by Stephen King
I never intended to do a review like this. Part of the philosophy behind this article series was looking at lesser known genre stuff, with no intention to engage with the bestsellers or popular fiction. Yet I want to get back into doing this, if not on the regular, at least occasionally, and I did read Desperation in paperback, and it is genre fiction, so it hits all the basic criteria. More importantly, it’s the last novel I finished reading. A lot of boxes are getting ticked, here.
I am a big fan of the Just King Things podcast and when I saw Desperation in the queue, I remembered that I actually had a copy of the book. I thought I would, for once, read the novel in question before listening to the episode. I went through a Stephen King phase in my early adolescence, as I think so many of us do, but I lost interest in his oeuvre shortly after that. I’ve missed most of his output since then, which means I skipped Desperation when it first came out in 1996 – and as of this writing, have not listened to the podcast episode concerning it.
Desperation is a deceptively long novel with the typical cast of King protagonists, although the setting is far from King’s Maine. The titular Desperation is a mining town in Nevada and like almost all mining towns in the late 20th century, it has fallen on hard times. The mine is virtually played out, although new and modern mining techniques are making the ability to dredge the dregs of minerals that remain more viable. But the town has bigger problems. Well, a bigger problem. There’s something buried under the mine, something ancient and terrible and alien, and it’s been freed by the new mining techniques.
Mostly. It can’t really get out into the world, not directly, but it can take over human beings and control animals. As the novel opens, the one cop left in town is a towering, imposing and utterly mad figure named Collie Entragian, wholly possessed by the ancient thing. He and the animal servants, which include hordes of spiders, scorpions, snakes, and coyotes, have killed or imprisoned almost everyone in town. And now Collie is collecting transients to add to his collection: a married couple, a family of four on vacation, and a past his prime writer crossing the country via motorcycle. The writer’s roadie-slash-partner and a hitchhiker he picks up are also pulled into the drama, each one playing a vital role in how events play out.
The most important role is played by David Carver, a middle-school aged kid with an intense, personal relationship with God. This surprised me, because the Stephen King novels I’m familiar with from my own middle school period were not overtly religious. But in Desperation King really seems to be grappling with God and faith, if not religion, and in particular the seeming cruelty of a god who is presented in the Bible as being a loving and caring caregiver.
This is a strange confluence for me. Casting around for new podcasts to listen to at work, I’ve recently settled on Apocrypals, “where two non-believers read the Bible and try not to be jerks about it,” and Like Trees Walking, a podcast Michael J. Nelson of MST3K/Rifftrax fame does with his pastor. A friend of mine also recently popped up on Facebook after years of radio silence to acclaim the historicity and value of the Bible. Despite all this, I remain firmly in the non-believer camp myself; fascinated by religions and mythology, but disengaged from them. It surprised me to see God show up as a major character in Desperation, not just because it seemed unusual for King, but because it echoed so much other stuff going on around me at the time.
The ruminations on faith with a capital F and the nature of God are interesting, but ultimately come down in pretty much the same place as the Book of Job. This is disappointing, if predictable, but at least make the story stand out a bit. The basic plot is essentially a Call of Cthulhu RPG scenario: there’s an elder god, Entragian is functionally the cult that serves it, there’s a weird and horrible occurrence in a remote rural town, and a band of “investigators” drawn together to deal with it. Layering a religious discussion over all this certainly sets it apart from anything Lovecraft himself ever wrote, although August Derleth probably would have loved it. At least it isn’t the sappy feel-good approach to God that so many modern texts take. King’s God is very much the Old Testament LORD, the guy who sends a fish to swallow Jonah whole when Jonah won’t do God’s bidding, the guy who lays waste to Sodom and Gomorrah, and who hardens Pharoah’s heart repeatedly until the 10th Plague is unleashed.
It’s Stephen King, so of course Desperation is eminently readable. The characters are well drawn, given plenty of anecdotes to flesh them out and provide the illusion of substance, so that you do actually care when they are inevitable thrust into perilous situations. There’s no monsters per se, but there is plenty of horror and eeriness to be had. The recounting of the first time the mine uncovered the elder god during the 19th century is essentially perfect and would have made a fantastic short story in its own right.
I enjoyed Desperation. It’s solid middle period King, rife with all his tics and quirks, but also a display of his skill and mastery of the form.