Desperation by Stephen King

Desperation book cover
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Rating 8.8/10
You have the right to sustained violence

Despite me reading a fair amount of King as a teen and young adult, Desperation was one that pretty much passed me by. Since however it continues on the story of Cynthia Smith, one of the most appealing secondary characters from Rose Madder, and since my lady and I wanted a break from urban fantasy for our next cooperative reading project, it was certainly a book I didn’t mind trying.

Published in 1996 at the same time as The Regulators (a book written by Stephen King’s very own George Starke Richard Bachman), Desperation reuses some characters and concepts from that book, though with roles often reversed (for example in one case parents becoming children). Though I do remember reading The Regulators in my early twenties, my memories of it are hazy at best, so I was really going into Desperation with no preconceptions, well other than the knowledge that Mr. King was going to provide me with a huge amount of gore, mayhem and nail-biting action, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

The book begins with Mary Jackson and her husband Peter being pulled over by a hulking policeman on a lonely desert road. After a bag of marijuana (a souvenir from her stoner sister-in-law), is found in the back of the car, Mary and Peter reluctantly get into the cop’s car so he can drive them to the nearest town to sort things out. It is here however where things start to get strange, after all, most police don’t include the phrase “I’m going to kill you” when reading someone their rights, neither have most police apparently murdered everyone in town.

Locked up in Desperation jail along with several other travelers, including eleven year old David Carver and his parents and the town’s last survivor, Mary and Peter realize they’ve walked into a nightmare, and that the thing which holds them prisoner is far more than just a psychotic cop.

If your ever wondering just how King became a bestselling author, the opening of Desperation shows exactly why. King goes from the comparatively normal occurrence of being pulled over whilst driving, to the rather guilty fear of being taken into custody, then slowly ramps up both the tension and the weirdness factor as you realize that the cop, Collie Entragian, is less than sane, and furthermore that there is something very wrong not just with him, but with the whole town. Even though King seems to step back slightly to show the capture of several characters, each time he does so with a little more nasty, until at the point we’re seeing Johnny brought in we have literal sheets of blood, sexual obscenity and multiple murder.

This sort of creeping tension is something King does exceptionally well, indeed each time I thought we’d crested the wave of weirdness, King manages to knock it up another notch. Even when moving temporarily away from the tense situation in Desperation jail to the viewpoint of Steve Aims, Johnny’s one man support crew, and his friendship with hitchhiker Cynthia Smith, King keeps the pressure building by use of Johnny’s phone calls for help, and Cynthia and Steve’s discovery of even more unpleasantness. There is something cinematic about the ways scenes and plot points dovetail together, particularly for a writer who is often criticized for writing too much filler, indeed writing-wise here King is well on top of his game, brief when he needs to be, though quite prepared to give his characters background room to breathe, with plenty of unpleasant asides, or those ironically weird touches of description or surreally black humor that he’s become so famous for.

One major strength of Desperation is the way King juggles different types of terror. From almost funny grotesquery such as the mad cop running down surviving townspeople and laughing uproariously, to attacks by all sorts of creepy crawlies, to that reality bending sense of unnatural abandonment which King is such an expert at, each time you think you have a handle on the horror, King manages to wrongfoot you. In particular, I loved the bizarre weirdly placed alternative language which Collie Entragian starts to use, which then creeps into the narration itself, making you feel that Desperation is almost turning into another world.

Character has always been one of King’s strongest suits here, and the ways the characters react to the situation, particularly given a couple of fairly shocking deaths quite early on has a wonderful immediacy to it. While not all of the characters are necessarily pleasant to be around, with David’s mother Ellen often proving shrill and somewhat abrasive, and the egotistical writer Johnny Marinville spending most of the book as a down right douchebag, the cast is certainly compelling.

Mary in particular is one of King’s most notable female characters, especially since she manages to prove one of the most resilient despite some unpleasant things that happen to her fairly early on, even one section in which she is kidnapped doesn’t reduce her to helplessness, indeed the fact that King both shows us how afraid Mary is and have her work through that to be awesome on occasions is a wonderful way to write someone being heroic. Ironically, the only character who slightly disappointed me here was Cynthia. While the punk hairdo, sassy attitude and level of smarts without education were definitely traits I remembered from Rose Madder, at the same time King seemed to tone down her tolerance for terror. Perhaps it was that Steve, the ever calm roadie with the heart of gold was so relaxed about everything the terror had to come from Cynthia, or maybe with Steve being such a similar character to Stu Redman from The Stand King confused Cynthia with the decidedly less tough Franny Goldsmith. Not of course that characters; even female ones, being afraid of things especially in a horror novel is a bad thing, but when Cynthia was always the one most creeped out first by abandoned buildings, then by dead bodies, then snakes, then spiders, then by the whole situation whilst stolid Steve proved her ever calm comforter it was getting a little much. It was hard to square this with the Cynthia of Rose Madder who faced down the psychotic Norman Daniels even after he broke her nose.

The character we spend most time with is David Carver, and it is David’s perspective which introduces another of the book’s major themes, that of faith in God. After a brief introduction from his father noting that David had become a Christian despite two very secular parents, we are then introduced to David’s perspective, how he found God through the near death of his friend, and how he now feels a direct connection to God through his prayers.

This connection to God is explored in detail through the book, in particular the idea that “god is cruel”, that God manipulates events (even unpleasant ones), for good ends. Though some have criticized this aspect of the plot, King is careful to keep his interventions both extremely small scale, and also questionable, indeed King himself remarked that he didn’t want God to be simply a deus ex machina or an instant plot solver.

Thus, while there are a couple of miraculous occurrences and insights on David’s part, (including a rather amusing modern take on a biblical miracle), none are achieved easily, or without the understandable skepticism of others, especially the dour Johnny. Indeed, the ways that the cruelty of God are manifested (particularly for David himself), provide some of the books more heartrending emotional arcs.

Of course, to what extent the cruelty of the God of desperation might reflect God in reality is a very big question and one best left up to each individual reader to decide for themselves. As far as King’s beliefs go however, I do find it interesting (as horror writer Grady Hendriks speculated), that King had just gone through Alcoholics Anonymous before writing Desperation, and the “cruel god” might be a reflection of the equally cruel higher power which AA members invoke to help them through the hard road to sobriety. It is also possible, that since the literal God of the world of Desperation is in fact the capricious cruel and only occasionally kindly Stephen King himself, this aspect of things had a little self-parody behind it.

Either way, for those with some degree of religious belief there is definitely something to think about in Desperation, and even for those without, it still provides some very interesting obstacles for King’s characters to overcome, which most people who aren’t zealot atheists would probably at the least sympathize with, though there is no denying those with some religious inclination might well be in a better position to appreciate some of the book’s more telling conflicts, such as how literal experience of God can be squared with a person’s grief.

My only issue with the divine angle concerns the latter quarter of the book, and that relates entirely to pacing. For the most part, King keeps the hammer firmly down throughout the book so that even in quieter sections you're still never sure when things will take a turn for the worse; the way King turns seemingly admiring observations of a woman’s revealing clothing into a horrific realization is masterful. The problem comes after David receives a divine revelation about the nature of the evil in Desperation. Though part of this divine revelation concerns a rather touching insight about one character, at the same time we then cut to several stories of how the evil started, and some of its first victims.

To an extent the history is necessary to provide context for the final confrontation, however, King rather overdoes the history here with the plot seeming to rock in place for the last four or so hours, even though at that point we really just want to see the darkness vanquished. Similarly, whilst some of the debates about the validity of divine convictions were more than welcome, at the same time, towards the end these debates and the actions that resulted from them became a little circular.

I was also sorry a couple of characters were slightly under used, in particular, Collie Entragian after an explosive entrance exited the action a wee bit too early on, although the manner of his exit was undoubtedly creepy.

The climax when it comes is delivered with King’s usual explosive pomp, though I do slightly wish the focus didn’t change so much from David to Johnny towards the end, since though we do get to understand exactly why Johnny was such an egotistical git, that doesn’t actually stop him from being an egotistical git, even if he was a heroic egotistical git.

On the one hand the final confrontation itself, despite some reality twisting horror analogous to Stephen King’s It is over a little too quickly. On the other, to an extent it is similar to The Stand; a matter of the cruel but necessary plans of God coming together in one final outburst. Indeed, in a lot of ways it is the sacrifices and torment along the way that make the destination what it is, not the destination itself. I also appreciated that at the end, after emphasizing the cruelty of God, King still notes God’s love and that life goes on, indeed while some have criticized the upbeat note the book ends on, at the same time, after all the concentrated unpleasantness, a downbeat ending would’ve been almost predictable.

Desperation in many ways is more standard horror novel than many King has written. A small group of characters in an isolated location, a psychotic cop, reality bending weirdness, stacks of bodies and blood and guts all leading to the existence of an ancient evil whose history is revealed just before that group of survivors do battle with it.

Yet at the same time, the ghoulish gauntlet King’s characters must run in order to combat that evil, and the questions underpinning their trials give the horror a slightly different slant.

Despite a minor disappointment with one of King’s more likable female characters, one particularly egregious arsehole, and a slightly slower last third, Desperation is still vintage King at his best with a nicely theological undertone, and definitely one I’d recommend.

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