There is a great mystery at the heart of Dreamcatcher, and it is this: I have no idea how it ended up on my e-reader. I didn’t buy it. Nobody gifted it to me. I’m not a King aficionada so it’s not as if it got lost in my enormous collection. But anyway: there it was, and for reasons that are entirely beyond me, I decided to give it a try.
Let me preface this by saying I’d never read a Stephen King novel, so I have no material for comparison. I vaguely remember watching the 2003 film, though. Yes, it’s every bit as terrible as you’ve heard, if only because it’s a criminal waste of Timothy Olyphant. Thing is, I’m not sure I liked the book much better, though it does have its redeeming values.
So, for the uninitiated, this is what happens: four friends, each connected through some sort of ESP-network, go out hunting. Strange things happen in the woods. There’s a mysterious red-golden fungus; a homicidal top secret army commander named – what else – Kurtz; extreme flatulence, and overly toothy things named Shitweasels; an alien named Mr. Grey; and a memory palace. The entire novel reads like an X-Files episode – an overly long one, and not one of the better ones. King doesn’t shy away from the comparisons either; in fact, the show’s mentioned once or twice.
I used to love The X-Files, but the main reason I loved it was Dana Scully and her zero-tolerance policy towards bullshit. This book could have done with a dose of agent Scully or two (also because there are hardly any women in it, and the ones who do make it are either vapid killing machines or of the 1950s housewifey persuasion). King famously wrote it after surviving a gruesome accident while he was doped up on various analgesics, which explains the vagueness of the plot as well as the weird, overly toothy shitweasels. Most types of pain medication cause wicked constipation; shitweasels are things that gestate in the hosts’ colons, causing enormous flatulence until they bite their way out the stage door. It’s easy to see where King got the inspiration from. I’m all for autobiographical influences; I’m just not sure I like them this prozaic.
However, this is a minor quibble; the novel’s got bigger problems. For one, there are the characters. The book takes its time setting the stage for our four heroes; we see them as children, when they rescue a young boy with Down’s syndrome called Duddits from a pair of bullies; and as adults, being disappointed in life through various circumstances. One of the criticisms often levelled at King is that his work is always about a group of childhood friends from Maine; I didn’t mind it so much here, but the characters spend so little time together as adults that it’s hard to get a sense of how they work as a group. For all their differences, they’re remarkably interchangeable too. Henry and Jonesy, the brains of the group, are so similar that I sometimes forgot who was who (they were played by Tom Jane and Damian Lewis in the film, respectively, and only when I started picturing these actors in my head did I manage to tell them apart). Their characters are defined by the problems they experience, but by and large they’re interchangeable. In fact, the only character who really sticks out is the psychotic Kurtz, but he’s so over-the-top that it’s hard to take him seriously. The book is also overly long; there’s a car chase that drags on forever and while I understand the idea of building tension, this takes at least two hundred pages more than it needed. And then there’s Duddits, the group’s childhood friend. This might just be me but I didn’t care for the characterisation very much; the whole Down’s-Syndrome-With-A-Heart-Of-Gold-And-Special-Powers-thing is trite and offensive. There’s a scene written from Duddits’ point of view that’s downright painful to read.
Nevertheless, I did sort of enjoy reading this book. For all his reputation as a pulp writer, King has a way with prose that I quite liked. It flows along nicely, there are no extraneous flourishes, yet the pictures he paints are vivid and clear. And the Alien, Mr. Grey, is an unsettling figure who becomes increasingly psychotic as he transforms from emotionless soldier to half-alien, half-human hybrid.
King himself has said that he regrets writing the book, and that it’s not his best. I’m willing to believe that and, despite the flat characters and the overinflated plot, I liked Dreamcatcher enough to give him another try (and if anybody has a recommendation, I’ll be happy to hear it), but until then…