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Book Review: Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher

by Mark D. Johnson
August 12, 2001

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Pop Fiction with Style_Mark D. Johnson-Book Review: Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher I would not call myself a Stephen King fan. After all, this was only the first novel of his that I’ve ever read. He is, of course, the undisputed master of the horror genre, and one of the most popular authors among the living (and the dead?). Yet he, along with horror writers in general, is not taken too seriously among the literary cognoscenti despite his attempts in recent years to venture out into new territory. He gets into areas that are a bit too immature, too low-brow, for “serious” authors and their serious readers, and I admit that I readily allowed that stigma to give me reason to avoid Stephen King. The thing that convinced me to overcome my reluctance and try one of his novels was a short story of his published earlier this year in the New Yorker. Lo and behold: the man has talent. Actually, that doesn’t come as a total surprise. I did enjoy several movies made from his less-horrific writings: Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, to name a few. There was never any question that the guy can make your hair stand on end and keep you in suspense. The question was whether or not he could do it artfully. Now, after reading Dreamcatcher, I believe the answer is “yes,” with room for improvement, but I doubt he will garner much respect from English professors as long as his stories remain steeped in the paranormal.

I picked up Dreamcatcher because it seemed to revolve around four men, friends since childhood, thinking it would perhaps recall the Stand By Me elements of boyhood friendship that I enjoyed, and indeed, there is some of that in here. Little did I know that their yearly hunting trip in the Maine woods would be interrupted by an invasion of telepathic aliens. Sci-fi-phobic readers will no doubt roll their eyes at this, but I think most people would appreciate the sentimental portions of the book, particularly those surrounding the character Duddits. The presence of both vivid tenderness and shocking horror in King’s writing is a fascinating and powerful combination. (Out of respect for those who might still want to read this book with a sense of discovery, I will not summarize the plot any further.) This is his first novel since he was hit and severely injured by a moving vehicle while walking along the side of a road, and a lot of the pain he experienced during his recovery found its way into this novel, which was written entirely by hand.

Upon finishing the book, I went to amazon.com to see what avid King fans thought about it on the site’s visitor reviews. While the majority said they liked it overall, most reviewers were disappointed. It paled in comparison with some of his beloved classics like The Tommyknockers and It, and the most common complaint was that it bore too much resemblance to his past work. Apparently, even the main characters seemed to be right out of previous material. The book was promoted as a return to his roots after some recent experimentation, including his prior novel, Bag of Bones (1998), but while fans craved more hard-core spine-tingling horror, they didn’t just want more of the same. In a sense, though, they were also saying that it wasn’t close enough to the old formula.

The story is told in three nearly equal parts. The first part is the scariest and most mysterious, and therefore the most fun to read. King makes wonderful use of flashbacks, connecting the past to the current situation, all the while developing characters and carefully divulging a complicated mystery on a need-to-know basis. In Part Two, the novel takes a turn, leaving die-hard fans behind, scratching their heads. (Many reviewers admitted to putting the book down for good about half-way through – at 600-plus pages, it’s apparently a little too long for those with deficient attention spans.) While the action does not accelerate at the same rate as Part One, this may be where King’s growth as a writer is most evident, particularly as it involves an altered state of one of the main characters. The concept, while difficult to grasp intellectually, was handled in such a way that was easy to follow (and could more easily be portrayed in a film version). Also, in Part Two, we get a sense of how insightful King is in regard to the human mind. The book’s inside flap declares that Dreamcatcher, “more than anything, is about how men remember and how they get their courage.” While that struck me as silly at first, it might actually be true. Part Three is a typical thriller conclusion, filled with suspense, which is why it was hardest to put the book down toward the end. An epilogue was added to tie up loose ends, but I can’t say it answered all my questions. I just didn’t get some things, but that didn’t bother me for some reason. It was simply a good, entertaining read, and I guess I just didn’t take it seriously enough to care all that much about the plausibility.

Indeed, many of the elements are surprisingly familiar. With all the aliens and government conspiracies abounding, you almost expect agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” to show up, and King alludes to the show by name a couple of times, perhaps in winking acknowledgement of the similarity – sort of a pre-emptive strike against that criticism. (I would argue, however, that “X-Files” is more in debt to Mr. King than vice versa.) Alien invasions are so common these days in movies and television, but who are we to say that Stephen King should therefore stay away from the topic? He puts his own brand on it and outclasses most of the competition.

One writer who enjoys a popularity similar to King’s is Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park. Crichton, like King, churns out enjoyable page-turners that become instant bestsellers, but clearly King is the superior writer, whereas Crichton has the edge in plausibility and scientific knowledge. They might both fit into a genre that could be called “Pop Fiction,” comparable to Pop Music, but King’s “lyrics” have more meat to them than Crichton’s. Don’t go looking for too much substance, but do appreciate the style.

Dreamcatcher may not be his best – I can’t speak to that – but what we have in this book are some memorable characters, a good measure of scariness (though not enough for some), a sometimes casual, sometimes wistful narrative in fine craftsmanship, plenty of humor and nostalgia, a heavy dose of profanity, and a decent plot. It will never be defined as classic literature, and it was never intended to be, of course, but Stephen King has proved himself to me to be much more than a run-of-the-mill horror writer. I wouldn’t mind if he abandoned the horror genre altogether. Then he could really get interesting.

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