Monday, 18 May 2015
The Regulators, reviewed by Shaun Hamilton
If you come at it as a Stephen King fan who has never read any of his Bachman work, you’re going to be disappointed. As this review will highlight, there are better examples of his Bachman work available. If you’re a King fan who’s read his collection of Bachman books and you’re looking forward to something similar, then again, you’re going to be disappointed. However if you’re looking for a book filled with violence, action, the odd supernatural incident and characters of variable attribute struggling against vicious and unforgiving foes then I think you’re destined to love this book.
And if you come at it having never heard or read Stephen King or Richard Bachman then I suggest you try any of the others listed
I first read my now battered copy of THE REGULATORS back in 1997 during my university years. Released in tandem with DESPERATION, a book which supposedly “complimented” Bachman’s book (according to Stephen King himself; I wouldn’t know as I’ve never read it) THE REGULATORS came at a good time for me as I’d not long finished THE BACHMAN BOOKS and found at least two of the stories to be outstanding. I’m not alone when I say I feel both THE LONG WALK and THE RUNNING MAN are two of King’s / Bachman’s greatest. It was also at a time when I’d found myself struggling with much of King’s more recent output. Throughout those relatively early days of his post-drink and drug addiction (I believe THE TOMMYKNOCKERS was the last book written under the influence), only DOLORES CLAIBORNE and GERALD’S GAME wowed me. I enjoyed the majority of THE DARK HALF but found the ending a bit, well, confusing; NEEDFUL THINGS felt bloated – like eating too much pasta late at night. It took three attempts and a recommendation from a friend for me to plough through INSOMNIA and I’ve never read or been interested in THE STAND so the release of the updated and unabridged version meant little to me. However a new Bachman novel held much promise and I read the book – all 448 pages – in a couple of days, taking advantage of being a poor student with no car who had to use public transport at least twice a day, every day (how I would love to have back that free time to read but life is so much faster these days). And whilst not as good as the two examples of pure brilliance already mentioned, I lapped THE REGULATORS up, loving its extreme violence and the concept of a small neighbourhood – a street – being terrorised and torn apart by some unstoppable force.
Sadly, things haven’t fared so well second time round.
Before re-reading the novel for this excellent project, I tried writing a list of the elements and characters I could remember:
Extreme violence with an opening that involved a drive-by shooting in a typical King-like suburb and some western references involving a boy with autism.
That was it. Nothing more. So it actually felt like I was reading the book for the first time.
The novel’s hook is typical Bachman / King (B/K) in that we are reading another supremely written story involving good versus evil. The Bachman books tend to focus more on dictatorial sins as opposed to supernatural evil which King’s main body of work does so well. This was certainly the case before the Bachman book: THINNER. Targets have included teachers, town planners and TV executives amongst others and perhaps by inventing Bachman, King found a way to attack such bodies without risking retribution or falling sales. However as with THINNER, the evil in THE REGULATORS has a supernatural element to it in the form of a spirit named Tak who possesses the fragile mind of a young boy named Seth who is indeed autistic. And it’s this supernatural aspect that bothers me (in fact, it also irked somewhat back in 1997, but my thirst for fictional violence back in those days far outweighed such issues – and boy does THE REGULATORS deliver on the violence). You see, I’ve always felt Bachman’s brilliance was his capability to reveal real, believable horror into the most normal of scenarios. King’s brilliance was his ability to bring supernatural, believable horror into the most normal of settings. So surely the presence of Tak suggests THE REGULATORS should be a King book? But what about the extreme violence? The threat to the everyday? Aren’t they best suited to Bachman? Even after a second reading I can’t give you an answer.
And the ironic thing is, the majority of King’s more recent work shuns the supernatural.
The suburban setting is classic B/K with a list of characters who could have been taken from any of King’s main body of work: The retired cop with a drink problem; the frustrated ex-junkie writer; the young girl with the snotty brother; the professor whose wife is having an affair with the good looking guy across the road; the strange woman and her autistic nephew. There are these and more, all of whom you’ll easily recognise. And of course, there’s the empty house: there as an omen for what is about to come.
The beginning is explosive and is typical of the violence I remembered after my first reading. A drive-by shooting in a small street (Poplar Street) in which a paperboy and a dog are shot and killed by unseen assailants firing from a van. The writing of the murders is superb, as is the character introduction – but as brilliant this character introduction is (and I really do feel it portrays some of B/K’s best writing) it is also the book’s downfall:
Everything about that beginning is fast and furious. It’s the perfect opening for a screaming, zippy, trashy pulp novel. Your eyes leave scorch marks as they skim the pages. You fly through the descriptions, both revolted and fascinated by the terror that’s appeared from out of nowhere to haunt Poplar Street and its ordinary residents. But as the narrative zips along, we have very little time to feel anything for the people. These folks are having their world torn apart and yet we’re struggling to care. That description which was so captivating at the beginning starts to feel a little thin. And as the book progresses with the action maintaining its cocaine pace (no sooner is the first drive-by over, more vans appear, determined to get in on the action as they slaughter adults with their guns and their wheels) what little we did care about these people dwindles to nothing. B/K has sacrificed character development so he can have fun murdering people – which is fine, but I do have a concern about the type of people he murders – and who the murderer is.
The first to die is the teenage paperboy. As part of the narrative before his death, we read about the boy’s desires for the girl working behind the counter in the shop on the corner. The first adult to die is a woman named Mary Jackson. She is the professor’s wife and is having an affair behind his back. Both characters are driven by sexual need. These characters are the only two we specifically know either desire sex or is having sex. I don’t know if “sex is dirty” is a message B/K intended to send out, but it’s definitely there. Even the father wearing just his Speedos as he washes his car, with his bulge out front and his body being enjoyed by some of Poplar Avenue’s female residents is shot down. In this struggle between the forces of good and evil, those eager for sex, enjoying adulterous sex or desired by others for sex – one of man’ most natural desires – are deemed unworthy for the fight.
My issue with the murderer isn’t so much an issue for myself but one I could foresee being a problem with some of the more narrow-minded folk out there. Tak taking advantage of Seth’s autism and possessing him because of his weak mind is both clever and dangerous. It’s clever because Tak uses Seth’s imagination as his portal for murdering the neighbourhood – and as Seth is a lover of old-school westerns such as Bonanza and The Regulators, the people, the street and even the houses take on the appearance and atmosphere of a western. This is B/K reaching for his Cliché Dictionary and telling his reader to not judge a book by its cover.
It’s dangerous because some people will only see a disabled boy being the killer.
Maybe I’m reading too much into the book’s narrative and finding things that aren’t really there. I know from my own experiences in Creative Writing classes that people find subliminal meanings all the time so perhaps these are just issues within my own consciousness. I’ve checked out Amazon reviews for the book and no one else has picked up on these things, but I stand by my interpretation: there is a message in there – and not just the loud and obvious one about the perils of TV and its influence in our lives. That’s a message reminiscent of Bachman’s other books: THE LONG WALK and THE RUNNING MAN. As I said before, perhaps King need Bachman to get his message out. They force us to question our future and the role money for entertainment / entertainment for money will have in it. How much are we willing to accept, just to relieve our boredom? I mean, look at TV now. We watch and ridicule people on talent shows I refuse to name. We stick nobodies and so-called celebrities in a house every few months and watch their minds crumble. We carry our TVs around with us in our pockets – when I was at school the idea of a TV in your pocket was science fiction. Now look where we’re at (and I’m not THAT old!). So perhaps B/K was foretelling the future. Choosing to so in a trashy pulp novel so he wouldn’t be taken too seriously or unjustly stuck on the sci-fi shelves where the literati rarely frequent.
Upon the second reading , the things I enjoyed back then have died. The characters disappeared from my memory and struggled to return. Without the child’s drawing at the front, identifying the street and its residents’ homes, I could have easily lost track of who was who (or is that whom?). The violence starts off well but soon becomes dated and the revelations are interesting but not mind blowing. As always with B/K, the dialogue is wonderful, cringe-inducing, shocking and frightening (the child’s voice on the end of the phone!) but never dull – which is great because the book still has a redeeming feature after all this time. But at the same time, it’s a shame because there is so much of each authors’ body of work worthy of the term “classic”.
When we look at each author’s back catalogue and remember the fantastic characters and sublime stories, we get to feel a little cheated when one of them produces something not worthy of their talents. Maybe that’s our fault. Maybe we come to expect too much of one man with a mock-duel personality disorder. Maybe our demands are unreasonable. I don’t know. But what I do know is this:
If you’re approaching this book expecting to read THE LONG WALK quality, read THE RUNNING MAN.
If you’re looking for something equal in quality to THE SHINING, find yourself a copy of PET SEMETARY.
If you’re looking for a pulp, trashy, violent novel then you could do worse than THE REGULATORS.
Upon returning to this review six months after writing it, I’m afraid I can only cement my view: this is an okay book, just not a great one by King’s or Bachman’s standards. And it’s not because of the violence or the set-up or the see-through marketing ploy designed to make you buy both THE REGULATORS and its bastard twin DESPERATION. It’s the characters. I can’t remember any of the characters. I know remember an autistic boy being possessed by an alien who uses the child’s imagination and love of westerns for its own murderous ends, but that’s just a back-of-the-book blurb. A one sentence synopsis. As for the rest of those 448 pages, I’m at a loss – but man, what I would give for an ounce of his talent (as this review probably highlights the need for).
Shaun Hamilton regularly reads, occasionally writes, habitually draws, and all too frequently finds himself watching things he knows he shouldn't. His website is in desperate need for an update and might even get one before the end of the year. However there's still plenty of stuff on there worth a look at www.shaunhamilton.wordpress.com