Monday, December 23, 2013

Stephen King: Desperation (1996)

Stephen King published three novels in 1996. The Green Mile appeared in six monthly installments, from March through August. Then, less than one month later, King published Desperation under his own name and The Regulators under his Richard Bachman alias.

Desperation begins on Highway 50, a lonely stretch of desert road in Nevada. Collie Estragian, the sadistic police officer of the small town of Desperation, is terrorizing travelers along the highway, arresting them under false pretexts and jailing them. He also kills two of them, pushing a young girl down a flight of stairs and shooting a man in front of his wife. (He has also killed most of the town's residents.)

After the prisoners escape from their jail cells (with some spiritual assistance), they learn that there is an evil spirit (referred to as Tak) in the town. It was let loose from an abandoned mine that collapsed in 1859, trapping and burying alive more than 60 workers, most of them Chinese immigrants. Current mining in the area - by a company named Diablo - uncovered the old pit and let loose the evil spirit. Once Tak is out, it inhabits a series of human bodies, including Estragian, but the various vessels literally fall apart over time, quite gruesomely, and another host must soon be found.

Another reader making his way through King's canon complained about the choice and presentation of the book's villain:
King's overused-villain-tropes collide in the character of Entragion/Tak. He's got the seeing-through-animals/mind-reading of Flagg with the inexplicable-racism/anti-semitism/what-have-you of ... well, of every other King villain. Why would an ancient demon sound like a MSNBC caricature of "the enemy?" If it's meant as an amplification of latent prejudices in Entragion himself, a) we get no text-support for that, b) why is it an aspect of every King villain, novel to novel? and c) why do these attitudes remain as Tak leaps from body to body?
The presentation of Tak is not the book's only weakness. King has usually been able to create strong, believable characters, but he falters here.

Johnny Marinville is referred to (at least a half-dozen times) as a National Book Award winner and someone who had sex with a famous starlet, as though King had only a few ways of reminding readers who he was. Cynthia Smith (who was also a minor character in Rose Madder) is often identified by her orange-and-green-dyed hair. Steve Ames has long hair, so he gets called a hippie. King gives readers the bare bones of a character sketch before moving on, and thus does not have much to offer when it comes time to refer to them again. King also continues to repeat plot points, though there is little chance of readers forgetting them. I'm not sure exactly when he started doing this in his books - maybe when he got sober - but he did not do it early in his career.

Stuart Allen Morris, "Morality in the American West: The Origins of Evil in Stephen King's The Stand and Desperation":
[Desperation is] a work that is explicitly concerned with morality and faith, which thinly operates under the guise of a horror novel. ... If one works within the Judeo-Christian conception of morality, which King does, there is no better way to test faith than the way God does in the Old Testament. ... [W]hile Satan may have a place in The Stand and Desperation, his part is no bigger than it was in the Old Testament. When it came to evil things not brought by humans in the old Testament, it was God who was most visible - and that is how King portrays Him in these two novels.
Desperation purports to be King's most direct look at the battle between good and evil, and his most blatant exploration of man's relationship with God. After King's exploration on those themes to great effect in The Stand, I was looking forward to this novel. I was disappointed, however, as King has comes up short. His ruminations on the cruelty of God - the deity in this novel is clearly the wrathful and vengeful Old Testament God - never amounted to much.

Leading the group of survivors is 12-year-old David Carver, who began studying the Bible after his prayer apparently brought his best friend out of a coma sustained after being struck by a drunk driver. David made a vow that he would do something for God if his friend could somehow remain alive. In Desperation, God is extremely intent on making David live up to that promise. Through the course of the novel, David undergoes trials and tribulations similar to those suffered by Job. By the time the forces of good have prevailed, David has lost both of his parents and his younger sister, and has questioned God's will and even His existence.
As always at these times when he felt really in need of God, the front of his mind was serene, but the deeper part, where faith did constant battle with doubt, was terrified that there would be no answer. The problem was simple enough. Even now, after all his reading and praying and instruction, even after what had happened to his friend, he doubted God's existence. ... People could make shadows that looked like animals, but they were still only shadows, minor tricks of light and projection. Wasn't it likely that God was the same kind of thing? Just another legendary shadow?
The refrain "God is cruel" is repeated throughout the novel. (It is also a motif King used in The Green Mile. Narrator Paul Edgecombe, recalling the random death of his wife in a bus accident, states that when we tell God, "I don't understand", God says, "I don't care.")

While David Carver may be a little self-conscious about praying in front of people, King has no such hang-ups about portraying Carver's beliefs. He presents his religious themes without a shred of irony or condescension. As Kev notes: "The persuasive, straightforward narrative does not equivocate on the subject of religion, much as prior books do not equivocate on the paranormal or supernatural; King simply asserts, and the reader chooses whether to accept."

King also makes scriptural allusions throughout the novel, either to Biblical passages or events. One of the more obvious: David finds a small bag of sardines and crackers while the group is hiding out in the town's abandoned movie theater. The bag gets passed around and there is, like the loaves and the fishes, more than enough food for everyone.

One of the book's main characters is Johnny Marinville, a famous writer and recovering alcoholic. He is riding his motorcycle across the country (something King did to promote his novel Insomnia) in the hopes of gaining inspiration for his next book. Marinville's interactions with Tom Billingsley, one of Desperation's town drunks, afford King the opportunity (as he has in many of his novels in the late 80s and 90s) to write a bit about addiction:
Except, in the last five years or so, it had come to seem less and less like a thirst than an itch, as if he had contracted some awful form of poison ivy - a kind that affected one's brain instead of one's skin.
Next: The Regulators (as Richard Bachman).


laura k said...

"King simply asserts"

Bad writing 101.

laura k said...

In case my comment was unclear, I feel Stephen King often gets away with egregiously bad writing.