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March 03, 2006

Desperation - Stephen King

I always used to read my Stephen King books in order of publication. Somewhere along the line I started to get behind. Recently I've been tempted to read a few of the newer ones, and I've been a bit disappointed by them. But my plan was always to go back, and so last week I picked up Desperation off the shelf and dived in.

I love not knowing anything about a book before I start. I completely avoid reading the blurb on the back if I can. I think, in terms of suspense, thriller and horror books particularly, that when you know for example that this is a 'vampire' book, your experience is lessened. You start right away thinking that each odd occurrence is probably a vampire, or every strange person is a blood sucking beast. Your mind is already tunnelling towards a conclusion, and is not open to the other possibilities, dead ends, traps and red herrings that the author has worked hard sometimes to create. When I was at school I used to regularly check the US best-seller lists in Time magazine. Every time a new King novel was released, it went in there obviously, and I pre-ordered it at the library without knowing anything about it. Maybe six months would pass before a UK publication date, and I'd be first in town to get it. Everyone knows nowadays when the book 'Christine' is about, but I had no idea when I opened it. If you haven't heard about it, then go to a bookshop and read the first three pages; it's deliciously clever writing in my opinion.

So, Desperation was a surprise for me, just a picture of a black bird flying across the sky on the cover. No clues really at all. If you like your reading experiences that way, then go no further here.

Desperation is the name of a small mining town in the desert, miles from the main highway, almost competely cut off from normal civilisation. It's also the state of mind that our heros find themselves experiencing in a dramatic fight for their lives. The novel starts several days after things have started to go wrong in Desperation. A seemingly random collection of people are arrested while driving along the highway by a huge cop, and driven back to be put in jail. The violence is appalling, they think he is simply a serial killer, but he's not even normal enough for that to be true.

Realising that they are not likely to survive, the men, women, and a boy called David, manage to escape from the jail. They play a cat and mouse with their former captor, but he seems to be able to command the buzzards, jackals, scorpions and snakes. These creatures, and a mysterious storm, and a blocked road, keep them from leaving town. Obviously, it all builds up to a final showdown.

The writing is great, the characters are as usual very real and believable. Everyone reacts to the horrific things they see and experience as you might expect. If you like your gore there is plenty here to make you squirm, this is really X rated stuff. But as the story progresses, it all gets a bit mystical. David has ongoing conversations with God, who tells him what to do, and even performs miracles for him.

I like suspending my sense of disbelief to allow me to enjoy the kind of 'monsters in the dark' that horror gives us. Somehow though, putting the real biblical God into this story made me think of it as more like an old testament bible tale, rather than a modern piece of entertainment. God is a cruel God, this is the tenet on offer here, and allows horrible things to happen to nice people, often. And God moves in mysterious ways, which means that facts get revealed piecemeal. Why can't God just tell someone what to do right at the beginning, instead of revealing himself in confusing dreams, and giving people odd feelings. A strong character suddenly has a Road to Damascus moment when God pops into his head near the end of the story, and suddenly their whole character changes. I hated that.

So even though I enjoyed reading this a lot, and some of the passages make really compelling and memorable reading, I have to judge it as three quarters of a good book. I'm nearly always disappointed by the endings that King comes up with, and this one is really no different. What was the evil lurking in the quarry at Desperation? Well never really know for sure.

Update: So they've finally made a movie of this book, albeit a TV Movie. Still, it should be good and scary.

Posted by se71 at March 3, 2006 10:58 AM


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