A UFO crashes in a remote section of rural Maine. The setting alone should already tell you it’s a Stephen King novel. The crash disrupts the annual hunting trip of four lifelong friends from Derry (Remember It, Bag of Bones?) An elite and secret military unit led by a crazed man named Kurtz swoops in to turn the area into a scorch mark to prevent the alien “Ripley” infection from spreading. And yet one alien, dubbed Mr. Gray because he looks like the classic view of an alien, takes over the body of one of the four friends. The key to stopping him? A renegade soldier, the one member of the gang having suicidal thoughts, and a dying middle-aged man with Downs syndrome named “Duddits.”
Dreamcatcher is the first novel King completed after the accident that almost killed him. Echoes of that accident make it into the story through the hijacked character of Jonesy. It hits on the familiar themes of King novels past: Childhood friends in adulthood (It, The Body), a secret government organization ruthless and maybe misguided (Firestarter), and a menace that has no real form (It). It also comes at a time when King began writing, to put it bluntly, doorstops. There’s a rhyme and reason to why The Stand, It, and The Dark Tower novels run so long. Bag of Bones, Dreamcatcher, and Black House probably could stand a bit of whittling. The real meat of the story is the chase in the back half of the novel. Henry, the suicidal shrink, and Underhill, the killer soldier with a conscience, go after Jonesy, who is trapped in his own mind by Mr. Gray, who has taken over his body. Kurtz, the mad colonel who, at one point, ignores orders to stand down and shows a contempt for the president unacceptable from an officer (Regardless of your politics, he is your commander-in-chief), Kurtz wants Underhill. Why? He crossed the Kurtz line.
But what makes the story work despite its bulk and lengthy setup is Duddits. Introduced as a teenager, Duddits has Downes syndrome yet is the glue that holds the group of Henry, Jonesy, Pete (shown as an alcoholic as an adult) and poor, simple Beaver together. The boys, like Duddits’s mother, can understand what he says despite consonants being a challenge. But King does a beautiful job of writing one scene inside Duddits’s head. Duddits’s thoughts are simple and limited but surprisingly clear, showing a wisdom most normal people can’t even dream of.
The book has a murky ending, however, which is somewhat anti-climactic. On the other hand, it’s much better than the movie ended, with Duddits morphing into an avenging alien to destroy Mr. Gray and save the world. (And really, Morgan Freeman made a lousy screen version of Kurtz, who makes the Heart of Darkness character he’s based on look well-adjusted.) King’s skills are all still here. They’re just rusty. The mojo hasn’t left, but it’s slow as molasses.