Thursday Reviews: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King; I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

The Tommyknockers

Stephen King

Western author Bobbie Anderson finds a buried flying saucer on her property. Digging it up causes changes in her and everyone else in the town of Haven, Maine, a stone’s throw from Derry. If Derry sounds familiar, it’s the setting for the epic It. Things are almost normal in Derry now, only someone spots an evil clown in the sewer in passing. I digress.

The Tommyknockers is less a horror novel than a science fiction story. The long-dead aliens reach out and take over the town follk in Haven, changing them mentally into a colony of amped-up Thomas Edisons. They render the power company irrelevant by creating energy from nothing using gadgets running on AAA and C batteries. Lots of ‘em. Soon, Haven becomes poisonous to outsiders. The outside becomes poisonous to Havenites. The only people seemingly unaffected are Bobbie’s erstwhile lover, Jim Gardner (or just “Gard” or “the drunk”) and World War II vet Ev Hillman. Gard and Ev have plates in their heads, which makes them immune from the saucer’s mind-frak that transforms the rest of the town.

There are appearances, both literal and cultural, of past King novels. The Shining, specifically Jack Nicholson’s “Heeeere’s Johnny!” scene, is mentioned as a movie moment that crosses someone’s mind. There’s also references to that sicko up in Bangor who writes stories of vampires and ghosts. But The Shop from Firestarter gets involved late in the story, even referencing how the original Shop was burned down at the end of that novel. Derry, of course, exists, and more than one character refers to Johnny Smith and the Castle Rock murders he solved. But like Cujo and Misery, The Tommyknockers is a decidedly non-supernatural movie. Unlike those two novels, it’s still highly speculative.

This is King’s first major horror novel after It. After that 1986 epic, he did the fantasy novel The Eyes of the Dragon, the Bachman novel Thinner, the decidedly real-world Misery and another installment of his Dark Tower series. The Tommyknockers started in 1982, when King was still in the throes of alcohol and drug addiction. (He famously denied drinking all the Listerine, explaining in On Writing that he drank all the Scope instead.) The transformation of the Havenites into something other than human parallels the ravages of addiction, not to mention Gard’s very real tumble off the wagon to deal with the changes in Bobbie.

The Tommyknockers cements the idea that King is writing in a single universe (only Carrie seems to stand alone). Jack from The Talisman appears, still living with his mother at The Alhambra Hotel in New Hampshire. Derry plays a major role, and Castle Rock, while not mentioned by name, is also a presence. All that’s missing is an appearance by The Walking Dude.

However, King is also starting to repeat himself. The changes in the townfolk mirrors that of Salem’s Lot’s residents. The government is seen as this intrusive totalitarian force, with The Shop stepping in to clean up the mess, shades of Firestarter. And of course, Bobbie Anderson and Jim Gardner are writers interrupted on their latest works (Misery). All that’s missing is an evil self-driving car and a rabid dog.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Sloane Crosley

It’s tough growing up in the burbs, especially in Westchester County, New York. Vintage Book publicist Sloane Crosley spells it out in a collection of essays depicting the life of said suburban girl spending her twenties in Manhattan. The collection is uneven, but when Crosley is on, she is on. I especially liked her piece on the first job she ever had, which she describes as an abusive relationship. Her boss was one of those who could never be satisfied. Crosley handed in her resignation after calling off work one too many times. Unfortunately, they were standing around watching the Twin Towers burn when it happened. Her boss, typical of that type of clueless manager, didn’t get why Crosley was unhappy.

The tale of her role as a maid of honor, another story of passive-aggressive abuse, is pretty raucous. All the time listening to it (The audio is read by Crosley, who is very pleasant to listen to), I kept thinking I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve never married a bridezilla. (And I also recall Li’l Sis, serial bridesmaid in her single days, saying several times, “Why do they think it has to be perfect! They’re just setting themselves up for disaster!”) Crosley, on the other hand, finds herself enslaved and indebted to a woman she hasn’t seen since high school and seems stunned when Crosley insists on still having a life outside wedding preparations.

The collection is uneven, though. Some of the things Crosley frets over would make people outside the island of Manhattan scratch their heads. While Crosley is decidedly anti-Sex in the City, some of those hang-ups specific to anyone living below Harlem and studiously unaware of the Staten Island Ferry sort of fall flat to ears across the East or Hudson Rivers.

Overall, though, the book is funny. It has to be. This is a woman who is a vegetarian these days not because of any moral or dietary concerns. Now she’s a vegetarian just to annoy people, many of them vegans.

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