In Defense of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers
Many fans seem to disparage this novel and I don’t understand why
Recently, I have become a fan of a podcast that discusses the works of Stephen King, and especially focuses on adaptations of his novels to the screen. It’s called The Kingcast, and it is hosted by a couple of film gurus, Scott Wampler and Eric Vespe. On their weekly episodes, they basically bring on guests to discuss various King properties, and their successes or failures in how they have been adapted. I enjoy this show so much, I contribute monthly to their Patreon, which is not something I normally do. Anyway, if you love film and King, you really should check it out, if for no other reason than to hear their interview with Dee Wallace, which was so excellent it honestly moved me to tears.
The point of this article, however, is to respond to how viciously they and others have disparaged the novel The Tommyknockers. Before I get into that, understand, I am in no way trying to defend the horrendous television adaptation starring Jimmy Smits that was made in 1993. That mini-series, like most of the King television adaptations, is a train wreck of bad decisions that I wish to God I could erase from my memory. The novel, on the other hand, is a decidedly different beast.
I think that the television series has clouded people’s memories of exactly how great of a novel it was based upon. The Tommyknockers is a novel that is gloriously strange and unapologetic in that strangeness. Among the larger expanse of the King oeuvre, it stands out as one of his more unique works, and for that reason has always remained one of my favorites. The voice of the novel has a distinct atmosphere, as if King knew he was writing something experimental in nature from his ordinary genre (or maybe that’s just how blasted out of his mind he was at the time, after all, this was during his phase in which he has stated he doesn’t even remember writing the book Cujo), and as such, the prose feels much more hypnotic and gripping to me. I love this book, for all these reasons and more, and because of that, it’s one of the few novels I’ve read multiple times.
For starters, there’s the title. What on Earth is a fucking Tommyknocker? Well, it turns out this term is based upon an actual legend that began with the mining industry. Tommyknockers were little green gnomes that lived in the mines and sometimes worked alongside the miners or caused mischief. Later, this legend evolved, and the gnomes stayed hidden or became the ghosts of deceased miners, who would knock on the walls of the mines to warn others of an impending tunnel collapse or cave-in. This legend relates to the events of the novel in numerous ways that upon reflection is pretty awesome.
The narrative of the story revolves around two writers, Bobbi Anderson, and Jim Gardener, and it takes place in the fictional Maine town of Haven. Before she is visited by “Gard,” Bobbi discovers something in the woods sticking out of the ground: a shiny metal object that she is compelled to start digging up (like a miner). This excavation and what it does to her and the people of her town, becomes a very effective metaphor for the dangers of addiction, and cult mentality. This is one of quite a few novels that King wrote at the height of his alcohol and drug abuse, and you can feel him channeling his experiences and struggles through this story especially well, even though he himself has called this “an awful book.”
Authors are often their own worst critics, and this is no exception, because this story seems boundless in its imagination and inventiveness, and also handles the concepts of alien technology in just the right way for a horror/science-fiction thriller, in that it never actually makes the error of showing us the aliens (unlike Dreamcatcher).
As he often has done, King finds himself borrowing concepts from H.P. Lovecraft here, crafting his own version of The Color Out of Space, with a bit of a twist. The more the alien spaceship is exposed in the woods, the more it begins to have an influence on the population of Haven, and especially on Bobbi. Gard is somewhat immune to the effects of the spaceship, because he has a steel plate in his head, making him more of a passive observer of the events.
The people of the town start having ideas for how to create new technologies and improve already existing inventions. Everyone starts developing telepathic abilities and their bodies start changing. As far as the metaphor goes, this directly reflects how addiction changes us, how we can go through phases of mania even as the substance we are addicted to is breaking us down. The cult-like reaction of the town is another of King’s critiques of religion, in which King is comparing religion itself to a form of addiction. Eventually, Gard realizes he has to stop this somehow, and as such becomes an enemy of the newly created hive-mind/cult. It’s all very wild and definitely a different kind of Stephen King book. You will either love it or hate it, depending on your willingness to blend horror with your science-fiction.
For me, this novel just works and is King really firing on all cylinders. The characters all feel strangely authentic and true to life. But, what really drives this novel is the compelling nature of the mystery of it. It never really becomes apparent that what is being dug up in the wilderness is an alien craft until the final chapters. Up until then, the reader is just swept up in the strangeness of it all, and wondering what in the actual fuck this thing could be. Sure, one of the options you are likely to believe is that it has something to do with aliens, but you just don’t know. That’s the beauty of it, and King masterfully tantalizes your own imagination with the possibilities.
Besides that, I mean, what other novel are you going to find people creating their own power sources and redesigning mail sorting machines with Lovecraftian tentacles? Or creating flying drones (before drones were ever invented by the way) out of smoke detectors? Or little kids accidentally teleporting their brothers onto the surface of other planets?
As far as I am concerned, The Tommyknockers is a work of literary genius, and I will defend it until my dying day. What do you think?