Since I foresee this running long, I’ll kick things off with a more up-front assessment before I let myself succumb fully to the urge to blather on with only a vague aim in mind. After giving the matter a great deal of thought, Stephen King is now no longer a member of my personal Mount Rushmore. Soon after expanding my so-named Holy Trinity (King, Adams, Vonnegut) to a Holy Quadrinity with the inclusion of Rainbow Rowell, it’s been knocked back down to a Holy Trinity, and Mr. Mercedes is what dealt the conclusive blow.
Though it and Doctor Sleep only served to confirm what I’d already suspected yet refused to admit to myself, that it was premature of me to carve his face into my Mount Rushmore when I’d only read what amounted to a small fraction of his work. If you’re as prolific as King is, and aren’t totally devoid of talent, you’re bound to hit on one here and there. My favorite musician, Devin Townsend, invited his fans to lend their voices to an upcoming release, and though I’m admittedly a rather unrefined singer, with countless repetitions and a little luck I was able to record one take worthy of sending in; similarly, while King might be found somewhat lacking in writing proficiency, he’s talented enough that, with as many shots as he takes, one is bound to go in every now and again.
The more books of his I read, the surer I became of this assessment. I went from gleefully optimistic at the thought of having so much still left unread to wondering if the next book would be another one I don’t have either the patience or determination to finish, such as Under the Dome. In the two years since I read 11/22/63, I’ve found only one more book of his, new or old, that I connected with like I did with that: Dolores Claiborne. I called this man my favorite author and, during a two year span in which the number of his books I read or tried to read had to have been in the double digits, I handed out two 5s, two 4s (The Green Mile and Gerald’s Game), and couldn’t finish more than those combined. Anyone would tell you those two things don’t jive with one another, but I carried on deluding myself into thinking otherwise.
Then came Doctor Sleep, a book I, like many others, thought was an April Fool’s joke at first. Up until this point, the only sequels he’d ever written were for a designed series (The Dark Tower) and Black House, which he wrote with Peter Straub as a sequel to their earlier collaboration (The Talisman), and now he was going to sequelize a 30+ year old horror classic, the book he’s arguably known for best of all, undeniably one of his most iconic? People remarked on the timing of Pixar’s Monsters University and Toy Story 3, the two of them 12 and 11 years distanced, respectively, from the films they were building upon, yet compared to Doctor Sleep, those were practically released simultaneously with what came before.
Moreover, it was by no means asking for a sequel. There were no cries for more, like there were people, say, wanting to see Boo all grown up so desperately that they fooled themselves and everyone else into thinking that one girl in Toy Story 3 was her, until Pixar themselves shot that theory down. None that I heard or saw, that is. The Shining, I feel, said all that needed to be said on its subject matter. The book was a complete and perfect picture of the harms of alcoholism, and substance abuse as a whole, which King himself famously battled with. The movie is the quintessential haunted house (or, in this case, hotel) story. What story was there left to tell?
Danny’s, apparently, which goes about how you’d expect it to based upon real life statistics and the rehashing that usually goes on in sequels: he becomes both Doctor Sleep‘s version of his father (an alcoholic) and Dick Hallorann (a mentor to another kid with no idea of the power she has). It really is an amped up version of The Shining. The “alcohol is bad, y’all” message is dialed up to 11, the wunderkind Danny’s given to mentor is even more powerful (and precocious…), and the danger factor is heightened, with Danny and this kid, as far as we can tell, hopelessly outnumbered. Sequels should say or do something new and Doctor Sleep doesn’t. All it is King repeating himself and stumbling over his words as he does it; even The True Knot are just King does vampires again… with a slight twist.
In short, Doctor Sleep was an ominous sign; however, since it was a sequel, which for him is an anomaly, I thought perhaps it would turn out to be an anomaly in a second sense and he’d be right back to his old self with Mr. Mercedes, his next original work. Plus, we’re talking about an author who’s created many of horror’s most iconic villains, from Pennywise to Annie Wilkes, and Mr. Mercedes promised us a villain worthy of their company. He even put out videos with those same villains speaking on the subject of Mr. Mercedes, trying to build this killer up. I didn’t watch them because I disapproved of that whole idea – let others draw those comparisons, because if you do and he doesn’t live up to them, people will cry foul – but they still heightened my curiosity even further.
Except, when I finally did start on Mr. Mercedes and receive a proper introduction, I couldn’t help but, as I said above, “cry foul.” King’s best villains, like Randall Flagg, are literally evil personified, whereas Brady is a sniveling little piss stain not even deserving of a cool nickname. At best, he’s a second-rate King Joffrey, someone with an unreasonably high opinion of himself who throws his weight around as if he’s Andre the Giant when, in reality, he’s a pest, a freaking cockroach. He’s the alien who comes for Finn in Callahan’s Secret, using a constant stream of bullshit to distract Hodges and the others from the fact that his best laid plans (SPOILER ALERT) can be blown apart (pun intended) in mere moments by a teenager (“… and I would’ve gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids!”) and a woman who’s not all there mentally (END SPOILER ALERT).
I spoke critically of The True Knot after seeing how quickly and easily they were defeated, but compared to Brady, they provided an epic showdown. If The True Knot are the final boss, Brady is one of those chickens in Ocarina of Time where, even if you push him around enough to set him off (pun, once again, intended), he’s still no real threat unless you just stand there and let him peck you to death.
Sure, he fancies himself a criminal mastermind, but the real reason he got away with his first crime, the one that gave him his name, was luck, which even he seems to realize on some level because, throughout the book, he remarks on how easily things could’ve gone cock-up, like his final plan does even before Hodges’ minions come to save the day while he (SPOILER ALERT) sits in the wings, experiencing what might be the most drawn out possible heart attack ever put to page. You read right, our protagonist, our Ahab, doesn’t even get to bring down his personal white whale. In the final moments, he becomes a spectator. (END SPOILER ALERT).
Handled properly, a character like Brady can be compelling (see the aforementioned King Joffrey), but I couldn’t even muster a healthy dislike of Brady. Any anger he inspired was a result of King doing something wrong as opposed to right. He’s a bundle of cliches. His mom’s a barely functioning drunk who he lives with. He’s a techie. He drives the local ice cream truck, which is both one small step away from the stranger in a van handing out candy to kids and an obvious ploy to give him the unassuming, hiding in plain sight angle. He hates everyone equally, minus his mother (who he gets all Oedipal with), but is racist and sexist especially. He has the tragic back story that kind of, sort of explains what made him this way, though (SPOILER ALERT) as is his fashion, he tries to make it out to be more than it was, hinting that he murdered his brother when, in fact, it wasn’t even a Walter White/Jane Margolis-type situation (END SPOILER ALERT). Oh, and he’s the definition of unpredictable. One minute he’s running people down in a Mercedes, the next he’s driving people to suicide, the next he’s considering suiciding himself, etc. I know some people really are that schizophrenic with their actions, but here it just felt like King yelling “he so crazy!” at me through the book. Any more boxes you want to check off while you’re at it, King?
No, you have one more cliche in you, but you’re going to save that for your other main character, Hodges, the retired detective who – surprise! – is contemplating suicide. But he doesn’t drink, because that would be cliche, which you even reference, as if to act like that alone makes him not a cliche. Except that’s not even the worst part about his character. No, that would be the fact that his lawn boy is a black teenager who, despite being quite the scholar, regularly insists upon speaking to Hodges as if he’s a slave and Hodges is his “massah” (yes, he actually calls him that), and the fact that Hodges also does his own impression of this slave-talk. Isn’t subtle, off-hand racism is the best kind!?
Just about as bad, though, is Hodges’ whirlwind, short-lived romance. The early stages read like the opening to a bad porno, and the entire thing felt more plot- than character-driven. Just as (SPOILER ALERT) Brady’s mom randomly sneaks (poisoned) food out of his fridge (while drunk) (END SPOILER ALERT) something we’re told she’d never done before that moment, because King needed to inspire Brady to seek revenge (SPOILER ALERT) for something that was only tangentially Hodges’ fault, and more Brady’s own fault (END SPOILER ALERT), Hodges seems to fall in love just so she can be imperiled, the stakes can be increased, and Hodges can become more motivated.
Likewise, of course that mentally unwell woman and Hodges’ lawn boy are both computer whizzes, since that’s as good and convenient a way as any for Hodges to track Brady down and stop him. I almost thought Hodges was going to have to do some actual detective work in this book. Going based off of the stabs he takes at it, I had to laugh at the idea that this guy was once a well-respected and -recognized detective, thought to be one of the best. Maybe by the standards of the Miami Metro Police Department on Dexter, which gets a mention in this book, doing King even less favors than his comparisons to his previous villains. Like those comparisons, Brady simply cannot match up. And it got me thinking about how much like the unspeakably bad latter-day Dexter this book was. Were King to reveal he wrote those final four seasons, as well as the most recent book, I would believe it in an instant, because Dexter’s Final Cut and Mr. Mercedes feel eerily alike, now that I think about it, and I don’t just say that because I hated both.
I say that because, in both cases, it felt like an author desperately trying to recapture what made him famous in the first place and falling monumentally (yet another pun intended) short. When I hear people talking about this and Doctor Sleep as a return to form for King, I wonder what sort of bizarro world I’ve entered into. Me disagreeing with the majority is nothing new, but with King, if you were to chart my feelings on him and everyone else’s, the two charts would be mirror images of one another, and that is one strange coincidence. You have other Cannonballers citing Mr. Mercedes as an example of a late-career resurgence for King, yet here I am calling it essentially the last nail in his coffin (for me), while before I was hailing Duma Key and Lisey’s Story as possibly his two best works at the same time as just about everyone lese was raining shit down upon them. It’s to the point that I might have to start modeling my expectations on the opposite of whatever the consensus is for each of his books from here on out.
Still, despite all this negativity, I do continue to hold out hope for Revival, if only because how perfect would that be, what I feel to be King’s “revival” having it in the title? But if it ends up being as much of a failure as his last two, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to get excited for a new King book again.