Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Desperation, reviewed by Kit Power

Before I start, I need to sound the SPOILER ALERT klaxon - I’m going to be talking about some of the major plot turns and developments with this post. So if you haven’t yet read "Desperation", I implore you to read no further until you have rectified that oversight.

My paperback copy of "Desperation" is nineteen years old. It has to be at least fifteen years since I read it. These times feel impossible to me. The best part of two decades? My mind rebels at the thought. It can’t possibly be true.

On further reflection, though, it does explain a lot. Like how I remembered almost nothing about the book, at least to start with. I had a vague memory of a crazy cop (who wasn’t really a cop at all), a kid who prayed a lot, scorpions, and tiny stone statues that make you want to do the crazy, and… that’s about it, actually.

Well, turns out there’s quite a lot else going on here.

But let’s start with the cop. One of the many ways my life is different from nineteen years ago is that since I last read this book, I’ve actually driven down Highway 50 - ‘the loneliest highway in America’. It’s an experience I think I’d recommend to just about everyone. It’s breathtaking, that’s all - driving through an honest-to-God desert, the petrol station with the hand-painted ‘last Gas for 50 miles’ sign… and then a whole lot of hot dry dusty nothing. The desert… well, it speaks to you. Or at least, it spoke to me, riding down that burning hot highway, Tool blasting out from the stereo, the straight road and unchanging scenery giving the lie to the story the speedometer was telling about distance per hour - at least until I hit a town.

And those towns do have crazy names, some of them - I remember a ‘Truth or Consequences’ (though the latest episode of Doctor Who says that’s in New Mexico, which I have never visited, so whatever), so the notion of Desperation, Nevada… yeah, I can buy that.

And being pulled over by a small town cop is a scary experience, for sure.

This is quintessential King, right here; most of us have been stopped by a police officer at some point, and most of us, even if we’ve been driving carefully (maybe even especially then) have felt that crawling in the gut, as the uniformed man with a gun on his hip approaches, and we wind our window down…

So take one ordinary, relatable, everyday stressful situation…. and then just keep ratcheting up the tension. The first section break occurs as the car is pulled over, the second as Peter is asked to step out of the car. So far, nothing has really happened… but we have a very bad feeling, don’t we? Yes we do. Of course we do.

After all, we’re reading a Stephen King novel.

The rear license plate is missing. Must have been the kids at the last gas station stop. The officer suggests taking the plate from the front of the car. Peter opens the boot to get the tools… and the cop finds a baggie of pot in the spare tyre.

Of course it’s not theirs. It’s Pete’s sister’s car, that the couple are driving across country. As a favour. They even searched it for a hidden stash, just in case. But of course they didn’t check the spare.

The third section break has them being loaded into the back of the Desperation town police cruiser. From there, they are mirandized in the back of the car, and halfway through the warning, in between the lines about lawyers, the cop calmly says ‘I’m going to kill you.’. They drive past an RV at the side of the road, tyres flat, a doll lying in the middle of the road.

The fourth section break occurs as they arrive in the town of Desperation. The cop drives them to a municipal building, and takes them out of the car. As they enter the building, Mary, Peter’s wife, screams. She screams because there is the body of a six year old girl at the bottom of the stairs. The cop pulls Pete close to him, poking him in the stomach, and Pete (our POV character, to be clear) is slow to realise that he’s being poked not with a finger, but the barrel of a gun.

Then Pete is shot three times in the stomach. His last thought is that he will wake up in his bed.

Then he dies.

Page 43. End of chapter one.

I mean, excuse me, but fucking HELL.

I think it’d be almost impossible for a novel - especially one weighing in at 720 pages - to live up to the promise and pace of this opener, and for my money, Desperation doesn’t quite - quite - pull it off. But by golly it gives it the old college try, and by the time the dawn breaks at the end of this long, hard day (around page 700) we have been on a very strange and powerful journey.

And, look, I generally don’t like those articles when some nobody author you’ve never heard of (like, for instance, me) starts writing about the work of a far more famous author (like, say, Stephen King) and then starts to talk about it in comparison with their own book. It usually strikes me as, at best, crass, and at worst, arrogant and presumptuous, not to mention clumsy. But I find I’m actually unable to help myself here. So please accept my apologies in advance, and take it as a given that King is a north star of literature, and I’m just some guy who chucked enough words together to make a book that some other guys liked enough to put out into the world, okay?

Because there are… commonalities. Themes that run through both books. In fact, there were moments reading through Desperation I found myself getting my own version of the stopped-by-the-cops sinking feeling.

Because I swear, I really didn’t remember much at all about this book. Except clearly, that’s bullshit. Clearly this book did quite a number on my subconscious, and when I came to write my own story about a crazy person with the power to kill, and a small group of people trapped in a space with that crazy person (a church with a bomber for me, a small town with a cop for King) things came bubbling up to the surface.

See, "Desperation" is, at it’s core, a book about God.

Explicitly, by the way. It’s not subtle. Prayers are answered on more than one occasion, more than one of the characters has conversations with God, and miracles happen - small, unobtrusive ones, for the most part (one involving crackers and sardines, just in case you’d missed the symbolism) - but the point is, in the world in which the novel of "Desperation" takes place, God is unambiguously real and active.

In my novel, a madman is seeking God - specifically, seeking a personal conversation with God. He’s not convinced of God’s existence, but he’s angry and crazy enough to have devised a test that he believes will prove the existence (or otherwise) of the Almighty, once and for all.

There’s a moment in King’s novel when David (random coincidence - David is my father’s name, a man who is a committed an atheist as you’re likely to find, which causes me no end of cognitive dissonance throughout the tale), an 11 year old boy whose faith in God is powerful and unquestioning, is asked what the opposite of faith is. At first, he says it’s unbelief, but that’s not the right answer. The right answer, he is told, is desperation.

Where am I going with this? Okay, let’s put aside relative merits of the two stories for a second - let’s take it as read that when I grow up, I want to write as good as Mr. King, and let’s further accept that I’m never going to grow up that much. Still, what came at me again and again when reading "Desperation" is the two books served as sides of a coin. My book has a protagonist who is trying to prove something that I think is unprovable, essentially - proof denies faith, etc. My book isn’t really concerned with the existence of God, but rather the people caught in a nightmare situation, and how they respond. If I’ve written "GodBomb!" right (and I may not have done), when you come out of it, you probably won’t feel any different about God than you did going in. The very best I can hope for is that you may understand ‘the other side’ a little better (whichever side you fall on). I mean, if you feel like I didn’t waste your time, I’ll count it as an epic win, honestly, but if you asked for my shoot-for-the-moon hopes for the book, that’d be it, I think.

King’s book, on the on the hand, is written from the point of view of faith, and it’s asking a very different question, ostensibly - why is God cruel?

It’s a powerful question. I remember when the previous Archbishop of Canterbury was asked in an interview if he could really reconcile the notion of a loving God with the reality of an innocent child suffering. Dr. Williams paused for a long time, before answering quietly with one word: “Barely.”

So if my book is about the rage of the unbeliever, the ‘want-to-believe’-er, the one who feels abandoned, King is concerned with the rage brought about BY faith - that knowledge of an all powerful, loving God, and the suffering child.

That’s not a metaphor, by the way. The dead six year old is David’s kid sister, and by the end of the novel, David will have lost his whole family - his mother and sister to the possessed madman, and his father, most cruelly of all, who will die protecting him while they attempt to complete the task God has given them.

Again, it feels a lot like flipsides of the same coin. "GodBomb!", a book written by a fairly committed agnostic, trying hard  to (amongst other things) give God, and the concept of faith in God, a fair crack in tough circumstance, vs. a novel by a believer (King) interrogating faith by asking the hardest question to answer: Why does God allow suffering? Or in King’s phrasing - why is God cruel?

There’s an astonishing piece of theology here, actually. The gang of survivors (all taken by the cop to the jail for use as meat puppets for the evil awoken from the local mining operation, and who escape thanks to David’s first miracle) are discussing God’s plan for them - which is, of course, not to leave town like sane people might, but to go to the mining pit and seal it up. And of course, they have free will, so they don’t have to do it. And David says words to the effect of ‘If we don’t do this, Tak (the evil spirit) will get out and kill the whole world?’ and God tells him ‘No. It can’t. Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it’s poisoned.’

I mean, just chew on that one for a minute. And look, I guess I need to say I don’t buy it, as a premise - or rather, I think the whole damn planet is an ecosystem, so the notion that evil is ultimately a self defeating force is pretty cold comfort in the face of what damage it can do on its way through. I mean to say, I can’t live in a poisoned ecosystem either. But let’s accept the premise of the statement, in the spirit it was intended in the book - well, what exactly does this tell us about the loving God that sends His followers out into this fight? And why does he ask them to go? Because ‘it’s an affront.’

King’s rage, as a man of faith, at this point is palpable. And though of course in his story the characters come down on the side of God’s will, and put themselves in harm's way, and (mostly) make it out okay, the line ‘God is cruel’ is returned to again and again, with apparent sincerity. It’s an inversion of that migraine-inducing phrase ‘God only gives you what you can handle’ (because if you cannot immediately think of someone you’ve known for whom that was manifestly not the case, you’ve lived a ludicrously charmed life), and it reminds me of Kevin Smith talking about his movie "Dogma": “I bought Catholicism. It’s my vehicle of choice. Why can’t I look under the hood? Why can’t I kick the fucking tyres?’.

King is kicking the tyres here - hard enough to break a toe. And even if, ultimately, inevitably, faith and God come out on top, well, the cruelty is there on the page for all to read. A lot of very bad things happen to good people. As in life.

If I have one complaint about "Desperation" (aside from the pacing in the section in the movie theatre, where I thought things dragged juuuuuust a touch), it’s that the miracles are unambiguous - there’s really no way to explain them away as psychology, or coincidence, or anything other than acts of God. In the world in which "Desperation" is set, the existence of God, at least for the characters, is therefore also unambiguous, which pretty heavily stacks the deck against the one poor sod unbeliever character trying to wave the flag for rationality. And it bugs me because it’s really not fair to that guy at all - bluntly, it makes him look like kind of an asshole, which feels like a cheap shot when you (as the author) are casually chucking bona fide miracles about left right and centre.

Except that’s a pathetic, petty criticism, ultimately. Because the unfairness is part of the point - God is cruel, after all. And in the world in which "Desperation" is set, God is real, miracles happen - and good people still suffer horrible, ugly, painful fates. To whine about the fate of the rationalist in the face of that feels - no, is - petty. Tough as that rationalist row is to hoe within the context of this novel, my real sympathy and pity is still reserved for the believer. Because, man.

And I guess at this point I need to talk about coincidence vs. miracles. So here goes: You really shouldn’t be reading this at all. I’d already done my King for a Year entry, waxing lyrical about On Writing. But then Mark put out a shout for some books not yet covered, asking if anyone fancied a second bite of the cherry. I most assuredly did (in case it isn’t yet clear, I’m something of a King fan) and when I scanned the list of options, "Desperation" pulled me up.

See, we finally boarded out our loft recently. Which means the boxes of books in the garage have all been opened, sorted, and either shelved or re-boxed and put in the loft. I was in the middle of this process when Mark’s call went out. And I remembered seeing my paperback of "Desperation", and debating if I should leave it out for a re-read, or box it.

Coincidence? Yes. Obviously. And also a coincidence that I’d select the book that happens to be King’s big meditation on faith and the nature of God just after I put out my own debut novel, featuring a protagonist desperate to unravel the mystery of God’s existence.

Or, you know, not. Maybe I really remembered "Desperation" far better than I’d realised. Maybe my subconscious decided to give me a kick in the ass and remind me how big the debt is that I owe, as a writer, to the man I still consider to be the undisputed master of the field.

But here’s the funny part. Once I’d finished reading "Desperation"; heart in my mouth and yeah, okay, tears in my eyes; I realised that I was really going to struggle to write anything approaching a standard review of the book - it had spoken to me far too personally and deeply, and the thematic connections to "GodBomb!" (the working title for which, and I swear I am not making this up, was Revival) had freaked me out too much. So I sent Mark a PM and said words to the effect of ‘I hate those articles where people talk about their own work, but I kind of want to write one of those articles’ and he replied with words to the effect of ‘well, actually that works well, because it turns out I DO have a Desperation review coming already, so can we run your article as a bonus post?’

Funny how things work out.

PS - The die-hardest King fans will already know this, of course, but there is one other connection - and again, all I can do is swear that I had no recollection of this until my recent re-read, which concluded on Thursday of this week. I blame my subconscious, though you are of course welcome to draw your own conclusions.

On page 648, the erstwhile atheist (and probable King stand-in, given that he’s an aging, enormously successful author) is struck by a bolt of understanding from God. In classic King fashion, the nature of that revelation is concealed from us until the final act, but we share his POV as it happens, so we know it’s some kind of divine message. And David, observing the writer’s sudden reaction, turns to him and asks

“Was it a God-bomb?”

Well, hell. If you’re going to steal, knowingly or unknowingly, steal from the best.


Kit Power lives and writes in Milton Keynes, England, and insists he’s fine with that. His short dark fiction has appeared in many venues, including Splatterpunk Magazine, ‘Widowmakers: The James Newman Benefit Anthology’, the ‘At Hell’s Gate II’ anthology, and others. His novel "Godbomb!" was recently published by The Sinister Horror Company and he also has two novellas available – one published with Black Beacon Books (‘The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife’) and another self-published (Lifeline). Check out his Amazon author page here

He also writes for the Gingernuts Of Horror website, chiefly a monthly series entitled ‘My Life In Horror’ If you’ve enjoyed the above post,essays of a similar quality can be found here.  In addition, he's the lead singer of near-legendary long haired rock and roll band ‘The Disciples Of Gonzo. Find them here.

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