This must have been a period when Stephen King was just into experimenting with different forms of stories and releases of stories. Desperation was released in the same year as The Green Mile, which you’ll already remember as one that was released in an unusual form — chapbook installments — and Desperation is also unusual in that it was released at the same time as its mirror novel, The Regulators. By mirror novel, I don’t mean sequel or anything like that. I mean mirror as in — an alternate reality story, concerning the same characters, many (but not all) of whom are in different forms. It’s very weird, and I’m not sure that I know of another pair of books quite like it — I sort of assume that there probably is something similar, because I just generally assume there’s nothing new in the world, but if there is, I don’t know of it. It’s sort of difficult to talk about one of these books without the other (even though the plots are completely different… well, mostly) and I don’t think I can do it for two posts. Desperation is the one that I read first, and the one I always think of as the “primary” story — as far as I remember, they were released on the same day, and I don’t think one was ever actually meant to be more primary than the other, but that’s how my brain reacted to them — so I’m going to try to focus on Desperation for the most part in this post (also, I haven’t re-read The Regulators yet, so that’s not as fresh in my mind.) When we get to the next post, though, I’ll probably end up writing about both together.
So. Desperation. We start out with Peter and Mary, who are acting out the same “couple stumbling on a Peculiar Little Town” bit that you may remember from “Children of the Corn”, “You Know They Got A Hell of a Band”, and “Rainy Season”. It’s not exactly the same — of course not, because this is a novel with a lot more to it — but you can tell these characters are inspired by or informed by those characters. Of course, they don’t really stumble on the Peculiar Little Town so much as they get dragged to it by a possessed cop, who busts them for having weed in their trunk.
In this story, the cop actually is possessed. But given how many major news stories there have been about police officers who kill people in traffic stops or in the course of other low-level allegedly criminal events, all the scenes of Collie the cop using his power as a cop to stop people, kidnap them, hurt them, and kill them have a seriously frightening real-world feeling as well. The “monster” of this book is Tak, and Tak is definitely more frightening than any of the humans in the story, most of whom are just normal, not all good or all bad humans, which is somewhat unusual for King, who’s pretty good at writing stories about supernatural monsters who still aren’t as monstrous as some of the humans/human elements/human systems and institutions in the same story. This story really isn’t that, and Collie’s actions from the moment we meet him aren’t really his fault. But by making the first possessed character we see a cop, I feel like King is still reminding us that some humans are dangerous — especially ones that have Authority and guns, maybe.
Speaking of people with Authority, let’s talk about David and John Marinville. They don’t have Authority in the same sense that a cop does, but they have it all the same. David has the kind of Authority that we as a society tend to give religious leaders. Which is too much authority, if you ask me. I don’t understand why being an expert on a made-up deity should make one a leader of any kind — but then, I guess it tracks better if you believe that that deity (or deities in general) are real. I also don’t really like the idea of giving a child that kind of authority, but if you check religious communities, it does happen. There are child evangelists, children that are supposed to be reborn whatevers, children that are supposed to be vessels of whatever. They’re probably mostly run by their parents or other adults who are responsible for them, but there will also be adults who acknowledge them as some kind of leader. I’m not much a fan of David Carver’s God. I don’t get the idea that anyone really is, either in the story or out of it. Yet, they accept that he’s real, more or less, and do what he says, more or less. Which is a thing I personally find frustrating in a story, but your mileage may vary.
John Marinville has a different kind of authority still, or maybe several — the Famous Person kind, the Serious Writer kind, and the Alpha Male kind. Granted, John’s fame is fading by the time we meet him, and mixed with a kind of notoriety as well, but those things don’t matter so much to people who have never been famous — us “little people” still tend to treat famous people with some kind of deference. I do think King has a slightly skewed idea of how famous a guy like Marinville would be — he might be known, these days he might even be what they call a thought leader, but he appears to be the kind of literary writer that’s not exactly universally popular and famous outside the literary/thought leader crowd. Johnny is also irritatingly alpha-male — he talks down to people, assumes he knows best, is fragile about anyone correcting him, or god forbid interrupting him, especially a woman. Who knows why, but that kind of guy does tend to get groups of people to defer to him. It sucks, but it’s definitely real.
The premise here is that this Tak thing has escaped from the mines and is not so much a monster as it is a deity — but not one that’s typically recognized here on earth. David at one point tells John that compared to Tak, John and a cannibal king would have the same god. The point he’s trying to make is that Tak is so far out of the human experience that we can’t actually grok it. We can compare it to things we do understand, but it’s really outside of all that. From a level of the tower where humans don’t ordinarily end up, I’d guess. Speaking of which, is Desperation on our level of the tower? The “real” level? I doubt it — but it is a level where humans live, not one where Tak should be.
Or maybe this is the “real” level of the tower? Cynthia is the only character here who carries over from another book — she’s the same character that she was in Rose Madder and references the events of that book as well. And she and the character she hooks up with in this book, Steve Ames, are also the two who are most like themselves when they show up in The Regulators, too. Maybe that means something. I like those two better than most of the characters in this story, at any rate.
The protagonist gang in this story — David, John, Cynthia, Steve, Ralph, and Mary, by the end — do succeed in beating back Tak, if not outright killing it. But they pay a high price for it. Which is always attributed to God — “God is cruel” is a repeated refrain in this story — but it works for me even without God. Because even without a deity, you do tend to pay a price for survival. For doing the right thing in a hard situation. You aren’t necessarily rewarded for making a stand, for being true, for fighting for what’s right in a situation. You’re just as likely to lose people and things you love for doing so. I don’t attribute that to any god, personally, but I still acknowledge that as a true thing. And it’s something that King comes back to again and again, I think. You don’t necessarily need to believe in David Carver’s god, or in any god, but sometimes, the only choices you have are to make your stand and pay the price, or run, and pay that price. And the price for the right thing can be just as high and just as awful as the price for the wrong thing — the only real compensation is knowing you’ve chosen correctly, and you have to just live with that. Which is a pretty desperate way of thinking of things, but desperation, as it turns out, is a very real thing.