By Stephen King
In 1996, Stephen King released two novels simultaneously – and even packaged them together for sale – in Desperation and The Regulators. Desperation was authored by Stephen King. The Regulators was written under the pen name of the deceased Richard Bachman and was presented as a posthumous novel. The stories contained characters of the same name, but in entirely different situations and settings.
Desperation opens with Mary and Peter Jackson driving down U.S. 50 in Nevada in a particularly rural section of the state. They are stopped by a cop for having a missing license plate. Both Mary and Peter are struck by the enormity of the local police officer from Desperation, Nevada that has stopped them. They also notice that he behaves peculiarly.
As Peter is searching the trunk for tools to replace the license plate, he accidentally uncovers a bag of marijuana left there by his sister who owns the car. The police officer takes them into custody and seizes the weed. He starts to read them their Miranda rights. Without skipping a beat about the right to a lawyer and the right to a public defender, the cop says “I’m going to murder you.” Neither of the Jacksons can believe what they heard. The cop takes off for Desperation with Peter and Mary in the back seat. As they drive toward town, they notice and RV pulled off to the side of the road on four flat tires. A lonely doll sits at the base of the stairs leading down from the door.
The cop turns south off of U.S. 50 and takes them to the secluded mining town of Desperation. They see the offices of the mining company along the road. What they don’t see is people. The cop pulls up to the municipal building and gets Peter and Mary out of the car. He takes them inside and leads them downstairs. Just as Mary notices the dead body of a little girl at the bottom of the steps, she hears gunshots. The cop has shot Peter several times in the chest and stomach, killing him. Mary, now hysterical, is led to a holding cell.
Mary sees that other people are in cells as well. A middle aged couple occupies the cell to her right and to her left is a young boy and an old man. The couple are the Carvers, Ralph and Ellen, of Wentworth, Ohio. It was their RV on the side of the road. The cop used spikes to disable the tires and lured the family to his car with a story about a sniper in the desert. The boy in the cell directly across from them is their son David. Their daughter, Kristen, is the dead young girl the cop pushed down the steps for no apparent reason. The old man is Tom Billingsley, the town veterinarian and former village council member. He tells them the cop is Collie Entragerian who went crazy a couple days ago and killed everyone in town.
Johnny Marinville is a best selling author and literary giant touring the country on his Harley Davidson. He is stopped by the side of the road, taking a leak when he is approached by Entragerian. At first, the cop is solicitous and fawns over Johnny and his work. But when he finds a bag of weed (the same bag of weed pulled from the Jackson car), he runs Marinville in. Johnny is deposited in the local jail with the others.
We get extensive backstory on Marinville and David Carver. Marinville is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. His career has hit the skids and this trip was to help it bounce back. Marinville revels in his past glories and as he passes from middle-age to autumn, he hopes to recapture his magic.
David is just 11 years old and has become a recent convert to Christ. His friend, Brian, was hit by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle. Brian’s head was slammed against a brick wall and he suffered tremendous brain trauma. He was expected to die. Brian visits him in the hospital and Brian’s parents are overcome with emotion, so David flees to the treehouse where he and Brian used to play. They dubbed it the Vietcong Hide Out. There, God talked to him. David visited Brian again and Brian had a miraculous recovery. Since then, David has been exploring his relationship with God and the nature of God with his minister.
While in the jail cell, David receives one of his messages from God. God tells him to use the soap. When Collie returns and takes his mother, David makes his move. He strips down and lathers himself. The skinny boy is able to slide between the bars, get the keys and free everyone. Johnny uses his cell phone to contact his assistant, who was driving ahead of him in a Ryder truck. Although the message is broken because of a weak signal, Steve Ames is able to determine the boss is in some kind of trouble.
Steve Ames and the hitchhiker he’s picked up (Cynthia Smith – one of the survivors of Norman’s massacre in Rose Madder) turn around and head east. Steve knows that his boss has pulled off the road for some reason. They are able to find Johnny’s motorcycle partially buried out in the desert, off the highway. They also see the parked Acura the Jacksons were driving and the Carvers’ RV. They decide to head to the nearest town which is Desperation.
They arrive in Desperation and the first building they see is the headquarters for the Desperation Mining Company. They enter the building to find it deserted. While there, Steve notices a tiny, carved figure of a wolf on the table. He picks it up and is nearly overcome with violent sexual urges. When Cynthia touches it, she feels similar feelings). The two are about to give into their urges when Steve’s cell phone rings. Johnny calls to tell them that the group has left the jail and headed to the town’s abandoned theater.
The thing that was Collie Entragian is now the thing that was Ellen Carver. Collie’s body was used up. The entity known as Tak has moved into Ellen’s body to carry on its work and had planned to use the others for similar purposes, but is dismayed when he returns to the jail to find his inmates escaped. He calls on the low creatures of the desert – the wolves, buzzards, spiders, and snakes, -- to help him ferret out his quarry.
Steve and Cynthia join the group at the theater. They have found another survivor. Audrey Wyler is a geologist for the Desperation Mining Company. She tells them that the company has just reopened the old “China Mine.” Billingsley then relates the legend of the China Mine and how, back in 1858, the mine partially collapsed and the company left more than 50 Chinese immigrant workers to die in the mine without a rescue attempt.
David has prayed on the matter and tells the group that Collie Entragian was taken over by the evil, unformed being known as Tak who is pure evil. He knows that Tak has possession of his mother’s body now. Their assignment, straight from God, is to kill Tak – not get out of town as they had planned. Steve informs them that getting out of town is wasted time because Tak has blocked all roads leading out of town after they entered.
While the group discusses this, Billingsley – a dedicated alcoholic – sneaks away to find one of the bottles he’s got stashed in the old theater. He is attacked by a mountain lion under Tak’s control. The group goes to try to save Billingsley and kill the lion. David separates and heads for the projection booth upstairs so he can pray more.
Audrey pursues him. She is under Tak’s control because she has one of the “Can-Tahs” which are the figurines of animals that Steve and Cynthia found. While Audrey searches for David, Billingsley uses his dying breath to point out that Audrey has grown remarkably just as Collie had done. Mary stays with the dying Billingsley while the rest of the group go to save David. They arrive to find that David has foiled Audrey and that Audrey’s body is used up. She disintegrates into a bloody pulp. While this is happening, Ellen, under Tak’s control, sneaks into the theater and abducts Mary, intending to inhabit her body next. He takes her to the base of the China Mine pit and locks her in a shed for later.
David learns a great deal by visiting with God in the treehouse known as the Vietcong hide out while in his prayer trance. God is a young man wearing a Yankees ball cap and mirrored sunglasses. He looks familiar to David, but he can’t quite place him.
Through his prayer, David learns what really happened at the China Mine in 1858. The Chinese miners delved deep into the mountain and uncovered the chamber inhabited by the deadly entity known as Tak. They were overcome by the many Can-Tahs lying about the chamber and began slaughtering each other. Two Chinese brothers, recognizing that something had driven their brethren insane, sealed the mine with explosives to keep it from escaping. When the Desperation Mining Company reopened the mine, Tak was freed and began to slaughter.
The group leaves the theater in Steve’s Ryder truck and heads for the mine. When they get there, Johnny reverts to his selfish ways and says he’s bailing. He gets out of the truck and heads back to the mining offices to find an ATV on which to make his escape.
Before leaving, he drops his wallet in the truck. David finds the wallet and begins thumbing through the snapshots inside. He finds a picture of a young Johnny Marinville, standing outside of a Vietnamese bar called the Vietcong Hideout. He is wearing a Yankees cap and is holding mirrored sunglasses.
David goes after Johnny and catches up to him. The two have a discussion about God and God’s way of choosing people to serve him and how God can be cruel in his choices. David reveals the Johnny his divine nature. Overcome with emotion, Johnny agrees to help the group. They return to the mine and plan how to rescue Mary and seal the mine.
Tak returns to the China Pit and finds that Mary has escaped. Ellen’s body is all but used up. Desperate, Tak transfers his entity into a golden eagle. Tak figures that the eagle’s body will last about an hour, so he hides inside the China Pit and waits for the group.
The group finds Mary and they enter the pit. The eagle attacks and kills Ralph Carver while David looks on. Johnny and Steve kill the Eagle and Tak is forced to flee back into his pit in discorporated form. David is quite sure that it is he whom God has chosen to kill Tak, but Johnny overrules him. David is angry and tries to rush deeper into the mine but Steve grabs him and takes him out with the others. Johnny grabs the explosives and heads into Tak’s lair.
He gets deeper inside the pit and finds Tak in his true form – a slithering monster with many tentacles, part stone and built into the wall. Johnny puts on a motorcycle helmet to avoid having Tak touch his head while he fills the statues eyes and nose with explosives. In the final, selfless act of what was otherwise a self indulgent life, Johnny blows the mine up, killing himself and bringing down the mountain on Tak.
The others flee Desperation and head for Ely where they plan to have dinner and tell the authorities a plausible story about the implausible events that took place in Desperation.
I did not much care for this novel. A friend of mine who teaches creative writing once told me that the largest part of plot is movement. This novel lacked movement. One third of the novel was in the jail. One third of it was in the theater. One third of it was at the mine. There was lots of dialogue, but little movement. It made for a dull story.
King’s politics slipped into the novel as well. A beat up pickup truck in a mobile home bore the bumper sticker “Snapple Drinkin’ gun totin’ Clinton bashin’ son of a bitch!” – the subtext of which was that those who did not agree with Clinton were all uneducated mobile home dwellers. It was extraneous material to show readers how Stephen King views Republicans. In describing someone as a nice, compassionate person, remarked that she always voted Democrat. I really hate political commentary showing up in my escapist fiction!
A good portion of the novel deals with theology and while King has incorporated The Almighty into many of his books, never before has he discussed God in greater depth. What comes across is that King views God through the Old Testament. God is cruel. God is harsh and cares little for his charges on earth, except to give them freewill to avoid carrying out his bidding. This is a far cry from The Green Mile that does not take on the theology of Christianity directly, but is rooted in the New Testament and the mercy and goodness of Jesus Christ.
As I noted earlier, Desperation is closely linked to the novel, The Regulators which is a disjointed tale where Tak is unleashed on a Columbus Ohio suburb in the form of cartoon characters come to life. Of the two novels, released simultaneously, Desperation is clearly the superior book – although that is faint praise.
The plot idea behind Desperation was a good one and could have been a lot of fun. But it was undone by too little action and too much pontification and wasted dialogue. After The Green Mile, it was a major letdown.