I’m going to get this out of the way up front — I don’t like The Tommyknockers. It took me multiple tries to read through it the first time, and when I was done, I used the book to prop something up in my kitchen because I was just never going to read it again. Then I started this project, and I had to read it again if I wanted to keep going, so I bought the e-book because my physical copy got destroyed by being a prop for so long. I disliked it just as much this time.
That’s not to say that there isn’t good stuff in here. There is. I think the general concept of the aliens is even a good idea. And there’s a huge amount of connection to the rest of King’s multiverse here — and even more meta connections, like a mention of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. But the book is a mess. It’s meandering in a lot of places. It’s convoluted. The narration is… weird. I hate Gard, and Bobbi pisses me off, so I can’t even hold on to the main characters as a guide through the weirdness.
I’m not alone here. Stephen King has even said that this is his worst book. It’s got problems not just in the sense of me not liking the story or the main characters, but just in a technical sense… in a storytelling sense. But of course, some Constant Readers really do love it anyway, so I’m almost certainly going to be downvoting somebody’s fave here. All I can say is that I can’t help it. I have some love even for the stories I don’t care for much, and there are little pieces of this story that I feel that way about, but mostly, I just don’t like it.
Part of what bugs me is Gard’s (and Bobbi’s, for that matter) general rantiness about nukes, technology, the Dallas Police… I take notes in the Kindle as I read these things, and over and over again, my notes for this one say “I’m sick of hearing about the Dallas Police” or “This is way overboard on the subject of nukes” or “what, did you want no technology instead?” I am aware that for a person of King’s generation specifically, these topics are bugaboos in a way they really aren’t for mine. But the kind of ranty anger that just insults people and shuts them down — while drunk at parties, no less — does not strike me as an effective way to deal with these problems. Maybe that was part of the point — nobody was dealing with them effectively, and a lot of people were mad and ranting about it. But it’s just not fun to watch. And honestly, Gard and Bobbi’s paranoia about the Dallas Police makes me nervous. I do get their problem with the actual Dallas Police, but equating that to everything and everyone in any kind of authority ever is how you get Qanon. Or almost help a race of dead aliens take over a town, I guess.
The same goes for the addiction/alcoholism in this one. Look, King has a lot of different allegories and metaphors for addiction in his work, not to mention actual depictions of addiction. He’s a man who has dealt with it in his own life (including while writing this book, probably) and it’s as much a part of him, and his art, as his political worldview. I don’t mind that. What I mind is that this is a bad, boring depiction. Gard is a shit, frankly, who does nothing or makes things worse through most of the book — while being drunk and having anger issues at the same time — and there’s no reason for him to be the hero at the end except that he’s the Designated Hero. I think it might have been interesting if Gard had had a revelation as the shit hit the fan about helping the bad guys against his better judgment because his better judgment was compromised by anger and obsession and alcohol… while someone else was the hero. He could have died or lived with that knowledge and it would have been interesting. But he didn’t need to also be the hero. He didn’t deserve to be. And it was just unbelievable that he could have been.
I looked up dreams about losing teeth for this, because Bobbi starts having them even before she actually starts losing teeth, and then of course everyone starts losing teeth. The consensus seems to be that losing teeth in your dreams is an anxiety thing. That tracks for me, because this is a hugely anxious book. Gard is anxious about his own crap, but also about technology, nukes, weapons, war, and abuse by police/authorities. All fair enough things to be anxious about, then or now. Bobbi is anxious about those things too, and also seems to have residual anxiety about her lousy home life and sadistic sister (I actually think more background on her childhood and more insight into her relationship with sister Anne would have made her a better character — amazing that this book could have so much stripped of it easily, but didn’t have enough here.) And as more people become affected by the Tommyknockers, we see their anxieties too. I actually like the book better if I think about it as kind of a metaphor for what having anxiety is like, because anxiety makes everything fraught and crappy. Which is kind of how this reads most of the time.
This bit doesn’t matter much, except it drove me crazy — if you read this, did you notice that in narration, King spends a huge chunk of the book calling Bobbi “Anderson”? It makes no sense at all — she doesn’t think of herself that way and no other character in the book thinks of her that way — they all call her Bobbi or occasionally Roberta. Jim Gardner, at least, calls himself “Gard” and so does “Bobbi” so it makes sense when the narrator does it. But calling her Anderson when the narrator is speaking… it’s weird. And it’s not a King-specific weirdness either… he doesn’t normally do that. Normally, the narrator would use the name that the character used for themselves or that other characters used for that character. It’s strange.
The connections that The Tommyknockers has to the rest of the King multiverse are many, and that, at least is interesting. We knew there was a connection between Haven and Derry going in, because Eddie Kaspbrek has aunts there. And, uh, there’s some mention of chuckling in the drains that makes me think that It hasn’t quite cleared the area. But it’s not just that. Before Gard even gets to Haven, he wakes up near the Alhambra — and meets someone who is, in all likelihood, Jack Sawyer. There’s also a connection to Ludlow (Pet Semetary) and some pretty serious strings between this and The Dead Zone. Oh, and The Shop comes in near the end — something that can pretty reasonably be equated to the Dallas Police, if you’ve read Firestarter. Also, in what I think is another meta shout-out, a character compares Bobbi and her westerns to “that fellow who lived up in Bangor” and wrote books full of “monsters and dirty words”… King himself, probably? That was fun.
Can I just complain about one more thing? The Coke machine security guard? I hated the killer Coke machine. There is probably a good way to make a Coke machine scary. I imagine that a man who made an industrial washer scary is the man who could do it, too. I’m not doubting King’s ability. But this wasn’t it.
The Tommyknockers was made into a miniseries in 1993. I remember seeing parts of it. The parts I saw weren’t good, and I don’t have any particular interest in even putting this on my list of adaptations I need to watch for some future phase of this project — though I may change my mind when I get there, of course. Jimmy Smits is undeniably awesome, but he’s not who I would choose for Gard at all. New adaptations of The Tommyknockers have been announced, but nothing has happened. I agree with King that if you trimmed out all of the junk in there, you could probably find a good story. Since King himself doesn’t seem to be rewriting this one, it would be cool to get a good adaptation — but I wouldn’t bet money on it.