Poison Ivy

The Plant Part One: Zenith Rising

by Stephen King

reviews by Kevin Quigley


Part One: In Which I Review the Story

In a letter addressed to Zenith House, a small publishing house in New York City, Carlos Detweiller asks editor John Kenton if he would like to read his book True Tales of Demon Infestations. The letter isn’t particularly well written, but Kenton thinks the book might have some merit; the fact that Zenith House is struggling to stay afloat has a little something to do with his letter of encouragement back to Detweiller. But instead of sending some sample chapters as requested, Detweiller – a florist from Central Falls, Rhode Island – sends his whole manuscript … and several photos that appear to depict the actual sacrifice of a human being. Terrified, Kenton gets the police involved, thus evoking the wrath of Carlos Detweiller. But instead of taking revenge in the usual manner, all Detweiller does is send a plant to the publishing house, a plant named Zenith the Common Ivy. That’s when Kenton’s troubles really begin.

The Plant has had an unusual history, starting out in a series of three chap-books in the early 1980’s, then canceled due to its similarities to The Little Shop of Horrors. In 2000, King apparently discovered a new path to the story and began issuing it installments again – over the internet – for a dollar or two a pop (currently, the book is on hiatus until Summer 2001.) If the method of delivering the tale seemed unique, the presentation of this "novel in progress" is even moreso: The Plant is told in epistolary format; that is, presented as a series of letters, memos, and journal entries. Perhaps the most famous use of this method of storytelling is Bram Stoker’s Dracula; King has dabbled with the format himself in the short story "Jerusalem’s Lot" and in limited use in novels such as The Regulators. Here, however, the style is on a more ambitious scale, not simply accentuating otherwise straightforward text, but transcending it. It remains to be seen whether or not King can continue in this vein; the inclusion of a mysterious "manuscript" titled Z in Part 6 seems to point toward a reversion to more traditional prose. I remain confident that King has some greater reason for the shift into this type of storytelling, but having such a transition take place in the final section of Book One is a bit disheartening.

The story itself, however, leaves no such reservations. The first letter by Detweiller is far scarier to the reader than it is to John Kenton … and the fear never really abates. Make no mistake about it: this is King in full "horrormeister" regalia, fangs and all. One could read Zenith Rising with a checkoff list of basic fiction conflicts by one’s side: from the beginning, King pits man against man (Detweiller versus Kenton is not the only such matchup); man against nature (although, this being a King story, this version of "nature" has more in common with H.P. Lovecraft than Robinson Crusoe); man against the supernatural (not only the eponymous plant, but there are zombies, psychic phenomena, and a few mysterious "accidents"); and, most chillingly, man against himself. The lengths that Kenson and the others go to justify their actions is chilling in a far more subtle way, the final sections of Zenith Rising presenting the horror plainly and intimately, in the perpetrators’ own words.

Part Two of The Plant – due this summer, again in installments – has a lot to work with. Though two major plot threads were tied up in chapter 6, the ending of Zenith Rising opens the greenhouse door to a whole new level of horror. (One prediction: that secretary doesn’t have long to live.) Without too much reliance on the Z-manuscript gimmick, The Plant could very well become one of King’s most effective books, and his most unique. King’s more recent horror stories (Bag of Bones, Storm of the Century) have been far more restrained than his earlier novels – still terrifically scary, but without as much visceral meat-and-blood spectacle. If Zenith Rising is any indication, I think that we’re in for a lot of splatter in the upcoming segments … and I, for one, can’t wait.


Part Two: In Which I Review the Publication

The internet has been both a blessing and a curse.

On the one hand, people receive news faster than ever before. Up-to-the-second information zooms from computer to computer every second of the day, uniting the world in a way it has never been. The act of writing – both via email and instant message – is a rediscovered art: suddenly, it’s easier to write a letter to a friend overseas than to call them, and get a response back in minutes.

On the other hand, all this constant information has led to what the rock band Queen once pronounced: "I want it all, and I want it now." While the skill of writing may be on the rise, the virtue of patience has been left behind. King might not have fully grasped this concept when The Plant zoomed into publication in June of 2000. None of his own precedents could have prepared him. His last serial experiment – with The Green Mile in 1996 – was released in chapbook format , before the internet gained its mainstream acceptance. His internet-only publication Riding the Bullet, while causing a bit of controversy over the way it was handled, was a one-shot whose dissidents quickly faded away.

Not so The Plant. King proposed a simple experiment in human ethics: he would release the plant in monthly installments, one dollar per installment, to be paid after you downloaded the story. You could send in a dollar, you could write a check, you could even pay by credit card using the handy Amazon.com payment system. King thought it would be amusing to gauge how many people actually paid for something after they had it in their possession. His admonishment, "Don’t steal from the blind newsboy!" seemed jovial, as if King knew his fans wouldn’t let him down. He’d been through a lot with them, changed styles of writing, left them hanging for years between Dark Tower books, put the fear of God into them when he was struck by a van in 1999 … and they always came back. Surely, this experiment would just prove that his fan base was loyal yet again, correct?

Well, yes and no. One of the stipulations of the agreement was that King actually had to receive 75% of the pay per installment; if that wasn’t met, he would close up shop. Many people began to balk immediately. There were, of course, rebels against "The Man," who didn’t want to pay for what they could have for free (these charming folks apparently missed the irony of King’s attempt to stick it to "The Man" by not bowing to conventional publisher’s wishes). One common complaint early on was that King shouldn’t be charging at all for his installments; Douglas Clegg was giving his book away for free, why not King? This argument only intensified when King raised the price of the latter installments to $2.50 each, due to the fact that the installments were more than triple the size of the earlier ones. (As for my stance: hey, I’m all for anarchy on the web, I really am. I love Napster. But as a writer myself, I know how much work goes into the creation of a novel – work, like plumbing and contracting and computer programming. You wouldn’t ask your plumber to just come in and fix your toilet for free, why ask King to give away his book? As it was, he eliminated the middleman, cut down costs, and gave everyone a 270-page installment for eight bucks. Where’s the harm in that?)

Of course, the free-thinkers then complained about the cost of ink and paper to print the book, and the cost of binding it when it was done. The only reaction to these people is this: if you don’t want to pay for printing and binding, don’t print it and bind it. You can easily read the book on your computer screen.

The major bombshell exploded in November, right before Part Six of Zenith Rising (this final part was free of charge) hit King’s website. King had announced that he was putting The Plant on hold for awhile, so he could fulfill his contractual obligations and to give his foreign presses time to translate the book. Everyone from the news media to the internet newsgroups flew into a frenzy of anger. "The Plant Died On the Vine" was a common sensationalist headline, indicating that the sales of the book had petered out and King’s experiment was a failure. The fan base was divided into two major camps: the "How could he desert us" camp – those who had bought the book each time (often paying extra to insure The Plant’s long life), and the "I told you so" camp, those who had decried the idea from the start (often these are the same people who downloaded it and never paid for it.)

Closer examination – heck, any examination of King’s statement made it blatantly clear that he was simply putting the book on hiatus, and that it would be back in the summer of 2001. No one cared about the facts. The general perception was that King failed at his little experiment: oh well, happens to everyone sometime. The blatant misperception of the actual events was mind-boggling: it was as if everyone wanted King to fail, as if he’s somehow been too popular for too long, and that he should just give it a rest.

No rest for the wicked: according to King himself, the book will cycle up this summer, and that you will have to pay for it in installments. There is a rumor that King plans to institute a pay-first policy on this second segment, but I hope not. Even if the requisite 75% of people did not pay each time, the majority of fans still did. Despite the combined anarchist mentality and the MTV-era attention span, I think people are still willing to pay and wait for a good yarn from the world preeminent storyteller. Or, better, in the final words of the character Red from King’s "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption": I hope.