My only disappointment in Stephen King’s Desperation is that it isn’t longer. This book contains all that makes King so enjoyable to read: strong and believable character development; intuitive and subtle understanding of the childhood psyche; horror as defined by what’s creepy, intense, psychological and sometimes gothic; mythological back-story that superbly connects past and present; and the believably supernatural.
Several travelers, mostly strangers to each other, are abducted by a seemingly deranged Sherriff and taken to the dusty Nevada town of Desperation. Mayhem ensues as King delves into the perverse and dark heart of humanity.
Desperation is not generally considered one of King’s stronger works, but I’d like to dig beneath the surface of this novel share my thoughts on why I think this should rank right up with Kings’ other non-epic tales (in truth, nothing of his can compare in breadth, depth and scope to It and The Stand; his Gunslinger series, to me, is of a different breed). And yes, this review has a plethora of spoilers.
One of the most fulfilling and satisfying elements of this story is the way King creates myth, and builds and exposes a legend he’s created to flesh out the plot. Within the story itself, King writes that “legend-making” is when “truth and mistakes and outright lies are mixed up.” King’s mythological evil comes in the form of Tak, a deep-earth spirit who’s been accidentally sprung free to spread unmitigated evil on the two-bit mining burg of Desperation, Nevada.
Very similar to Pennywise the Clown in It, the evil presence in Desperation relies on transmogrification to perform its dastardly deeds. Its initial form is most memorable in the character of Sheriff Collie Entragian, who’s big, creepy, violent, and has a dastardly sense of humor. In an example of King’s ability to blend the grotesque with the ironic, Entragian monologues in front of his captives as he “surveyed them from the melting ramparts of his face, and his mouth spread in a wide, lip-splitting grin. ‘Look at us,’ he said in a thick, sentimental voice. ‘Look at us, would you? Gosh! Just one big happy family!'”
The spiritual state of unbelief is desperation.
Faith and religion play a significant role in Desperation. These themes provide the foundation for Desperation’s back-story, and the propulsion of King’s plot. King explores god and religion, the role of logic and its’ relationship to faith. He writes, “Sane men and women don’t believe in God. That was all, that was flat. You can’t say it from the pulpit, because the congregation’d run you out of town, but it’s the truth. God isn’t about reason; God is about faith and belief. God says, ‘Sure, take away the safety net. And when that’s gone, take away the tightrope, too.’”
Kings’ mouthpiece for this thematic exploration is David Carver, a very unique and special 11-year old boy from Ohio, who has a special religious outlook. A flashback describes David’s thoughts on the day of his religious epiphany: “The day’s simple unzipped loveliness stunned him, and for a moment he was very aware of himself as part of something whole — a cell on the living skin of the world.” And later on he hears “… the still, small voice of God.” King creates a very powerful character in David Carver, as he’s written with believable strength in his motivations and actions. And it’s through David that King reveals, once again, his incredible ability draw to life a very genuine childhood experience and perspective, while under unimaginable circumstance. Carver reminds me of John Irving’s Owen Meany, though not as brilliant in its elegance and subtlety.
Carver serves as a modern-day version of the biblical Jonah figure. He’s forced to accept that “God is cruel,” when within the span of a dramatic couple of days, God’s “cruelty” continually bashes him like a hammer upon an anvil, and his unwavering belief becomes the driving force of the plot through the second half of the book.
King is known to write what he knows and what he’s lived. He’s fought his demons of alcoholism on the landscape of his novels for decades, and does so again in Desperation, but on a smaller scale. John Marinville, former National Book Award winner and recovering alcoholic, serves as King’s familiar in Desperation. Through Marinville, Desperation becomes an exploration of King’s faith and thoughts on religion. In a scene where Marinville ultimately comes to terms with his belief in god, King writes, “He was literally dividing himself in two. There was John Edward Marinville, who didn’t believe in God and didn’t want God to believe in him … And there was Johnny, who wanted to stay (and believe).”
Written only a few years after being hit by a van and almost losing his life, it’s not surprising that King was spending some grey matter on the existence and belief beyond the material world. He writes, “People could make shadows that looked like animals, but they were still only shadows, minor tricks of light and projection. Wasn’t it likely that God was the same kind of thing? Just another legendary shadow.”
In these silences something may rise.
The story comes down to good versus evil. The good is weighty and significant. The bad is historic and unrelenting. The evil entity, Tak, comes from deep within the earth. It speaks in a “dead language” and is referred to as “unformed.” Tak starts wreaking havoc in a dry, hot and sandy part of Nevada; released and unleashed through modern mining technology. Yes, there’s an environmental message, but it’s slight and obvious and King doesn’t appear to be using it beyond a mechanism to build out his mythology and as a trigger for certain plot points.
Tak is ancient. He’s from the earth; of nature and reliant on it. His transmogrification comes in the form of different human shells in which he inhabits. This gives him the ability to act away from his deep earthen home. But he’s bound by biology and the human form, and his presence within the body overwhelms the body’s weaknesses. God uses David in a similar fashion. He uses him as an agent on earth. God on high; Tak deep below. God calls on his volunteers; while Tak takes his designees. It’s through these people that they wage war.
Tak’s domain and powers are at odds with technology and, as an extension, the modern world. Tak’s minion run when they hear a cell phone. While they don’t fear the automobile, they’re clearly more comfortable in the dark and at night. In a very old-school vampiric way, Tak can call wildlife to act as his agents, or his eyes, or in one case, his early warning radar.
King explores modern v. ancient; old v. new. In modern days the past is only a shadow; only a distant memory, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. Even the ancient words used by the evil presence is called the ‘language of the dead’ … history is what’s old, and gone and dead.
I found myself complete wrapped up in Desperation. The elements of horror aren’t terrifying. There were no evenings when I found myself second guessing those sounds in the night. But the themes stuck with me, and the characters engaged me. If you like Stephen King then this is an unqualified recommended read. If you like your horror with a good helping of psychological reflection, believable supernatural evil powers, and blood and gore, then you’ll like this book.
Jason, I have to say that most people don’t wish a King novel would be *longer.* :)
This is an insightful review. DESPERATION is one I’ve never read because of the other reviews I’d seen, but you’ve converted me– and I bet I know a used bookstore where I could find it.