions, and readers should be thankful that King has experimented with this.
Besides literary curiosity, however, it’s a relief to find out that King has written some of his most “characteristic” novels in years with Desperation and The Regulators.
Desperation, with its desertic, almost post-apocalyptic locale and its ultimate combat between the forces of good versus an incarnation of evil, is not without bringing back memories of King’s The Stand (though being nowhere near that novel’s power). King’s seemingly-effortless management of a multi-character cast also recalls some of his most successful older novels. On the other hand, it has more than a few lengths, also like King’s previous work. In any case, it’s a change (improvement?) from King’s last three novels, which took a far more intimate psychological approach.
The Regulators is closer to Bachman’s previous five novels in that there are few lengths and more violent action than King usually puts in his novels. Shorter than Desperation and more classically exciting, The Regulators also marks a radical departure from King’s last few novels, which were becoming more and more sedate. Not exactly the ultimate tale of suburbia terror (the villain simply doesn’t let itself to this goal), The Regulator is nevertheless fast-paced action with a supernatural premise. Bachman’s narration is honed to quasi-perfection; the result is great.
Both novel also mark a return to two of King’s favourite themes; children (saviours in both, but more ominously so in The Regulators) and writers (heroes in both, but more ominously so in Desperation).
One flaw shared by both novels is that the opening chapters (creepy in Desperation and action-packed in The Regulator) promise more than is ultimately delivered. While this is not a new problem in horror -where menace is almost always more effective than execution- it seems more disappointing here perhaps because of the interplay between both novel. In The Regulators, it’s a bit difficult to express outright rage at the antagonist, while in Desperation it doesn’t seem quite so threatening in latter stages than in its policeman incarnation.
In the end, however, Stephen King is having fun and the result is a return to old familiar places. (The second drive-by shooting in The Regulators is almost as merry to read as the degeneration of the villain in Desperation) Either novel is good by itself. Taken together, however, they become special. Maybe not as great as could have been expected, but still worthy enough of the King mark of quality.
It remains to be seen what else Stephen King plans for us…