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a novel by Stephen King

review by Kevin Quigley

Cycling up: this is the phrase I use to describe Stephen King’s prologues. As far back as ’Salem’s Lot, King has used the device of a few introductory pages to establish mood, character, and setting before bursting full-throttle into the novel proper. In Dreamcatcher, we are treated subtle – if spooky – look at four lifelong friends who seem to share a psychic gift. As adults, they have moved away from each other, getting together only once a year for their annual hunting trip. King introduces his people – Pete, Jonesy, Beaver, and Henry – slowly, carefully, offering slice-of-psychic-life vignettes and hinting at an important event in their childhood that changed them forever.

Then, the aliens come.

By this point in the story, King has cycled up and is ready to do some serious damage. The aliens which invade – where else? – upper Maine during hunting season don’t come in battalions, and they don’t come armed … at least not in the usual way. They land proclaiming words of peace, mimicking voices that Americans know and are comfortable with: Bill Clinton is one voice, Sarah Jessica Parker another. Their pronouncements, heard over military and government radio feeds, assure the populace – in both English and French – that "There is no infection." Il n'y a pas d'infection ici.

Unfortunately for our heroes, this could not be further from the truth. Dreamcatcher crawls with infection, a particularly virulent strain that grows over the body in the form of reddish moss. One interesting side effect is that the moss – known as either ripley or byrus, depending on your military status – renders the infected psychic. Another is that the byrus can sometimes mutate into a tapeworm-like creature with dead-black eyes and a lethal set of teeth … a creature that grows inside warm bodies until the bodies become too small to contain them.

One of these bodies – in the form of a lost, delirious hunter named Richard McCarthy – comes across Hole in the Wall, the cabin that the four semi-psychic friends retreat to every November. The first to stumble upon the McCarthy is Jonesy, a man still recovering from a car accident that nearly killed him months before (the realism King brings to these memories is painful; that King himself lived through this type of pain lends these passages an urgent, clawing intensity). Jonesy, as we soon discover, is immune to the byrus’s deadly effects … but not to the byrus itself. Instead of the tapeworm-creature, an entirely different form of life inhabits Jonesy, a sinister, alien presence known only as Mr. Gray. While Mr. Gray seems incapable of harming Jonesy (due to a metaphysical stockade Jonesy has locked himself in inside his own mind) he is perfectly able to make Jonesy harm others – sometimes lethally.

On the other side of the coin is a special forces unit of the US Army, lead my a man named Abraham Kurtz, a great leader now tottering just on this side of sanity. His orders: to destroy the alien presence and to round up all civilians in the area who may have been infected with the byrus and hold them in a local barn. One of these civilians is Henry, whose often-dormant psychic power is now at full power. He is able to hear what Kurtz’s real plan is: not only to slaughter the aliens, but to also slaughter the penned-in civilians. He can also hear the voice of the dangerous Mr. Gray, who is planning something even worse. Desperate to save the lives of the incarcerated – and to stop Mr. Gray – Henry calls out to Kurtz’s right hand man, an officer named Owen Underhill. Henry senses that Owen not only fears Kurtz, but that he (Owen) is haunted by the guilt of something he did a long time ago, and that he still wants to make up for it. He offers Owen a chance to be a hero, not realizing at first that he is really offering the chance to himself.

Long ago, Henry and his friends Jonesy, Pete, and Beaver did something great, something that would put the rest of their lives in stark relief. In a scene very reminiscent of King’s novel IT (and not simply because it takes place in Derry), the boys band together to help someone else, a child with Down’s Syndrome who calls himself Duddits. Slowly, through passages that are alternatively touching and scary, Duddits becomes the central figure of Dreamcatcher, the unifying force that holds the other four friends together. Like Owen and Henry, Duddits gets another chance to be a hero, even though, like them, he is dying a little more each day.

Dreamcatcher is a very interesting book for Stephen King at this phase of his career. Since Bag of Bones exploded onto the literary scene, we’ve been treated to a writer who had become somehow more mannered in his approach to both writing in general and horror in particular. This was not to say King had weakened his literary voice; just that the voice was subtler. The appearance of The Plant in installments on the internet seemed to be a shift back to more visceral horror, but as that was begun in the 80’s, perhaps the existing storyline was simply more gruesome, not really reflective of King’s current output.

Not so. With Dreamcatcher, King is definitely back on the turf that most fans and critics associate him with: knock-down, drag-out horror, with a flair for precise characterization and a dash of something slightly spiritual. What most readers won’t realize, though, is that just because King is revisiting some of his earlier plot devices (the term splatter can only begin to describe some of the more gruesome scenes) doesn’t mean he has left behind his newfound voice. What Dreamcatcher has to offer – and I believe this to be a rare thing – is the marriage of "early King" and "later King," the successful union of extreme terror and literary tone. It’s as if Cujo met Hearts in Atlantis and they decided to paint the town red.

Dreamcatcher is bound to merit some comparisons, the most obvious of which is IT. Not only does a good portion of the novel take place in Derry, but the way the past and present thread together as the novel steams along also recalls the earlier book. (Of note to IT fans: there’s a special, terrifying treat midway through the novel that will have readers talking for years.) Bringing up The Tommyknockers is often enough to make any King fan cringe, but here the comparison is favorable. Dreamcatcher is what The Tommyknockers could have been minus a few hundred pages; reading the two back to back gives one a sense of an author in a period of evolution. The more recent Bachman novel, The Regulators, gives readers a glimpse of Jonesy’s mental barricade against Mr. Gray: in the previous book, the character Audrey is able to hide from a demon named Tak using similar methods. In both books, these people trapped in their own minds are able to reach the outside world through the use of telephones – both times to spectacular effects.

Other than these minor points, though, Dreamcatcher is truly its own novel. King’s characters are developing more and more shades of gray – pun definitely intended – and sometimes the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are not as readily identifiable. The final hundred or so pages of Dreamcatcher details one extended car chase, a multi-part, multi-viewpoint sequence that kicks up the tension level up a few notches each time the chase advances – an ending utterly unlike anything King has ever done before. Even in closing, King doesn’t quite play nice. Before the cycle-down, the quiet resolution after all the carnage, King throws in a couple of spikes of ambiguity. As we close the book, thinking over King’s clever little anagrams, we are left to wonder: what portion of evil came from the skies … and what portion was already here, just waiting to go on a cathartic killing spree? There are no definite answers, and that might just be the most chilling part of all.