Thursday, July 24, 2014

BEYOND FEAR and a review of MR. MERCEDES

I have a new book out, called BEYOND FEAR, which devotes quite a few pages to the worldview of Stephen King.  Here’s the problem: In a way, the book is already outdated.  It charts the evolution of King’s personal beliefs from the publication of his earliest short stories (at the age of 13!) to the publication of DOCTOR SLEEP in 2013.  But, as King’s Constant Readers know, DOCTOR SLEEP has already been succeeded by a new novel (MR. MERCEDES) and the promise of another one in the fall of 2014 (REVIVAL). 

When I sat down to read MR. MERCEDES, I had read one advance review of the book.  The reviewer said, intriguingly, that if he hadn’t looked at the cover he wouldn’t have known this novel was written by Stephen King.  Now that I have read MR. MERCEDES for myself, I beg to differ.  I assume that the reviewer was surprised that there are no supernatural elements in MR. MERCEDES. Perhaps he was surprised that it is more of a detective-thriller than a horror novel, and that it is set in Middle America rather than New England.  Or maybe it was the blatant setup for a sequel that threw him off.  (Until recent years, King has avoided sequels to his own work.)

But King started consciously veering away from supernatural horror a long time ago, beginning in earnest with MISERY.  When he finished NEEDFUL THINGS around 1990, he said that it would be his last supernatural horror novel.  He was wrong, obviously, and some of his strongest work in recent years has been in the supernatural horror mode.  But King has also continued to write the type of naturalistic, “literary” fiction that once defined his alter ego Richard Bachman. 

At first, I thought MR. MERCEDES was going to be more of a Bachman book.  The prologue, set in the economic lowlands of the Great Recession, sounds a note of spirit-crushing despair that is common in the early Bachman novels, as well as the works of two of King’s literary idols: John Steinbeck and James M. Cain.  The big-hearted hero William Hodges, however, is pure Stephen King—almost a stock character in the years since BAG OF BONES.  Ditto the hero’s two quirky sidekicks, who reminded me of Roland’s fellow gunslingers in THE DARK TOWER. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because MR. MERCEDES is, like THE DARK TOWER, a kind of good vs. evil story – which is something that King does very well. 

As with THE STAND, the author divides his time between the hero and the villain – in this case, Bill Hodges vs. Brady Hartsfield.  Hodges is a detective, a consummate professional dedicated to protecting and serving.  His most powerful weapon, however, is not a gun.  It’s his intuition.  At one point in the story, the author’s affinity with his main character is revealed by a passage where the detective reaches a dead end in his investigation.  This would never happen in most works of detective fiction, because most writers in the genre carefully outline their plots in advance… but King has never believed in outlines.  He believes in intuition and inspiration. 

So Hodges responds to his immediate crisis by going to bed—because, King writes, “that’s how you open the door so the right idea can come in.  The right idea always arrives as a result of the right connection, and there is a connection waiting to be made.  He feels it.”  King trusts the story to reveal itself, and in this instance he is rewarded.  King’s Constant Readers will be pleased that MR. MERCEDES is a much more satisfying story than, say, INSOMNIA or BLACK HOUSE…. which leads me to believe that the author simply had to finish THE DARK TOWER series before he could effectively return to naturalistic writing.

The other half of the story profiles the mind of a sociopath.  Brady’s thoughts reveal the inscrutable black hole that opens itself whenever any person surrenders himself or herself to the (perhaps supernatural) forces of intuition, inspiration, imagination.  King’s most powerful rumination on this particular idea may be LISEY’S STORY, but for those readers find it easier to believe in (and be scared by) real-world horror, MR. MERCEDES is a nerve-rattling variation on the theme.  King thoroughly humanizes his antagonist, but without making him too sympathetic. Brady is easy to understand, but not to forgive.  He may not be as instantly memorable as Randall Flagg or Pennywise the Clown, but he seems just as real as Charles Starkweather or the 9/11 hijackers, and is therefore plenty scary. 

Brady's philosophy of life is simple and terrifying: “The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters.  Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar.  That’s all history is: Scar tissue.”  King’s best fiction has repeatedly contemplated this possibility.  The author’s work, as a whole, suggests that our world is full of creators and destroyers, all doing what they have to do in order to feel alive in the face of death.  The embodiments of these two forces are engaged, sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly, in a grand battle for the future of human civilization.  Who will win – the creators or the destroyers?   

As King’s promise of a MR. MERCEDES sequel suggests, there is no definitive answer.  The end of every story is the beginning of another story, and the battle wages on.  As long as King keeps fighting this fight, honestly and insightfully, I'll keep reading.

1 comment:

  1. this was such a great book,,,,, I was hooked on this novel , right from the start,,,,, once again, Stephen King, has shown his CR's, that he writes well in detective, crime, stories, as well. Great Job, SK.