Colin Moon's Reviews > Desperation

Desperation by Stephen King
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Jul 07, 2010

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bookshelves: contemporary, fiction, horror, own
Read in March, 2010 — I own a copy

[writer's warning: this article is almost wholly concerned with comparing this work to the other work of Stephen King. Those not interested or well-read may want to skip it]

Upon my second read through of Desperation, I found myself pleasantly surprised—almost shocked. When I read the novel the first time (I assume it was somewhere between finding King in 1994 or ’95 and my high school years, when I first plowed through the bulk of his catalog), I was left feeling it was part of his (to me, at least) lamentable “middle period” which, I’m starting to realize, may or may not exist/be all that bad. Insomnia I still hold to be of that ‘period’ (it was published in 1994, around the time I started ‘It‘), and when I read that novel last (during my reading of the Dark Tower and associated books) I found it to be just as ill-gained as I had originally assumed—a mere foot note to the Tower.

Desperation, on the other hand, I found both capable and well composed, with its myriad view-points (a King touchstone I myself have been planning on trying out), unique characters (well, for the most part. I still feel that both Mary Jackson and her ill-fated husband Peter to be nearly inconsequential in the long run, to say nothing of Audrey Wyler’s scant appearance), and a diligently crafted villain and locale—it has a feel that doesn’t recur in King’s work, even the sister novel, Bachman’s The Regulators.

I imagine the disdain for religion and religious tones I possessed in my younger years—an almost knee-jerk refusal to accept God-themes in my reading—had much to do with my initial dislike for the novel—something I had to fight tooth and nail through during my first couple readings of King’s The Stand—but that feeling has long since been exorcised from me; I still have a hardened agnostic’s view of the world, but have opened up the realm of religious themes in my reading—and, in Desperation, David Carver’s (and, later, Johnny Marinville’s) God-knowledge has its purpose and its strange, cynical nature. Sure, in the end we learn that “God is love”, but for most of the novel he comes off as a self-serving, cruel, even manipulative jerk.

As for Tak, the novel’s great evil, I have mixed feelings; at times it is sinister while at others goofy. This is true of several of King’s antagonists (Pennywise the Dancing Clown, my personal favorite, has some laughable moments due to what King seems to see as an absurd nature of evil), and in no way diminishes Tak’s essential ‘outsider’ nature—a monstrosity from BEYOND (again, see Pennywise), a being of incredible power which is both horrible and, in the end, impotent.

What Tak is—a question that can rarely be answered of any of King’s evils save few—is a question that needs to be aske3d; it is in this novel that the terms “can toi” and “can tak” (Little God and Big God, respectively) are intoned first, and these things resurface in the Tower; Callahan has a can toi of Maturin and uses it near the end of that cycle, but how and why? In Desperation the can toi are poisonous, evil, dreadful to even look at. If such things exist in both evil and “of the white” ways, why and where do they come from and from where does the power spring?

Tak has its “well of worlds”, where, seemingly before man and, therefore, perhaps, before David’s God, it took root in Earth (not Keystone Earth, as this is an earth where Arnette, Texas exists), just the creature and its strange supply of can toi and can tak. It waited to be discovered. The creature in It, much more primal and physical, also came from BEYOND, but hosts no magic items to wreak its havoc—even though It and Tak share the fact that, while they do have physical or metaphysical bodies, their true essence still lies somewhere in that BEYOND—It in It’s Deadlights and Tak in its well.

So if can toi are some sort of manifestation of power, where does Callahan’s Maturin come from? A like-minded space, a sort of “well of White” or “well of Maturin”? Are there, as in Tak’s case, many of these artifacts? Perhaps a space like Tak’s well for all the Guardians of the Beam, now lost or secreted away?

The magic items—or charmed items—of King’s universe are rare and nearly all wihout origin (think of Maerlyn’s Rainbow), but seem to offer more cosmic answers by their existence—answers we never really get (the closest I can think of some vague answer is in It‘s “Ritual of Chud”, as Bill drifts past Maturin, and even that’s not any degree of proof or negation). Even It’s symbol is re-used in Under the Dome to no real satisfaction.

At any rate, the use of God in these novels still feels iffy: if God is there, using David (or The Stand‘s Mother Abigail), then is he, like in Desperation, only concerned with that which is an affront to Him (as he claims the China Pit to be)? Where, then, does that leave It, the Crimson King, or the possible fall of the Tower? Or is David’s God more of a source of the White, one of many? Does Roland ever feel that God, or just an aspect of Him/a different aspect of Him? God’s Twinner?

All of King’s metaphysics aside, an interesting turn for his ubiquitous writer here—a fool hardy asshole is presented in Johnny Marinville, which we see again in the form of King himself in the Tower cycle, but which rarely expresses itself in King’s other writers—Like Bill Denbrough or even Misery‘s Paul Sheldon, or Bag of Bones‘ Mike Noonan or Lisey’s Story‘s Scott Landon. Of course, there’s always King’s original, Jack Torrence of The Shining, the most flawed of King’s writer characters—aside, of course, from King himself.

King’s game—using the same characters in Desperation and Bachman’s The Regulators—even so much as making some of them reasonable “twinners”–is a fantastic concept, one that would be interesting to try out with one of the other writers I have known and worked with (though, in my case, it would be a real, breathing writer); come up with a list of names and then run with them without knowing what the other writer is doing.
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