Monday, 23 February 2015

Thinner, reviewed by Donna Bond

I chose to review the novel "Thinner" for this project because I vaguely remembered the film starring Robert John Burke. It was a film that had lodged in my brain for reasons other than quality: if 1996 was the year of sophisticated dark humour as epitomised by the likes of Fargo and Trainspotting, Thinner was more a jokey piece of horror kitsch without any real staying power - not even redeemed by the fact that Stephen King himself had a cameo in the film. A single visual image from the movie - that of the face-touching Gypsy, whispering his curse - has survived to permeate pop culture, at least in parodic form. I last saw this referenced in an episode of "Family Guy" where Britney Spears is cursed to become 'thicker'. Troubling stuff.

"Thinner" was also the last novel that King was able to publish under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman before the writer’s true identity was leaked (he went  on to write "The Regulators" in 1996, and "Blaze" in 2007 as Bachman, despite having been ‘outed’). King was trying to see if he could replicate his success with books that didn’t bear his already famous name, and also because, he claimed, “in the early days of my career there was a feeling in the publishing business that one book a year was all the public would accept.” The similarities in style between King and Bachman were noticed by a book seller who later tracked down records at the Library of Congress that identified King as the author of one of the Bachman novels. And so, the battered blue paperback that ended up on my shelf - a seventh edition reprint - bears the King name in large silver-embossed letters.

The novel centres on a lawyer, Billy Halleck, who becomes the subject of a powerful curse after knocking down and killing an old Gypsy woman, Susanna Lemke, as a result of careless driving, and not receiving so much as a slap on the wrist for it from the law. Halleck had been distracted by his wife giving him a hand-job as Susanna Lemke stepped out from between two parked cars into the path of his car.The epitome of fat-cat white American privilege, Billy is married to the nondescript Heidi, with a “pretty” teenage daughter, Linda, and enjoys the good life, living in a nice part of Fairview, and able to afford spa breaks in the luxurious Mohonk mountain resort, as well as all the fast food he can get his hands on. We learn early on that he weighs 259 lbs, modestly tipping into the obese category on the BMI scale. He is well aware that his obesity is his own fault, and that his health is deteriorating. But recently something has happened to change all that. We join the story as Halleck steps on the scales and registers his first loss of a few pounds. Haleck recalls what was said to him outside the courtroom. The patriarch of the group of travelling Gypsies, the ancient and cancer-stricken Taduz Lemke, had turned up to see that justice would be done for Susanna. When the courts had failed to carry out the necessary punishment to fit the crime, the Gypsy had ensured his own vengeance would be meted out instead. And so, the Gypsy had approached Halleck, touched his face and said just one word to him: “Thinner.” And thus was Halleck’s fate sealed. He gradually gets thinner and thinner, going past the point of slim, to scrawny. Unless he can break the curse, it won’t end well.

As the story is written in 3rd person viewpoint, mainly from Halleck’s point of view, there is certainly a degree of sympathy you can share with the cursed protagonist, and this is the key difference between the book and the film. Many critics panned the film and in The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide, Stephen Graham Jones laid the blame for this in the fact that the "mean-spirited film did not have one single likable character." Halleck is more guileless than guiltless though, allowing himself to be twice-cursed through touch, first his wife Heidi’s naughty traffic shenanigans, and then the Gypsy. He is blithe to his own impact on those around him. His practice of law is dodgy by implication and association, as he allies with corruptible law-benders such as the judge Cary Rossington and the Chief of Police who are equally cursed for their part in the failure of Halleck’s prosecution, and who both end up committing suicide. And then there is his friend, Richard Ginelli, the mafia gangster whose sense of fairness is weighted in terms of favours owed, who is no stranger to violence, and who pursues this with sadistic pleasure against the Gypsies. Halleck’s sense of his own self is someone who is innocent by comparison, and it’s hard to ignore this relative innocence when compared with his friend Ginelli.

Such is the power of King’s ability to write convincingly from this character’s point of view, that it is hard not to empathise a little with the weak and suggestible Halleck, and this makes an initial reading of the text very challenging indeed. What are we supposed to think of the Gypsies?

Halleck plays the traffic accident over and over in his mind and it is horrific, replete with gruesome sounds, blood and pain. But disturbingly, Susanna is transformed into a sort of grotesque monster slamming the horror of her death onto Halleck’s bonnet, as though she is the one bringing the nightmare to him. Halleck cannot contain his disgust at the old lady, just for having existed and for being ugly. Her hair is described as being held back by “plastic barrettes” and these childlike hair ornaments are a clue to who Susanna is, though for most of the book, Halleck doesn’t care what relation she is to the rest of the Gypsies, only that she is one of them. At one point a nightmare wakes him to tell him Susanna was Taduz Lemke’s “wife”, hence the old Gypsy will never let the issue of her death go. Only when he learns that she is in fact his daughter does he feel any twinge of familial empathy, and the only shame he ever recalls concerning the moment of impact is because it coincided with his orgasm, causing Halleck to feel pleasure and pain in the same instant. But he seemingly feels no guilt at having killed her.

Taduz Lemke, the leader of the Gypsy encampment, is also a grotesque figure. Of an undefined age  that is at least 106, he is blighted with a skin cancer that is destroying his face, and Halleck is horror-struck by his “rotting nose.” In stark contrast, his granddaughter Gina Lemke is extremely beautiful, and as Halleck ‘knows’ that the Gypsy women are all whores, too, he takes a lecherous interest in her, barely concealing his lust from his wife when they first see the Gypsies arrive in town.

The Gypsies would seem to encompass many of the tropes of the horrific alien/other in Horror literature, and so I paid particular attention to how King portrayed them. As a filter of character, Halleck is shallow and prejudicial. However, King gives subtle clues as to how his own views do not chime with those of his protagonist.

It is quite common for King to use recent pop culture and branding to act as sharp contrast with the Gothic imagery he employs to heighten the sense of the unheimlich. His families are modern all-Americans, and the Hallecks are no exception: teenage girls like Linda are blue-jeaned and pony-tailed; she pays Dungeons & Dragons, like the kids from "ET", and loves cheerleading; they get their burgers from the drive-thru McDonald’s; Heidi wears the latest Anaïs Anaïs perfume. Something old and foreign and spooky like a band of Gypsies should not be there to pollute their good, clean, modern town. Except, the Gypsies are not so eldritch: they wear Calvin Klein jeans and slogan tees and listen to Sony Walkmans; Gina Lemke is doing a correspondence course in Social Studies. Halleck believes he is cursed, but Gina believes Halleck has cursed them. And as they have been driven out of town, lost their Aunt Susanna, and had their dogs murdered by Ginelli, she would seem to have a case. None of Halleck’s judgements about the Gypsies ring true, apart from the curse itself. To Halleck, the Gypsy children are like animals, the elderly are hideous, perhaps even magically ancient, and the women are exotic and easy. What a hateful human being!

And as the curse wears him thin, Halleck is increasingly resentful towards his wife Heidi, who he blames for causing him to crash into the old lady.

It is in Halleck’s final meeting with Taduz Lemke that we see the old man’s humanity and grief, that the growth on his face is cancer, which he likely can’t afford to have treated, and that the anger that fires him is “‘[because] you won’t take blame - not you, not your friends - I make you take it. I stick it on you like a sign.For my dear dead daughter that you killed I do this, and for her mother, and for her children[...]’” Taduz gives him a pie into which he must put his “curse-child”, his “Purpurfargade ansiktet” and whoever eats the pie then will take on his curse. Immediately, Halleck thinks of his making his wife eat it. “‘Why not eat your own pie, white man from town?’” Taduz advises, in other words, take responsibility for your own actions, take the consequences. Perhaps here would have been a great place for Halleck to apologise, to try to atone for what he has done. But of course, Halleck believes himself faultless; the moment passes.

And so Halleck takes the pie home, intending to make his wife eat it the next day. He wakes and realises that not only has Heidi already taken the curse-child, but so has his beloved daughter Linda. Only then does Halleck think of eating his own pie, though this is perhaps less a grim acceptance of his blame and the subsequent consequences than a cowardly way of avoiding the need to live with his own guilt; difficult to tell with the rather crazed and upbeat mood of the ending, but I think this is likely.

Halleck might be flawed, wrongheaded and inhuman, but it is hard not to feel a bit sorry for him. I can certainly empathise with the weight issues. However, like many folks from the Black Country, I have family stories about the great great great granny who lived in a painted wooden caravan and who went round the towns selling salt; I am not sure if its the homeopathic essence of nomad in my veins, but reading Thinner, I found myself rooting for the Gypsies. I am glad that King was mindful of the injustices against the Lemkes and their fellow travellers, but do wish that it wasn’t so subtly put. There is that pervasive image of the face-touching Gypsy curse that we have to thank this novel for, after all. That said, it was a joy to rediscover this concise and thought-provoking horror classic.

Donna is a freelance editor and writer of short fiction who lives in Northampton in a Victorian shoemaker's terraced house along with husband Neil K. Bond and two cats. As well as being a member of the Northampton Science Fiction Writers Group, she is Chair of the British Science Fiction Association. She writes and performs comedy and poetry as Donna Scott and was the first official Bard of Northampton in 2009.

You can find her online at her website and also on Twitter as @wishusdonna 


  1. I guess I'm callous then, as I felt no sympathy for Halleck at any point. He and his thuggish 'friend' deserved everything that happened to them.

  2. I've read and reread Thinner probably fifteen times. The last half--Billy's "quest" for the gypsies--is some of my favorite writing by Mr. King. I really feel like I'm right there in those beach towns and campgrounds and motels that have seen better days, and crawling down those back roads. I think the chapter in the SEVEN SEAS LOUNGE is wonderful.