After the harrowing ghost story of Bag of Bones, Stephen King returns to TR90, the unincorporated Maine township, in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The titular girl is Trisha McFarland. Trisha wanders away from her brother and mother on a section of the Appalachian Trail to pee and, more importantly, get away from their bickering. When she finishes, she realizes she’s lost. When in doubt, she thinks, follow a stream. Streams empty into the ocean. Right?
No, this stream empties into New Hampshire, which is nowhere near the ocean. After a harrowing week in the woods, Trisha finds herself living off the land – checkerberries, beechnuts, and fiddle heads – fighting pneumonia, and possibly hallucinating. She hallucinates Tom Gordon, the popular closer for the Boston Red Sox in the late 1990’s. She hallucinates three robed figures telling her she is about to meet her destiny. And she hallucinates something that is following her.
Actually, something is following her. King uses the word “it” to imply Pennywise, but the demonic clown is never once mentioned. And while her supernatural encounters may or may not be caused by fever and fatigue playing tricks on her mind, something is following her. Even the ending leaves it up to the reader as to whether her stalker is a typical King monster or a more mundane denizen of the forest.
More frightening is Trisha’s continued turns away from civilization. At one point, because she passes through during midweek, she misses human presence by a mere few hundred yards.
Two things mar this novel. First is King’s tendency to insert spoilers into the story. At several points, he references “the Trisha who emerged from the woods a week later,” which telegraphs a happy ending at points where the suspense should be ratcheted up. Second, King cannot seem to make up his mind if this is a supernatural story or simply a little girl lost in the woods. The former plays nicely into King’s Dark Tower series, but the latter, like Cujo, works on a level of terror many of us have known at some point in our lives. What’s more frightening than wandering aimlessly in Western Maine’s undeveloped forests, staggering toward Montreal with nothing in between?
Tom Gordon did keep me turning pages. Unlike the previous three or four King novels, this one is short, 265 pages in the version I read. And one thing that gives the novel its flavor is King’s love of baseball, particularly the Red Sox. It shines through as Trisha listens to the games on her Walkman, her only link to civilization during her ordeal.
Over all, this was a much better, more coherent work than, say, Desperation.