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it's unwise to tempt certain forces too far
The Plant
Publication Information

  • Philtrum Press
  • 1982 / 1983 / 1985 / 2000 / ?
  • King's only officially published unfinished work

    The Plant Available Online

  • Part One
  • Part Two
  • Part Three
  • Part Four
  • Part Five
  • Part Six
  • An (Unfinished) Novel Critique

    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.

    Told in an epistolary style King with which King had experimented in the Night Shift short story "Jerusalem's Lot" (as well as to a limited degree in Carrie and The Regulators), The Plant is unique from the outset. Set before the advent of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, The Plant relies instead on handwritten letters, interoffice memos, and diary excerpts to tell its story. In its own way, The Plant seems as old-fashioned today as Dracula - perhaps the most famous epistolary novel - seems to modern readers.

    Matters of form and structure cease to matter after the initial acclimation period. As with the serial novel The Green Mile and screenplays like Silver Bullet and Storm of the Century, King has a proven ability to tell a compelling, accessible story in unusual formats. The first letter by Detweiller is far scarier to the reader than it is to John Kenton, and that underlying fear never really abates, providing an unsettling backbone to the story. Unlike recent projects - The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis - this is King in full "horrormeister" mode. One could read this first segment of The Plant - titled Zenith Rising - with a 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 version of "nature" has more in common with H.P. Lovecraft than Robinson Crusoe); man against the supernatural (not only the eponymous plant, but also 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 than the gory tale on the surface, the final sections of Zenith Rising presenting the horror plainly and intimately, in the perpetrators' own words.

    Though two major plot threads are tied up in Part Six, the ending of Zenith Rising opens the door to a whole new level of horror. It remains to be seen whether or not King can continue in the epistolary vein; the inclusion of a mysterious "manuscript" titled Z in this final part seems to point toward a reversion to more traditional prose. Without too much reliance on the Z manuscript format, The Plant could very well become one of King's most effective books. Even in its truncated form, it is wildly frightening on a more visceral level than some of his most recent novels.

    Unfortunately, it may indeed remain truncated. The initial publication of The Plant ended in 1985, after a series of three chap-books had been sent out by the Kings in lieu of Christmas cards to friends and family. King felt that the story was too similar to the film Little Shop of Horrors, and decided to stop at once. For years, those initial three chapters were the subject of rumor, speculation, awe, and piracy: somehow, a photocopied made an appearance in collector's circles, and circulated among the devotees.

    Flash-forward to the year 2000. King's first foray into e-book territory, the short story "Riding the Bullet," was an unqualified success. It was so popular that it ruptured servers. Anonymous webmasters offering the book for download were interviewed in major print magazines. It made the cover of Time and news outlets around the world decried this as the beginning of the end of the printed word. The truth of that future is still undecided, but at the time, the trend was very much looking toward an all-digital future, and much of that trend had been decided by Stephen King.

    King then decided, to the delight of fans everywhere, to resurrect The Plant, combining two of his prior successful ventures into one new blockbuster e-book: the internet-only format of "Riding the Bullet" and the serial format of The Green Mile. One chapter a month for as long as it took, and readers would pay on the honor program: a dollar at first, then $2.50 for later, longer segments. The concept seemed simple and fun. To the fans who had read bootlegged copies of the first three chapters, this terrific work would finally be available in the mainstream format, and a continuation was imminent. For the millions of King fans who had never read (or even heard of) The Plant, here was a brand-new work they could finally get their eyes on. It seemed perfect for all involved.

    However, at some point, human nature decided to intervene. King decided to trust people to pay for the work after they'd read it, which may have been an error in judgment. When the price of the chapters rose from a dollar to two and a half, people rose up their hands in protest. Even the good-natured folks who paid more for the chapters didn't make up for all the people essentially doing what they'd done in the past with photocopiers: they were reading King's work for free. The only problem now was that they weren't just circulating a halted tale among friends and aficionados; now, they were actually stealing it.

    Who knows how much the commerce side of things has affected King's extended hiatus. Critics deemed King's experiment a failure (usually focusing on the unique publication of the story rather than the story itself). When Part Six finished in 2000, readers were promised new segments beginning in summer of 2001, with the payments required before download. That has still yet to happen.

    At this point, a decade has passed since the last installment. Were the critics right to focus on the publication of this novel? In other words, was the way it was published - and bought - enough of a deterrent to cease its publication? Installment publishing didn't stop The Green Mile (or the Dark Tower series, for that matter) becoming an unqualified success ... but then, those weren't published directly to the Internet. Perhaps King simply stopped writing the story and either ran out of ideas or the will to continue. In a way, it's interesting to have an official work left unfinished: it's King's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But it's also unfortunate: The Plant is well-written, uniquely told, and undeniably scary; no matter how King chooses to publish it, it will always remain unlike anything else he has written. Fifteen years after the publication of Part Three, Part Four was made available, which leads to hope and speculation that The Plant is not done, only on another long hiatus.


    [2000 Reviews]

    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 Ö 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 given away in lieu of Christmas cards 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. 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 and Carrie. 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 had 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 Ö 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 – if it ever arrives – 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 Ö 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 Ö 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.


    Part Three: In Which I Review the Hiatus


    (2005 update)

    The initial publication of The Plant ended in 1985, after a series of three chap-books had been sent out by the Kings in lieu of Christmas cards to friends and family. King felt that the story was too similar to the film Little Shop of Horrors, and decided to stop at once. For years, those initial three chapters were the subject of rumor, speculation, awe, and piracy: I got my hands on a photocopied set sometime in the mid-90s, and I guarded those pages with my life.

    Flash-forward to the year 2000. King’s first foray into e-book territory, the short story “Riding the Bullet,” was an unqualified success. It was so popular that it ruptured servers. Certain webmasters were interviewed for Newsweek magazine (hi, Mom!). It made the cover of Time and news outlets around the world decried this as the beginning of the end of the printed word. That it turned out to be a lot of pucky doesn’t mean anything now. At the time, the trend was very much looking toward an all-digital future, and much of that trend had been decided by Stephen King.

    So King decided, to the delight of fans everywhere, to resurrect The Plant, combining two of his prior successful ventures into one new blockbuster e-book: the internet-only format of “Riding the Bullet” and the serial format of The Green Mile. One chapter a month for as long as it takes, and you pay on the honor program: a buck at first, then $2.50. The concept seemed simple and fun. To the fans who had read bootlegged copies of the first three chapters, this terrific work would finally be available in the mainstream format, and we’d finally be getting a continuation. For the millions of King fans who had never read (or even heard of) The Plant, here was a brand-new work they could finally get their eyes on. Awesome, right?

    Well ... not exactly. See, at some point, human nature decided to intervene. King decided to trust people to pay for the work after they’d read it, which may have been an error in judgment. People like free stuff. And when the price of the chapters rose from a dollar to two and a half, people rose up their hands in protest. Even the good-natured folks (and webmasters) who paid more for the chapters didn’t make up for all the people essentially doing what they’d done in the past with photocopiers: they were reading King’s work for free. The only problem now was that they weren’t just circulating a halted tale among friends and aficionados; now, they were actually stealing it.

    Who knows how much the commerce side of things has affected King’s extended hiatus. When Part Six finished in 2000, readers were promised new segments beginning in summer of 2001, with the payments required before download. That didn’t happen. So we waited. And waited. And we’re still waiting.

    A lot of critics, seemingly eager to cut King off at the knees when his experiment in human nature failed, bandied about the phrase “The Plant died on the vine” quite a bit in those days (journalists are unfailingly clever folk.) At the time, I spoke out against those charges. Just because a minority of fans chose not to pay for the installments doesn’t make the novel a failure. What infuriated me the most was that the press – and quite a number of the fans – were remarking far more on the process of publication rather than the tale itself. And the tale was good, damn good, going down a more visceral and shock-horror path than King had been on lately. The quiet terrors of Bag of Bones and Hearts in Atlantis seemed far removed from the Lovecraftian eeriness of The Plant (especially the later chapters, which seemed to flow easier than the earlier ones, even in the epistolary format.)

    But at this point, it’s been five years since the last episode (and I do like calling it an “episode”) of The Plant, and I’m worried. A lot of amateur critics like to talk about King “losing it” in recent years (these so-called “recent years” seem to stretch back as far as 1981 and Firestarter), and in response I point to such latter-day classics as Bag of Bones and From a Buick 8. But I can’t point to anything in regards to The Plant, which makes me wonder what happened. Were the critics right to focus on the publication of this novel? In other words, was the way it was published – and bought – enough of a deterrent to cease its publication? Or did King just stop and not want to start again? Questions without answers.

    My hope is that, someday, King will revitalize this work. In a way, it’s interesting and unique to have an official work left unfinished: it’s King’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But as a fan, man, I want to read the rest of this story. It’s good, it’s scary, and no matter how King chooses to publish it, it’ll always remain one of a kind. I don’t mind waiting so much as long as there’s a possibility of completion.

    Fifteen years after the publication of part three, part four was made available, and that gave us hope. Sometime in the next ten years, might we see the beginnings of The Plant: Book Two? I’ve hoped before and I’ll hope again. May this poison garden grow.