I made a respectable but not all that fruitful attempt in 2016 to explore a wide variety of writing styles, with the long-term aim of making myself a better writer.
I started strong, nibbling at a number of short fiction anthologies, reading a couple books on writing by successful authors, dabbling in a couple science fiction novels, and getting more use out of my library card than I had ever before in my entire life. My wife gave me a Kindle for my birthday and I loaded it with the complete works of Japanese laureate Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which are now public domain and thus free, as well as a few novels recommended by friends. I even skimmed my way through a Japanese self-help book called Think of your Husband as a Dog and finally read through my long-neglected copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which is also basically a self-help book. Reflecting on the whole of 2016 now, I feel like what I’d intended to make the Year of Writing instead shaped up to be the Year of Reading. Though I guess if you’re only going to get one of each, that’s the right place to start. As Ray Bradbury notes in Zen in the Art of Writing, “in order to Keep a Muse, you must first offer food.”
The most ambitious “meal” I took on was my first-ever Stephen King novel: The Tommyknockers. It occurred to me around June that Stephen King is a national treasure. I’ve been hearing that guy’s name as long as I’ve known the word horror, and he’s spawned more hits and contributed more pages to the genre than seems possible, even on a purely logistical level. What a machine. Every one of his books is a brick, practically a perfect cube of paper. There is always a new one on the New Releases shelf. It is always a bestseller. It usually serves as the basis for a movie or miniseries. Granted, I’d never read any of those near-cubes or taken particular enjoyment in any of those movies or miniseries, but in a year where (even by June) we’d lost so many living legends of pop culture, and with me an aspiring author, I suddenly started to feel remiss in neglecting the man’s work. We’re lucky for the time we get to share on this earth with influential people, and I don’t want to be the odd man out when King goes, as I was with Bowie, Prince, et al.
The other thing is that I watched Stranger Things, which absolutely ENRAPTURED audiences from here to Holland. I thought it was so squarely, unrevolutionarily, unremarkably pleasant, so precisely okay at The Nostalgia Thing, so watchable as opposed to not watchable that it might’ve easily been mistaken for a pretty good season of The X-Files. I would have promptly dismissed it from my memory, but man oh man was that a great font they used. “More of that,” I said, and then it turned out there’s a big used bookstore in the basement of the San Mateo County History Museum (I was in the area obtaining a marriage license), so I started looking for Stephen King tomes from the ‘80s.
I picked up copies of IT and Christine, both charmingly inscribed with penciled messages from the ‘80s and addressed to two different ‘80s girls. These were impulse buys, each less than a cup of coffee. But I’d already made up my mind to start my investigation of King with The Tommyknockers, even though I had yet to obtain a copy.
The Tommyknockers is not one of his more popular works, but there’s a good reason I picked it—exerted considerable effort hunting it down, even. It all stems from a lingering childhood memory. There was a short period of time during which my brother had a paperback copy of the book sitting on his nightstand, and I’d notice it every time I went into his room to bug him. I was probably ten or eleven. It wasn’t uncommon for a Stephen King book to have a vague title—I mean, “IT”—but The Tommyknockers stimulated some new neuron that no other title had. What the hell was a Tommyknocker? The word was almost comical, but with Stephen King’s preexisting notoriety as a master of terror, that comicalness translated to confidence—in whatever horrors lurked within the book’s pages. I asked about it one day, and my brother said, “I’m borrowing it from Alabaster.* Apparently when [Alabaster’s older, tougher brother] Newton* was reading it, he was so scared he had to sleep with the lights on.
*Names changed for fun.
I’d never met Alabaster’s brother Newton, but after years of second- and third-hand anecdotes, I’d pieced together a mental image of this giant, brick shithouse of a big brother who was in the Marines. As someone who’d never read a book targeting adults, I was puzzled by notion that mere words on a page could genuinely scare someone, let alone a big tough Marine that even my biggest big brother saw as a big brother. What was Stephen King doing that R.L. Stine failed to do in his magnum opus, Goosebumps: The Cuckoo Clock of Doom? Whatever these Tommyknockers were, they must’ve been bad news.
That anecdote altered my perception of Stephen King forever after, and since he’s remained steadily relevant in the world of contemporary literature ever since, I never forgot it.
Finally in June, I found a copy of that same paperback edition, its cover soaked in an approximation of the “terrible green” color I would soon discover featured prominently in the story. It was so large, it was almost comical—a 747-paged brick capable of inflicting enough blunt force trauma to take out Mr. Boddy in the Library. I’m not ashamed to admit it was longer than any book I’d ever read by practically double. I’m of a media-spoilt generation; when presented with any one work that demands that much of prolonged commitment of the consumer, I immediately think, “Why?”
But I was determined to learn what all the decades of fuss were about, and with that childhood anecdote still pulsing in my mind like a beacon, I knew this had to be my entry point.
It is now January 2017. I have just finished the book. It has not converted me into a long book reader. Somewhere around page 300, the doubt started seeping in. Even if this turned out to be the scariest book ever made, was getting scared ever worth 800 pages? Was all of this description really mission-critical? Did we need quite so many motivations for quite so many characters? I was forgetting characters faster than the story was developing. I was also approaching the book’s halfway point and not at all scared yet. Around this time I was home for the holidays and mentioned all this to my brother. He didn’t remember the Newton anecdote, but did shed a bit of new light on it: “Well, the other thing you should know about Newton is that he did a lot of drugs.”
Still, I’d made it this far, so I soldiered on. In a way that I imagine avid readers and novel marathoners will find a bit cute or pathetic, my long quest to trudge through this epic felt parallel to the quest of protagonists Bobbi and Gard to unearth the enormous buried flying saucer—in both cases, we were propelled forth, straight through our better judgment, by an insatiable need to know. Now that I’m all the way through it, knowing is my reward. That’s as much as Bobbi and Gard got out of it, and I might even get to keep my body and mind intact.
My conclusions? Well for one thing, it all seems a little serendipitous; we’re a week and a half away from the presidential inauguration and, it would seem, the dawn of a new nuclear arms race. This seemingly inevitable manifestation of mankind’s folly is one of the most central themes of the book, which was first published just as the (last) Cold War was drawing to a close. I suspect that the book is more relevant now than it had been at any point in the last twenty-eight years.
Related but distinct from the anti-nuclear theme is the book’s satirical mockery of household gadgetry, which I’m sure seemed locked in its own arms race in 1988—right smack in the middle of Japan’s economic bubble period, in which the technological world seemed overwrought with constant incremental one-upping, in which we saw typewriters replaced by word processors, Atari replaced by Nintendo. The book seems to speak from a higher plane of truth, poking fun at humans and their ceaseless, ultimately pointless obsession with the “New and Improved.” One day human beings will evolve into hyper-intelligent, psychic lifeforms, it predicts, and you won’t BELIEVE how good our television sets will be. You won’t BELIEVE our Salad Shooters. The killer vacuum cleaners and killer smoke detector drones somehow seem extra relevant in this age of “smart” home appliances and…killer drones.
And that brings me to the book’s tone. As I’d started to suspect by around the midway point, the book proved far too funny to be scary. The scariest thing about it was the knowledge that it was derived to some degree from real life—that mankind’s obsession with “progress” nearly did wipe out the whole world in the goddamn eighties, and outlook hasn’t really improved much since. But the prevailing emotion with which I walk away from The Tommyknockers is…”fun.” There’s a strong vein of sardonic humor running through the story, and the protagonist Gard is a delightful anti-hero, bumbling, crashing, puking, and bleeding through all three acts like an alcoholic, pacifist John McClane. He embodies a hypothesis we’ve all seen elsewhere in one place or another: that when society collapses, the social pariahs will be our only hope.
That aside, there’s a sort of cruelty—almost vulgarity—that comes through in the moment-to-moment narration, which I suspect is a Stephen King signature. It certainly serves the more brutal scenes well, rubbing salt in each wound the instant it is inflicted. But while I did wince quite a few times, never did I feel fear, per se.
So no, The Tommyknockers did not make me sleep with the lights on. It was a fun, allegorical sci-fi romp which took a hokey trope like a flying saucer (a cornball term the book fully embraces) terrorizing a sleepy American town, and somehow actually made me give a damn. By around page 400, I stopped wondering when the scares were coming altogether. By around page 730, it dawned on me that I might’ve had the wrong book. But by then I was invested, and the last seventeen pages were a breeze.
- From the Wikipedia article: The novel was written during the height of King’s experiences with his own addictions and is filled with metaphors for the stranglehold of substance abuse. In an interview with Rolling Stone, King acknowledged that the quality of his writing suffered during his period of drug use, saying, “The Tommyknockers is an awful book. That was the last one I wrote before I cleaned up my act.”
- As is tradition, the miniseries adaptation looks truly awful. But it might fall in the so-awful-it’s-fun category. To be fair, the story doesn’t lend itself very well to TV or film; half the dialogue is communicated telepathically, and the central antagonist is–no joke–the air.