Stephen King: Demon hack or Dickensian savant? If his new twin novels -- which arrive in bookstores today by the groaning truckload -- are any indication, King remains more than a little of each. Not that he hasn't made, in recent years, a valiant stab at mainstream literary credibility. King cut the gore quotient in "Dolores Claiborne" and several other novels, and he's deftly tried his hand at Dickensian serialization in his six-part paperback novel "The Green Mile." The old-fashioned Emperor of Scream is back in "Desperation" and "The Regulators," however. These are massive books that have the grandiose arc of early King epics like "The Stand," as well as high body counts and plenty of atmospherics along the lines of popped eyeballs and exploding heads.
Both of these books deal, to a greater or lesser extent, with an incarnation of evil called Tak, which is unleashed when humans start digging in places they shouldn't. Trapped underground for a millennia, Tak is accidentally released by a malevolent mining company that's raping the environment. What does Tak want? That's the question Johnny Marinville, a Harley-driving novelist who's seeking redemption, asks in "Desperation," which is by far the stronger of these two books. (There's a reason King dragged his old pseudonym back for "The Regulators.") "To get out of its hole in the ground and stretch its legs? Eat pork rinds? Snort cocaine and drink Tequila Sunrises? Screw some NFL cheerleaders? Ask Bob Dylan what the lyrics to 'Gates of Eden' really mean? Rule the earth? What?" This is typical King prose, shot through with broad humor and lowbrow cultural allusions. The answer to this question is supplied by young David -- another of King's child-messiahs -- who answers ominously: "It doesn't matter... All that matters is what God wants." And it's clear that what God wants is for them to seal Tak back up in the hole it crawled out of.
These novels play off of each other in multiple ways, beginning with their dust jackets. (When you hold the books together, the cover drawings merge into one large image.) Many of the same characters appear, in slightly different guises, in each. The novelist Johnny Marinville plays a large role in both books, for example. In "The Regulators," he has managed to save his flagging career by writing children's books. In "Desperation," he attempts to save it by turning to non-fiction. (He heads out on his hog for a coast-to-coast trip to write a book whose working title is "Travels With Harley.") Another example: The Carver family in "The Regulators" includes father David, mother Kirstie, son Ralph, and daughter Ellie. The Carver family in "Desperation" switches them around: father Ralph, mother Ellie, son David, daughter Kirstie.
King recycles his prose as well as his characters. In "The Regulators," he writes that "after almost fifteen years, when their only communication had been through lawyers, Johnny and the former Theresa Marinville had commenced a cautious dialogue, sometimes by letter, mostly on the phone." Here are the same two characters in "Desperation": "After five years during which their only communication had been through lawyers, they had begun a cautious dialogue, sometimes by letter, more often by telephone."
King is clearly tinkering with the shifty nature of identity in these books, and he recently told Publisher's Weekly he's testing the idea of using characters as a kind of "repertory company." But neither this repertory company, nor this repertory prose, seems very striking or original.
King's knack for turning the stray junk of pop culture into sick, darkly engrossing thrills has rarely been this much in evidence. In a spin on the television series "American Gothic," where a sheriff who's tight with Satan terrorizes a small Southern town, "Desperation" begins with a cop who brutalizes random tourists passing by the town of Desperation, Nevada. And in "The Regulators," King takes a child's interest in a cartoon show, featuring futuristic vans, called "MotoKops 2200," and turns it into very non-animated horror.
"What do you see when you turn out the light?" King once asked, in a spin on the Beatles' song lyric. The answer: "I can't tell you, but I know it's mine." King still manages to skillfully turn out that light better than anyone in contemporary horror writing. He's back on semi-solid turf in "Desperation" and "The Regulators," books you'll probably love if you're an aficionado -- but if not, not.