Michael Jandrok's Reviews > The Tommyknockers

The Tommyknockers by Stephen King
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really liked it
Read 2 times. Last read October 13, 2017 to October 17, 2017.

Disclaimer: This review is overlong and a bit disjointed and possibly boring in places, just like the subject matter. Continue at your own discretion.

Keeping with my September/October obsession with the macabre, I decided to head for the bookstore and pick up a fresh copy of Stephen King’s “The Tommyknockers.” There is a new commercial interest in King as the theatrical version of “It” has now become the highest grossing horror film in cinema history. And I loved reading “It,” but I will also confess that I am sort of drawn to King's more obscure works. I remember reading “The Tommyknockers” not long after its release date back in 1987. Having read all of King’s output to that point I was thrilled to get another thick slab of fright from a writer who was clearly on a roll. Except of course, King was not exactly at the top of his game. By his own admission, he was struggling with substance abuse, and this became one of the central themes of the novel. King had attained celebrity status by that time in his career, and his lifestyle was a direct reflection of those heady times. As such, he is on record as describing “The Tommyknockers” as an “awful” book, one which he is ashamed of. And clearly, if you set it up against the rest of the King canon, it does fall short in a lot of areas. But we will discuss those later in this review. I have my own nostalgic reasons for coming back to this book at this particular juncture in my life, and I’ll flat out state right up front that I enjoy the novel despite its many flaws.

“Late last night and the night before, Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.”

“Tommyknockers” are supposedly the ghosts of dead miners whose spirits are still knocking on the sides of the mine shafts trying to gain attention to their plight. In some cases, they are known to come out of the mines and knock on people’s doors to get them to come out and help them. It’s a scary enough folk definition, and one that King adapts to his own uses here.

In quick summary of the plot: pulp Western writer Bobbi Anderson is out cutting firewood one day on her rural Maine property, when she stumbles over a piece of metal sticking out of the ground on a path she has walked many times before. A quick exploration of the object reveals that it is nothing small nor easy to wrest from the ground. Furthermore, she encounters an odd “vibration” when she touches the thing. She leaves it be for the time being and heads back to her home, to ponder the situation.

Meanwhile, her good friend and occasional lover (and former college instructor) Jim Gardener (Gard) is having a physical and emotional breakdown many miles away, a result of falling off of the wagon for the umpteenth time. His drinking prompts a confrontation with a nuclear power company executive at a poetry reading after-party, and Gardener finds himself washed up on a beachfront several days later, despondent and suicidal after a long blackout. His only link to anyone who might help him is his relationship with Bobbi, and he has a suspicion that all is not right with her world. The premonition prompts him to abandon his suicide planning and hitchhike to Bobbi’s home, where he finds things are a bit...different...indeed.

Bobbi is acting strangely, is physically emaciated, and has been fiercely making “improvements” around her home. Her old water heater now produces boiling hot steam at the crack of a spigot, and seems to be powered by some sort of small-scale fusion device. Her battered old typewriter appears to be able to read Bobbi’s mind by telepathy, and allows her to write an entire new book with just her thought processes. There are batteries EVERYWHERE, and her old pet beagle Peter seems to be mysteriously missing. Bobbi takes Gard out to what she calls “the dig,” and shows him her secret. She hasn’t stumbled over an old safe or a refrigerator in her yard. No, Bobbi has been working herself to death uncovering what appears to be a genuine flying saucer of immense physical proportions.

Meanwhile, the people of the town of Haven, where Bobbi resides, are experiencing their own brainstorms of odd creativity, and find themselves changing (“becoming”) both mentally and physically. They are all losing teeth, and they have all developed a form of telepathy with each other. Odd bits of violence occur, but the “becoming” continues. A young boy accidentally makes his younger brother “disappear” at a backyard magic show, in what may turn out to be a window to an alien world.

Gardener has a steel plate in his skull, a byproduct of a ski accident when he was younger. This piece of metal gives him some immunity from what everyone is now calling “the becoming,” but events at Bobbi’s place and in town are progressing at a dangerous pace. Gardener has reluctantly agreed to help Bobbi dig up the saucer, though it drives him back to drink. Events coalesce, and Bobbi and the townsfolk, who now call themselves the “Tommyknockers,” begin to escalate their physical and mental mutation, building to what will literally be an explosive climax. What is in Bobbi’s shed that she won’t let Gard see? What’s with all of the dolls scattered around when the town clock tower lifts off like a bottle rocket? What is going on with all of the sickly green light and all of those damn squishy sounds? Tentacles? Oh, yes…..there are tentacles.

“I want to go out, don’t know if I can, ‘cause I’m so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.”

I think my liking for “The Tommyknockers” lies with the premise itself. I have a soft spot for science-fiction that intermingles with horror, and the basic plot of the book is straight out of the old pulp sci-fi and horror novels and comics of the 1950s. It’s not an original set of ideas on which to base a novel. King states that the basis of “The Tommyknockers” was ripped off from H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour out of Space.” (And Lovecraft was the MASTER of mixing science-fiction themes with horror. His entire Cthulhu mythos is premised on a set of interdimensional space entities from the immense distances between the stars.) Fellow writer and critic Kim Newman believes the plot is a rewrite of “Quatermass and the Pit/Five Million Years to Earth,”an old '60s-era story of the excavation of an alien spaceship in the heart of London, during which the craft exerts an influence on the residents of the immediate area of the dig. On a personal level, I can even see a couple of similarities with the “Spooky Space Kook” episode of the original Scooby-Doo cartoon series, first aired way back in 1969.

And basically, King pulls this derivative story together reasonably well, especially the parts of the book that focus on the interplay between Bobbi and Gard. This relationship is at the absolute heart of the novel, and when it’s on point, it’s simply great. King took a lot of time establishing the two characters, and their shared history and background provides a framework for why Gardener agrees to help Bobbi dig up the spacecraft in spite of the obvious and increasingly chilling changes occurring to her and the rest of the town as time goes by. Gard is not as immune as he initially thinks he is to the “becoming,” but by the time he himself begins to develop and change it is FAR too late to blow the whistle on what is happening in and around Haven. King has to juggle a lot of themes here...the aforementioned focus on addiction and the slow debilitation that goes hand in hand with it…..the attempted association between Gard’s activist hatred of nuclear power and the spaceship’s sinister effects on Bobbi and the town….and finally the deep-seated 1960s-era distrust of the shadow government and the machinations of power and covert activity, a theme that runs through a number of King’s works.

When it’s good, it’s good. That said, “The Tommyknockers” isn’t always good. After starting strong with Bobbi and Gard as the central characters, King inexplicably turns the entire middle portion of the book to the town of Haven and the happenings within. While some of the stories are interesting, the bulk of the narrative slows to a crawl populated with only marginally engaging characters. I would have been ok if King had interspersed these “townie” tales into the larger central plot revolving around Bobbi and Gard, but he instead drops his main characters for an interminably long time to focus on a lot of what could have been integrated as peripheral events. As a result of this, all of the narrative energy is drained by the time that King once again turns his attentions to Bobbi and Gard. The author gamely tries to recapture the thrust of the story, and he succeeds to some degree, but the damage to the book as a whole has been done.

King also fails to draw a clear comparison between the dangers of nuclear power and the eerie effects of the Tommyknockers upon the town. There are a few similarities drawn between the two, especially in the way that the “Tommyknocker effect” mirrors radiation poisoning, but the whole thing is really put together in sketchy fashion. I also never really got the message being sent about addiction, other than that it’s bad and it can ruin your life. I think that King was inhabiting the character of Gardener at some points, incorporating his own struggles with drugs into the main narrative in order to….what, exactly? It seemed sometimes that the message was something like “don’t be a drunk kids, or you will chase your obsessions into the ground while everyone around you mutates into strange alien creatures.” Or something like that.

In the end, “The Tommyknockers” is a big mixed bag for fans. Personally, I am of the “any Stephen King is good Stephen King” mindset. This certainly isn’t his best writing, but it’s still head and shoulders above a lot of lesser authors. It’s long in the tooth, and I think it could easily have been cut by a hundred pages or so. I hope that King eventually follows through on his idea to rework this book. The bones of a terrifying story are here, you just have to dig through a lot of dirt (much like Bobbi and Gard did) to get to them.

There is yet one more thing to recommend “The Tommyknockers,” and that is the sheer amount of “easter-eggs” sprinkled throughout the text, little snippets of information that directly relate to other novels in the King canon. My favorite has to be the “It” reference, the town of Haven being in reasonably close proximity to the town of Derry, the setting for Pennywise and his adventures. It’s a fun task to pick out these little overtures to King’s oeuvre, and it adds a little bit of depth and dimension to an otherwise scattered plot.

“The Tommyknockers” read a bit differently for me the second time around. 30 years between readings is a long time, and a lot has happened to me since then, and a lot has happened within King’s imagined universe. Kings seems to be making an attempt to tie EVERYTHING he has written (with the exception of a few short stories and one or two novels) back to “The Dark Tower” in some fashion. The Tower’s multi-dimensional qualities lend themselves well to this task, but I will admit that opens a lot of his older writing up to some form of revisionism. On a purely personal level, I first read this book during a transitional time in my life and a lot of my nostalgia for the experience lends it a bit of a fond and homey glow for me. I was lucky enough to pick up a British pressing of “The Tommyknockers” when I hit the bookstore a few weeks ago. No dust cover, somewhat beat up, it satisfied my yearning to reread this novel through the lens of 30 years of change. It was worth the trip back in time for me.
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Reading Progress

December 1, 1987 – Started Reading
December 15, 1987 – Finished Reading
October 13, 2017 – Started Reading
October 17, 2017 – Finished Reading
October 19, 2017 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-5 of 5 (5 new)

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message 1: by Buddhagan (new)

Buddhagan This was on my reading list but seems like it's not one of King's better novels.

Michael Jandrok It's really not. I'd say read it if you are a King completist, otherwise it's one to skip.

message 3: by Nat (new)

Nat K 30 years between readings is quite a gap. So glad you still got lots from it & that you enjoyed the revisit. Fab review!

Michael Jandrok Nat wrote: "30 years between readings is quite a gap. So glad you still got lots from it & that you enjoyed the revisit. Fab review!" Thanks, Nat!! I went into the King project with an eye towards rereading the books I had read a long time ago. Perspective changes things, and I wanted to see just how much. Looking at these books from the lens of a 55 year old vs. that of a late teens to twentysomething has been an interesting challenge for me. What I have found thus far is that his work ages pretty well for the most part. I see new depths now as a late-model adult. It's been fun. I'm tackling "Doctor Sleep" now, which I have never read before, but since I just finished rereading "The Shining" late last year, I needed to give it a go and find out what happens to Danny.

message 5: by Nat (new)

Nat K Michael wrote: "Nat wrote: "30 years between readings is quite a gap. So glad you still got lots from it & that you enjoyed the revisit. Fab review!" Thanks, Nat!! I went into the King project with an eye towards ..."

Ah, that's fabulous Mike. So good to still get something out of it, especially a different perspective. It means the book still has meaning for you, even if somewhat different. I re-read Clive Barker's "Weaveworld" after a 20+ year gap, and I still was mesmerised by it.

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