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doctorlit reviews The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
Thu Mar 8, 2018 9:57am
2600:8800:378c:4e00:d192:71b:f5cd:3ce

I realize this probably isn't going to see any discussion, since I seem to be the only one here who likes King's really dark stuff. But I intend to write a review of every piece of canon media I consume from now on, and forwards I must march.

Spoilers for It in addition to The Tommyknockers.

I think this is the darkest King novel I've read so far (though I suppose the novella Apt Pupil is still probably the darkest, since all the evil there comes out of human failings). Up to this point, I had read The Shining, It and From a Buick 8. All of those, despite the horror elements and actual murders, still had the classic setup of heroic characters poised against the villains. There was always the sense that as long as the good guys banded together and tried their desperate hardest, there was at least a chance they could overcome the supernatural adversaries they were pitted against.

Not so in The Tommyknockers. I found myself legitimately wondering midway through the story whether there could be any real resolution at all. I didn't delude myself that the Haven townsfolk who had started being converted into alien beings, with their human minds and morals being overwritten, could ever be restored to their natural selves. The line-up of protagonists got progressively grimmer and less promising as the novel progressed: the town constable, being transformed herself and fighting it off through sheer force of will, until finally blowing herself up in a desperate attempt to warn the outside world of what was happening in Haven; an old man, immune to the electromagnetism transforming the rest of the town thanks to a metal plate in his head, who tries to bring a policeman from Derry to prove to the outside world what's happening, but the air is too toxic for the policeman by that point, and he is killed and the old man captured; and finally and least promising, Gardener, the drunk who was actually introduced at the beginning of the novel, and who, despite being immune thanks to also a plate in his head, goes along with the Tommyknockers because he wants to use the alien technology to free the world from nuclear power. To Gardener's credit, he at least manages to hijack the saucer at the end and strand the Tommyknockers on Earth, but the fact that it takes nearly the whole novel for him to wise up and realize how dangerous the aliens and their technology is is frustrating. Especially since he's partly responsible for foiling the old man's plans, and since part of his realization came from the constable blowing herself up. I have to wonder how things might have gone differently if Gardener had managed to work with the other protagonists earlier on, if maybe some of the town could have been prevented from transforming into full Tommyknocker, if only Gardener had stopped getting drunk literally the whole novel. The whole situation just felt incredibly hopeless for most of the read.

It's interesting how King took a plot that sounds like it should be science fiction (a crashed flying saucer is exposed and starts turning the town into aliens), and writes it very much as a horror novel. It's the transformation of both the Havenites's bodies and minds that do it. The physical changes are bad enough, but it's the mental changes that really horrify. The people in the town, despite their new telepathy and ability to invent amazing machines, almost become childlike in their unquestioning devotion to excavating the saucer. As the human parts of their brains get dominated more and more by Tommyknocker-minds, their ability to question their own actions vanishes, and they are driven fully by the impulses planted in their minds to keep outsiders away, to get the ship out of the ground, to keep inventing dangerous technologies. And where most alien species in sci-fi stories are defined by cultural development, the history of their species, and the character traits of individuals, the final revelation of the mysterious Tommyknockers is that they lack culture, individual identities, and even history, since they seem to propagate themselves through the mechanism of their ships transforming other sentient species into copies of themselves. It's strongly hinted that the development of technologies gives them an overwhelming rush of euphoria from some endorphin-like molecule, and this addictive drive to create things has driven their species to pursue that, and only that, at the cost of any moral ability to question the risks that technology poses, and any ability to respect other members of their species as autonomous creatures—instead, the Tommyknockers seem to inevitably end up using their own people as living batteries. Heck, they don't even have a name for themselves; they had to borrow that from reading the Tommyknocker nursery rhyme from Gardener's mind. Things like that don't matter to them. They are invention junkies, and they always need another fix.

There are actually a fair number of inconsistencies in the middle of the novel. Different people seem to transform at strangely arbitrary rates. The "shed people" who expose themselves to a Tommyknocker computer in Bobbi Anderson's shed are supposed to change at a much faster rate than anyone else in town. Indeed, they are the only ones who are wholly and physically Tommyknockers at the novels end. But throughout the novel, other people seem to completely lose the humanity in their minds before others; in particular, Bobbi herself still has to fight against her feelings for Gardener right up until the very final days before she tries to kill him. It seems like Bobbi should have lost her human mind the fastest, since she was the one who tripped over the ship in the first place and was exposed the longest. That said, this novel had me hooked. I mean, I'm a book nerd, but I rarely feel so desperate to find out how a story unfolds that I have to stop myself from flipping ahead through sheer will power, but I had to fight that urge this time around. Just very intriguing, suspenseful writing all throughout.

Pennywise makes a couple of cameos in this novel, Derry being just a couple towns away from Haven. The Tommyknockers was written only a year after It, and takes place only two years after. It's actually kind of frustrating that he brought Pennywise back so soon after; it feels like it ruins the Loser's Club's triumph at the end of It, which really felt like a final victory, considering how much Derry got destroyed during that final confrontation. I suppose it's possible that did successfully kill the Pennywise they were facing, and that the new one is one of Its/Her eggs that they failed to find and crush. It still feels kind of disappointing. It was, however, kind of amusing for Pennywise to metaphorically take the Tommyknockers down a peg. The teen who saw him had transformed so much by that point that he didn't even make it back to Haven alive, as his body could no longer survive in Earth's atmosphere. Surely the human parts of his brain/mind were fully gone by then, yet Pennywise still tried to feed on him. I guess Pennywise's powers trump the Tommyknockers!

Bobbi was an author of Westerns before encountering the flying saucer. She wrote her last novel while she still had human parts to her mind, but then promptly stopped caring about her writing, and never tried to get it published. That means that I have an unexpected mission to perform, in the name of a certain New Caledonian Museum . . .

. . . Which will have to wait until my next spot of free time, because I need to leave for work now.

—doctorlit, eager to see the lengths Sues must go to in order to invade this story

If you haven't read, then don't you dare look! This post contains spoilers for the Tommyknocker book! If you haven't read, then don't you dare look! This post contains spoilers for the Tommyknocker book!

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