King’s latest is a good 700 pages shorter than my last read of his The Stand but it is no lesser work. It is part ode to conspiracy theories, comment on small town American and the growing role of big government in 2020. He really has distilled a gem of a novel laced with the tension which builds right up to the thrilling denouement.
The narrative arc takes us into the Main woods but first we are thrust into the small town (probably an overstatement) of DuPray, South Carolina. Tim Jamieson’s story takes off (not literally) as he decides to disembark a scheduled Delta flight which would have taken him safely back to New York. Instead of history turning on a dime this time- Great events turn on small hinges. Hitch-hiking up the eastern seaboard brings him to the quaint town where he takes up the comfortably mundane task of Night knocker. (It sounds sexier than it is- from what we gather it involves checking the businesses and homes are locked away safely for the night)
The Smart Kid
Meanwhile, the story’s other hero Luke is kidnapped and taken to The Institute. It is there we spend the bulk of the novel. I found myself longing to find out what was going on with Tim but in classic King style the suspense is ratcheted up and before long the various threads start to be woven together. The action accelerates and soon the two are enmeshed in a nightmarish scenario; Luke battling to escape the Institute and its network which has tentacles everywhere while Tim comes to his aid.
There are many well-worn King themes at play here: Each of the
resisdents inmates has either TP-telepathic or TK- telekinetic powers some through a series of horrifying experiments at the hands of the Institutes staff will develop both. King cut his teeth on this topic in Firestarter (1980) which I enjoyed during the night shift offshore it really is a primer for the action here and well worth getting hold of.
Shots for Dots
The gang of children taking on the world is back (see IT) Keisha, Nicky, Helen, Luke and of course little Avery who has the biggest allocation of powers. There are similarities here with the Bill, Georgie, Beverly, Eddie who band together in that to take down the clown Pennywise. In the Institute that evil is wider-the systematic kidnapping of gifted children to train and use them to target people who the state see as legitimate targets.
Amid the Tumble Weeds
DuPray is vividly imagined. We can almost smell the mildew in Norberts dilapidated motel; hear the 19:40 transcontinental bound for Philadelphia rumble by. We may even scratch a little at the thought of Tim resting his head amid the bedbugs while his sleep is disturbed by the black rowing sailors. He ponders why such a place would event exist. King is reflecting here on a wider point about small town America. There are plenty of places in 2020 that only exist because they happen to be home to an Amazon fulfilment centre or a John Deere tractor storage yard.
All the Pieces Matter
The main character pairing of Tim and Luke are right up there (at least for me) with Stu Redman (The Stand) and Bill Denbrough (IT). We empathise with Tim from the get go as he explores DuPray. Even though he has a valid reason for leaving his former post we are left wondering what exactly will he uncover? Surely it can’t just be a case of picking up where his grandfather left off and night knocking his life away. In classic King the incident at the Mall which resulted in Tim handing in his badge and gun foreshadows the gun battle to come. We feel for Tim because of his compassion, he takes to small town life with ease and quickly wins friends. He looks out for each of them whether it be the two young kids looking to escape (more foreshadowing), helping vagrant Annie score her favourite snack or pondering whether one older resident might be down in the dumps enough for suicide. Each character has a role to play, there is no filler here.
Luke is smart but not in your typical know it all-class swot way. He is up there with the best- a real prodigy destined in another life to head to MIT and Emerson not one after another but at the same time. At the start his TK powers are small time- flipping over pizza boxes at a restaurant- no great shakes.
We follow through his eyes into The Institute and scramble along with him as he attempts to figure out a) what is going on and b) how to escape. He soon comes to grips with daily life locked up with the tokenised economy (good behaviour is rewarded (like Pavlovian dogs or rats) with tokens. Like a stretch in Shawshank candy and in Back Half real cigarettes and even alcohol are available all to kids barely out of their short trousers. We watch with horror as the experiments proceed from Vaseline greased thermometers up the backside, to tissue biopsies and worst of all a good long dunk in the immersion tank. King draws pointed comparisons with the same heinous crimes perpetrated at the concentration camps or more recently at Abu Ghraib.
Throughout we root for Luke. He even has his own Andy Dufresne moment squeezing not through a tunnel but under the playground fence and to the sanctuary of the Maine pine forest. Slaking his thirst in the babbling river.
Like all the best King the supporting cast his equally strong:
Mrs Sigsby serves as your evil headmistress e.g Miss Trunchbull (Matilda 1988). She flounders as the site and system she has built begins to fall apart at the seams. The other staff are drawn in rough sketches save the domestic Maureen who partners with Luke to help him reach safety. Her final words… Hell is waiting. I’ll be here to meet you echo throughout the latter third.
Sheriff Ashworth/ John is all you would expect from a jolly plump chief with the FBI Quantico course credentials to boot. ‘You don’t get that for mailing in cereal box-tops’. Tim notes.
There are some blemishes – Tim’s love interest Wendy feels thinly carved. A complaint shared by some critics of The Stand who argue there is a lack of strong female characters there too. For me this is splitting hairs and is more than made up with by the merry band of kids. They quickly realise how dire their situation and instead of squabbling they set about escape through co-operation.
After the thrilling climax subsides we are left wondering: How much power do government agencies have? What schemes like the MK-Ultra days of 50’s are still around today? And lastly what price are we willing to pay to keep America and the world safe?