Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Dark deepening (Mr. Mercedes)

One of the crazy things about living in the current approximation of the sci-fi future envisioned in my youth is that I can pre-order something on Amazon, pay by credit card, and then forget about it because the money which changed hands was so abstract and the goods won’t be obtained until some moment yet to come. And then one day I come home and the latest Stephen King novel is just sitting there waiting for my on the front porch, and it’s like “oh, yeah, right …”

So Mr. Mercedes is the man from Maine’s most recent offering, and I know I use the phrase “review-proof” around here weirdly often in my reviews, but if that phrase didn’t exist we would have to coin it for Stephen King. I liked the book, but then again I’m the archetypal target audience of “superfans who like more or less everything SK puts out” (subcategory: “except non-fiction stuff about the Boston Red Sox, because barf”). It occurs to me that there’s two broad categories of King’s horror/suspense/thriller novels which most people think of as his wheelhouse (which means leaving aside the Dark Tower epic in its own bizarro category, as well as various other odds and ends):

1. Supernatural terror, which includes everything from The Shining to The Stand to Pet Sematary to Under the Dome and 11/22/63

2. Non-supernatural tales of damaged human beings doing more damage, which includes Cujo and the three novellas from Different Seasons they made movies out of (Apt Pupil, Shawshank Redemption and The Body aka Stand By Me) and Misery

Clearly the majority of King’s bibliography, and what people who know him by reputation but have never read a word would recognize, falls into the first category. Vampires and werewolves and ghosts and government experiments gone awry and aliens with psychic powers and all that, stuff which is scary but ultimately not real (that we know of). It seems almost tautological, that a person with a prodigious imagination would primarily focus on imaginary concepts. It’s also, I believe, a matter of mass appeal: for as many horror fans as there are out there in the world, many if not most of them enjoy the escapism of a good scare that comes complete with the reassurance that the events depicted could never happen in real life.

But then what to make of the second category? Despite confining themselves to a slightly more realistic take on storytelling, the non-supernatural novels (and novellas and short stories &c.) always strike me as significantly darker. Self-explanatory enough, I suppose: whether the evil antagonist of a narrative is a malevolent elder god or a vengeful spirit or the one and only Devil himself, it’s something Other, something apart from humanity, which only calls into question our ability to withstand and overcome such adversities. But when the antagonist is a human being, flawed and complicated but still one of us, then the whole story becomes a meditation on the dark side of human nature and how we are our own worst enemies. And that can get pretty grim.

But before we delve too deeply into the grimness, a bit of humor. King has never shied away from referencing his own works, and in fact there’s a great deal of Easter egg interconnectedness among a certain set of novels. Lots of them tie back to the Dark Tower saga, sometimes in mind-meltingly meta fashion, but others simply let the Constant Reader know that certain stories all take place in the same fictional world, with characters making off-hand mentions of strange incidents they’ve heard about, incidents which kick-off or resolve in other novels. As you might guess, mostly these shared references pop up in the supernatural novels, by necessity, because a universe with one monster is probably a universe with many monsters. Mr. Mercedes makes some references to earlier King works, but explicitly as fictional works, because Mr. Mercedes is among the non-supernatural tales. A clown mask, which becomes a piece of evidence at a crime scene, is noted for its resemblance to Pennywise from IT. And an abandoned car surrounded by the police as if it’s going to start on its own and go on the attack brings up comparisons to Christine. Referring to a couple of his own novels from the 80’s isn’t funny, per se, but the joke is that people bring those cultural touchpoints up as artifacts of other media. Nobody mentions the novels, just “that tv miniseries” and “that movie”. Ha ha, nobody actually reads for pleasure anymore, and the most immortality a working novelist can hope for is that of second-hand glory via adaptation. Gallows humor for the publishing industry, and ok maybe that’s pretty grim and dark too after all.

Mr. Mercedes is a story about a retired cop, who never caught an anonymous psychotic who purposefully drove a heavy, high-powered luxury car into a crowd of people, killing eight. The story really kicks in when that psycho reaches out to the cop to taunt and torment him about escaping justice, and the cop rouses himself to action to take the guy down well outside standard law enforcement procedure. And over the course of that battle of wills, getting to know both the hunter and the hunted, the book goes to some pitch black places, both in terms of violence that increases the body count and in terms of psychological pits of hell. So, not everyone’s cup of tea, I grant you. But if you don’t find the subject matter too off-putting, and you enjoy the trademark ways in which King tends to develop characters and plots, it’s right in the middle of the pack for entertainment value. (And clocks in under 450 pages, which is lightning-fast for SK these days.)

The book starts off with the mass vehicular homicide, which is brutal (this is the part where my wife should probably stop reading, and while I’m at it, spoilers for everybody else, too) particularly because it entails the death of a baby, not in graphic gruesome detail but still chillingly conveyed (and referenced repeatedly throughout the rest of the story). At the outset, before the novel really had a fair chance to cast its spell over me, I was a bit worried. Between Under the Dome and Full Dark, No Stars and even as far back as Cell (2006) I’m starting to get the feeling that King is really losing his faith in humanity, not merely interested in exploring the darker recesses of our collective unconscious but convinced that the darkness is all that there is. Devoting an entire book to a hate-fueled misanthropic loner who mows down seven innocent adults plus an infant? Seems like the pursuit of someone washing their hands of the whole human race. And I started kind of wondering, in the back of my head, what exactly I would do if King just kept getting darker and darker with each successive book, and how long I would hold out as an obsessive completist superfan before cutting the cord.

But I’m happy to report that those initial impressions and assessments may have been a tad overblown. In fact, King seems to be taking significant measures to assure his faithful followers that all is not lost. There are several scenes in the novel which could be excised with absolutely no impact on the narrative whatsoever. (A lot of people would probably say that’s abundantly true for every novel King ever wrote past his first three or so, but regardless.) The only purpose those scenes serve is to light candles of faith and hope in the darkness. A monologue delivered by a militantly feminist lesbian about how she actually engaged in dialogue with a Bible-thumper who was harrassing her for her sinful lifestyle, resulting in not quite a breakthrough but something like the beginnings of understanding; a vignette wherein the cop saves a young boy from some bullies on the street and urges the kid to repay the kindness to someone else before the day is done; little random tangents to the main story and all its horrors, tangents to convey the notions that some people do have genuine goodness in them and some positive human connections are still possible in this weary world.

I guess, the point being, don’t try to get inside Stephen King’s head, because he still has the capacity to surprise and to contain multitudes. Also I’m sure his head contains unspeakably hideous little bits of gibbering nightmare fuel, and why would you want to go poking around in that unrefined madness? Just wait for the next book, which is due in six months, like clockwork. Which reminds me, I should probably go pre-order that.

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