I should not like The Tommyknockers as much as I do. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine; I can admit it. And perhaps a rating of four stars is a mite generous . . . But, despite rationale, I number this novel among my favorites by King. Why? Because reasons. I’ll explain in a moment.
The Tommyknockers is about Pandora’s box, and what happens once it’s open — and it’s also about failed (missed? unrequited?) love. Our two main characters are Bobbi Anderson, a moderately successful writer of western novels, and Jim Gardener, a published poet and struggling alcoholic. The two are friends, and in the past have been lovers, enemies . . . and everything in between. Their relationship is endlessly intriguing, and it’s what makes this flawed novel work — for me. While walking in the woods behind her home, Bobbi literally stumbles over what turns out to be part of an alien spaceship that has been buried for millennia, and is immediately intrigued. Her dig begins, and soon Jim comes to her after sensing something is wrong with her — wrong with her situation, and perhaps the town of Haven, Maine in general. The story expands out from there.
This is very much a “big” King novel. It feels big. The focus is only on Bobbi and Gardener for the first two hundred pages or so; the perspective is then expanded to include the goings-on of the townsfolk in part two, “Tales of Haven”. It is this section most readers have problems with, I have noticed — and I can’t disagree. While a few of the chapters (specifically the ones that focus on ‘Becka Paulson, Hilly Brown, and Ruth McCausland) do a good job of painting a searing picture of foreboding, others — such as the pages-long chapter about the history of the town’s name that has almost nothing to do with the story — act as speed bumps, and that’s unfortunate; King is at his most inventive here, but he often gets in his own way.
I certainly held this novel in higher esteem before this reread. While some aspects of the story (Jim and Bobbi’s relationship and the many guises it takes, Ev Hillman’s character, the ending) actually improved for me, large chunks of the prose were slogs to get through. I don’t usually accuse King of overwriting, but overwrite he did here. Maybe I am only realizing it now because I’ve been rereading his works in order. After taut, entrancing stories like Misery and Cujo, The Tommyknockers just feels bloated. It’s like comparing 1968 and 1977 Elvis — the talent and goods are still there, but boy… a little weight could stand to be lost.
At its core, this is a white hot story written by a man who seems very, very tired. It’s well-documented that SK was at the height of his drug addiction during the writing of this novel, and it certainly shows. He was a gargantuan success by then, though, and I guess no editor could stand up to the King. He would come back a couple of years later with The Dark Half, a novel that lacks the fat of this one . . . as well as the inventive spark. This one is a hot mess, but it’s a whole lotta fun (and pretty creepy, too!). 3.5 stars rounded up.
King connections (buckle in for a long ride!):
Bobbi Anderson lived in Cleaves Mills (a town that has popped up in several Stephen King novels, most noticeably The Dead Zone) before moving to Haven.
P. 92 – Derry is mentioned. In fact, Derry pops up a lot in this one.
P. 97 – Jim Gardener, when doing a poetry reading, is facing stage fright and fears the audience sucking out his soul, his ka.
Pg. 144 – Jim uses the phrase ‘lighting out for the territories,’ a throwback to The Talisman.
Pg. 150 – Jim wakes up on a beach after a jag, only to run into a teenage boy. He has a conversation with the kid, and is it turns out it’s Jack Sawyer, of The Talisman.
Pg. 159 – Jim hitches a ride in a van with a few druggie teens. One of said teens is named Beaver. Could it be the Beaver who appears in 2001’s Dreamcatcher? I’d say it’s likely. Like that novel, a good chunk of this one is set in Derry. And the timeline seems right. As well, it’s not like the name (or nickname, rather) ‘Beaver’ is very common.
Pg. 265 – The Shop gets a mention, and will become important near the novel’s end. Charlie McGee from Firestarter is referenced in connection to The Shop.
Pg. 476 – David Bright (from the Dead Zone and several short stories) enters the scene.
Pg. 479 – Ev Hillman, Hilly’s grandfather, hears chuckles in the drains of his hotel room in Derry.
Pg. 479 – While in Derry, Ev goes to a local bar and hears the story of The Dead Zone’s Johnny Smith.
Pg. 492 – Starting here, some history of the woods surrounding Bobbi Anderson’s home is given. It is confirmed that the area — once called Big Injun Woods — was populated by the Micmacs, giving this book a firm connection to Pet Sematary.
Pg. 498 – King breaks the fourth wall and has a character hold this opinion: “Bobbi Anderson wrote good old western stories you could really sink your teeth into, not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like that fellow who lived up in Bangor wrote.”
Pg. 735 – When contemplating how to break into Bobbi’s shed, he makes a mental reference to Jack Nicholson’s performance in The Shining — particularly, the infamous “Here’s Johnny!” scene.
Okay . . . Let’s talk about something, shall we? Let’s discuss what universe this novel takes place in, because I’m very sure on a different level of the Tower than most of King’s other stories.
In the Tommyknockers universe, King is an established author, and characters make references to him — and, by association, Peter Straub. At one point, Bobbi asks Jim if he’s ever read Straub’s 1983 novel Floating Dragon. Therefore, it would do to assume that The Talisman, the novel co-written by King and Straub, also exists in this world.
But! Jim runs into Jack Sawyer, the main character from The Talisman, on a beach. They even converse! Very similarly to Father Callahan’s entry into the Dark Tower series despite existing as a book character in that very same world, it looks like Jack (and Stephen King and Peter Straub, I’d assume) exists both as a fictional and real character. Trippy, huh?
It doesn’t stop there. There are references to Derry and Pennywise the Clown all over the place, and any King reader knows how intertwined IT is in the Dark Tower series. Is it safe to say The Tommyknockers is, therefore, Dark Tower-related? Not just in a tangential way, either? I’d say yes, though King has never said so.
And what about The Dead Zone? That novel is referenced here more than any other. Bobbi once lived in Cleaves Mill. David Bright, a reporter from that story, shows up here in a pretty significant way. If one will recall, in a climatic scene in that earlier book a character makes a reference to Brian DePalma’s film Carrie — “This is just like that movie Carrie!” she says, thus, King is breaking the fourth wall and firmly establishing that work of fiction outside the realm of the rest of his stories . . . The Tommyknockers does the same thing. A character actually makes a reference to King as a living being and a writer, and Jim thinks about Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation of The Shining.
But that’s pretty messy, isn’t it? Especially when one considers the fact that The Dead Zone is a Castle Rock story, thus making references made in and to that novel inherently contradictory. Same here; in fact, the references King makes in The Tommyknockers are contradictory in and of themselves, and often work against each other. Is it on purpose? Was he just throwing out random Easter eggs to please the crowd and inflate himself? Maybe it’s a little of both. I don’t know, nor do I pretend to. And I’m sure there are many, many references in this one that I missed, for I took only the briefest of notes.
Alright, now to pull myself out of the rabbit hole and finish this thing . . .
“The trouble with living alone, she had discovered-and the reason why most people she knew didn’t like to be alone even for a little while-was that the longer you lived alone, the louder the voices on the right side of your brain got.”