Scifi Book Review: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

Sci-fi/Horror Book Review

The Tommyknockers
Author: Stephen King
Publication Date: November 10th, 2987
Publisher: Signet
Genres: Horror, Science Fiction

The Tommyknockers has, as I look back at my reading history on Goodreads, been my comfort read of choice for the last 9 months. That's not a knock against it (no pun intended), and it's in no way a reflection of quality. I always have one big book on the shelf that I turn to when I need a break from release dates or review obligations, a book that I'm reading just for me, just because I want to.

Yes, as the critics have said, it's a big, bloated book, a doorstopper of a novel with a massive cast of characters and a meandering plot. A careful editor could have chopped it in half and not lost an ounce of story, excised most of the characters and not missed anything crucial. Stephen King himself has called it an awful book, saying it's the last book he wrote before cleaning up his act, and that it'd be greatly improved if he rewrote it at half its length. But you know what? I loved it. I loved every superfluous detail, every single character, and every unnecessary side-story that threads into it. King, when he was at his best, when he allowed himself to be self-indulgent, refusing to self-edit, was always a storyteller, a weaver of tales that were always more about the journey and the company than the destination. 

The whole story begins with the accidental discovery of a thin, gleaming edge of metal deep in the woods. Curious as to what she's tripped over, Bobbi Anderson begins digging at it, worrying at it until she's obsessing over it, working herself to mental and physical exhaustion in her efforts to uncover it. It, of course, is a massive UFO, a genuine flying saucer, crashed to earth and buried in the bedrock for untold millennia. It's still thrumming with an unknown power, though, one that spreads ever wider as more of it is uncovered, infecting everyone in the small town of Haven, Maine. Most - and by that I mean a solid 80% - of the novel is about those people, those unsuspecting innocents who are slowly 'becoming' something more. It's a story of the changes wrought upon body and soul, and the bizarre, battery-powered alien technologies they're inspired to create. 

As a character study and a commentary on society as a whole, The Tommyknockers is a secretive beast, a novel that waits until nearly the very end to ask the questions that matter - both of the aliens and the people of Haven - but King's answers to those questions are the pivot on which the entire story turns, a series of revelations that have as much power as the climax itself. As 'aha' or 'eureka' moments go, there are a couple of big ones here, and they're brilliant. Whereas I often have an issue with King's endings, the very fact that the answers are so much smaller, so much simpler than we're expecting, is what makes this so satisfying. You get to that point, your eyes widen, and you just smile and say, "damn, but that makes a whole lot of sense."

There's not a lot of visual, visceral horror to the book, but there are moments and scenes that are absolutely disturbing. Granted, others are so absurd as to be laughable (I'm looking at you, flying Coke machine), but the story knows it, the characters know it, and our disbelief is intentionally mirrored within the narrative. The real horror comes from what the people of Haven do to protect their secrets and to advance their becoming. We're left wondering just what the hell is going on inside Bobbi Anderson's shed, with its weird green lights and strange sounds, for most of the book, and when we finally step inside . . . well, there's an emotional power to the simple horror we find there that is entirely satisfying as a climax of its own.

For those Constant Readers among us, I picked up on references to It, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter along the way, and while the first was a bit jarring and too on-the-nose, the other two are perfect, entirely reasonable connections between stories. 

So, what's next for a comfort read? Hard to say. I'm kind of leaning towards revisiting Needful Things, the first book he wrote post-sobriety (and of which I have fond memories), but I've also got the twinned Desperation & The Regulators lined up . . . and I may want to revisit The Eyes of the Dragon before Fairy Tale hits shelves. With our next vacation just weeks away, I suspect I'll be making a choice soon.

Rating: ♀ ♀ ♀ 


  1. It's been years since I read The Tommyknockers, but I know I loved it at the time, and didn't read critically back then so I wouldn't have minded the bloat. I feel like its time for a reread!

    1. I miss the bloat of his old books. I think self-awareness and overzealous editors have done him a injustice. Revival is a perfect example - there's a classic King doorstopper lurking throughout, but at every turn where he used to indulge, the story flinches away.

      For the longest time I had this mixed up in my head with Dreamcatcher. I should probably consider that for a reread too. :)


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