King's Highway pt. 83: The Regulators

"His almost lifelong interest in footnotes had deserted him."

The Regulators was the "mirror" novel to Desperation, both released in 1996. Also published that year: The Green Mile. Not a bad year for the King (although the Thinner movie probably sullied things just a tad) but a great year for publishers and book-sellers. And readers, too, of course.

The two novels are parallel universes and feature the same supernatural entity, Tak, and the same characters, just re-shuffled (the primary bad guy of Desperation, Entragion, is a secondary protagonist in The Regulators, etc. Johnny Marinville is the King-stand-in-writer-guy .) Tak has the same origin in both books (it was imprisoned in the China Pit mine-shaft until the Desperation Mining Corporation accidentally unearthed it), but its powers are a little different In Desperation, Tak has the ability to control the local desert wildlife, while in The Regulators, he is capable of willing ideas into deadly three-dimensional objects: a child's toys become three-dimensional motorized killers, strange animal hybrids attack our heroes, etc.

"His remaining sight was almost gone, but there was enough left for him to see the perfectly round moon rising between the fangs of the black Crayola mountains."

In both novels, it is Tak's ability to take direct control of human hosts (causing them to rapidly deteriorate) that provides the key to defeating him. 

Okay, so first things first, this does not enjoy the greatest reputation among either critics (this Tor reread entry or the original NYT review) or King fans, usually clocking in the bottom rungs of any of the various King's Rankings out there. Whereas I'm some crazy fool who lists it as his 20th favorite King book - go figure.

Technically it's a Bachman book and not a King one. Does it need to be? I think it works for the double/mirror release, but does The Regulators have all that much in common, stystylistically or thematically, with other Bachman books? The destructive-nightmare potential of television and (if you count Regulators' minute-by-minute, live-update chapter design) a "countdown" sort of structure: that's pretty much it. Maybe it's enough. 

(And is this the only Bachman book with a relatively happy ending? I think it might be.)

What it seems to want to be, moreso than a Bachman book, is a kind of multi-media event. The kind the internet would popularize in later years. (Yes, the internet was around in '96, but, for most of us, just barely. People certainly weren't doing Lost-style tie-in stuff, at any rate.) 

King has his customary lack of success in making the diary entries/ letters sound as if they are written by actual people, or different people. None are badly written, per se, just you can always see the strings, so to speak.

If this came out now, I wouldn't be surprised if the various epistolary and "found items" elements of The Regulators were twitter entries and the story itself serialized on a website to tie-in to Desperation's release. (Maybe even a MotoKops actual cartoon - definitely Todd McFarlane-designed toys and Power Wagons.) 

If I had my way, it would be the other way around. Desperation has a helluva opening and an irresistible set-up, but... it flounders, badly, as it goes on and on (and on.) The Regulators in contrast starts just as boldly as its twinner but is much leaner and more focused.

The story - Tak terrorizes the residents of one suburban town with images he's plucked from the mind of his human host, an autistic child named Seth - might have seemed like "King on autopilot" to audiences of the time. (I get that impression from some of the reviews from when it came out, at least.) And in a way it's true that many elements are familiar (writer-protagonist, an outcast child with fantastic powers and genius beyond his outward appearance/condition, ordinary folks being terrorized by Joe Hill's toys, etc.), but to me - especially coming after the "feminist phase" of King's 90s-writings - this seems like a self-aware summation of his entire career before that point. Almost an affectionate tribute before moving on to newer pastures.

On Writing - which revealed the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of King's imbibing in the 80s - had yet to come out, so this passage where Johnny Marinville reflects on his writing retirement is interesting in retrospect:

"He could not, he said, imagine ever writing another novel. That fire seemed to be out, and he didn't miss waking up in the morning with it burning his brains... along with the inevitable hangover. That part seemed to be done. And he could accept that. The part that he didn't think he could accept was how the old life of which his novels had been a part was still everywhere around him, whispering from the corners and murmuring from his old IBM every time he turned it on. I am what you were, the typewriter's hum said to him, and what you'll always be. 

"It was never about self-image, or even ego, but only about what was printed from your genes from the very start. Run to the end of the earth and take a room in the last hotel and go to the end of the final corridor and when you open the door that's there, the one you heard on so many shaky hungover mornings, and there'll be a can of Coors beside your book-notes and a gram of coke in the top drawer left, because in the end that's what you are and all you are. As some wise man or other once said, there is no gravity; the earth just sucks." 

Okay, so there are a few little things King doesn't do so well (the epistolary stuff) or does too much (autistic child with psychic powers, King-stand-in-writer-guy, which is tough because it's difficult to make an author of King's stature come across realistically in print. He doesn't even seem realistic as himself in Song of Susannah and DT Bk7, for crying out loud. It's an irony of his Horatio Alger-esque story/ position.) But there's plenty here I do like, and if you don't mind I'll switch to bullet points.

- King has said this book is about TV while Desperation is about God. That made more sense to me on my first read. This second time around it seemed less "about" TV and instead just used tropes from television (the old violent westerns of King's childhood and adolescence, and the cartoon violence of his own children's/ Seth's) in traditional-King-horror ways. 

SNAKE HUNTER: A deep-space Power Wagon assault? Could be a quick trip to that Boot Hill in the sky!
ROOTY: Root-root-root-root!
ALL: Shut up, Rooty!

Pictures of Dutton edition (including that Power Wagon above) from here.

In other words, there's less message in The Regulators (especially - as we are invited to at every turn - when compared to Desperation) and more just simple mayhem. Not simplistic, though. I quite enjoyed the subtext of a lot of what was going on. The paperboy blown away, the little redheaded girl from Charlie Brown, grown-up and bikini-clad, blown away, the real-life projections of The Wild Bunch and Bonanza, not to mention the insanity brought on by a steady diet of chocolate milk and canned spaghetti-and-meatballs: all of it adds up, Tommyknockers-style, to an ideographic (and unsettling) mirror-universe of the TV nuclear family / suburbia.

- Along these lines, King's fine eye for detail serves the book well. One scene showcases a Charles Barkley/ Space Jam fast food cup, and another has Marinville in one of the victims' houses looking over the framed photos of Corgis with amazing facts printed on them. ("SHOWED APPARENT ABILITY TO ADD SMALL NUMBERS.") And then there's stuff like this:

"He realized he was still holding the dead girl's hair. It was kinky, like an unraveled Brillo pad - no, he thought coldly. Not like that. Like what holding a scalp would be like, a human scalp. He grimaced at that and opened his fingers. The girl's face dropped back onto the concrete stoop with a wet smack that he could have lived without."

- I really liked Steven Jay Ames, "a scratched entry in the great American steeplechase." King writes the sections dealing with him with his "No problems / ZERO PROBLEMS" mantra splitting it up.

- Constant Reader might notice a few elements that were repurposed for later King books, such as Audrey's Montauk-world or Seth's dream-corridors (recalled in the Dark Tower books, as well as Dreamcatcher) or the "mental slime" left in the wake of Tak's possessions (End of Watch).

That's it for my Regulators notes. I hope it's rediscovered someday, as it would make one hell of a movie.  



  1. This is one of King's books I remember the least about. I've got a bit better handle on "Desperation," but only a bit.

    Pretty cool that they both came out on the same day. I don't know whether to wish that happened more often or to be glad it doesn't...

    1. It's a quick read. Do it! Doooooo eeeet!