King's Highway pt. 53: The Tommyknockers

(The below was written in December 2012. I revisited both novel and mini-series for the King's Highway Bridges and Infrastructure Renewal Project Summer 2016, and you can read that here. Carry on, friends and neighbors.)

I tried to read this book when it first came out and never made it all the way through. This time around, though, I absolutely loved it. I'll use pictures from the mini-series throughout this blog, but let me state up-front, while it (the mini-series) was better than I remembered, it is an inadequate representation of this book, which I feel is arguably among King's best. But! Where it does follow the book, it does so quite faithfully, and well:

(I hope this is a nod to Tourist Trap, but who knows.)

Here's King describing both the basic plot and his state-of-mind-while-writing-it from On Writing:

"In the spring and summer of 1986 I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.

"(It) is a forties-style science fiction tale in which the writer-heroine (Bobbi, along with her poet-friend Gardener, aka "Gard") discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the ground. The crew is still on board, not dead but only hibernating. These alien creatures got into your head and just started... well, tommyknocking around in there. 

"What you got was energy and a kind of superficial intelligence (Bobbi creates a telepathic typewriter and an atomic hot-water heater, among other things). 

"What you gave up in exchange was your soul. 
It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with."

In addition to being perhaps-the-80s-best-metaphor for cocaine-addiction, it's a) fantastic sci-fi, though maybe everyone's cup of tea, and not really emblematic of the 1940s-style sci-fi King says it is. It struck me more as an 80s-specific take on the radioactive-panic movies of the 1950s, more than anything, b) almost an ideographic history of late twentieth-century background gadgetry, from the batteries whose "molecular decomposition technology" make an ongoing appearance, to toy-ray-guns, pocket calculators, to Simon:

Future generations need look no further for a comprehensive overview of the sort of "tech" that collected in the corners of countless American households in the pre-internet age. I think both Tommyknockers (and aspects of the Dark Tower books) really capture what it felt like to grow up (for me, as a child; for King, as a parent) with this stuff permeating our lives. (Not to mention, Chernobyl/ nuclear power humming away in the background) and c) a novel so well-constructed it absolutely boggles the mind that it was put together under the circumstances King describes. While substance-abuse is not an altogether-uncommon bedfellow for sharp prose, I'm just saying: this book hits on all cylinders: the language, the scope, the characters, and the 'engineering.' Tommyknockers shares a similar structure with It, in some ways, including lengthy sections about the town's past, a massive cast of characters, and a town slowly swallowed up by the monster(s) who live beneath it. 

Also, like It, it ends with the town's destruction.

Unlike Derry, though, Haven never seems to have "bounced back." I'd been under the mistaken impression that the SyFy show Haven took place in Haven ME, and as I was reading this, I kept wondering how the hell the show addressed the events of the novel. My blogger-BFF (just kidding, BB!) set me straight:

"Haven the television series makes no mention of the Haven, Maine that is in The Tommyknockers, nor does it make any mention of the events of that novel (makes sense, given that they'd have to have the rights to that novel to deal with it any way other than giving it a shout-out); and, as far as I can recollect, King himself has never returned to Haven in any way.

It's not the same town.  Literally.  It's like how there's a Paris, France and a Paris, Texas, and this is the one in Texas, except the show never even acknowledges that there's one in France.

That's part of what's so grating -- hemorrhoidal, even -- about that show.  It's this supposed Stephen King story, yet the producers were not even knowledgeable enough to know that King's fiction already had a Haven, Maine ... which is NOT on the coast.

I watched the video of a con panel with the producers, and that fact got mentioned very obliquely; reading between the lines a bit was necessary, but it seemed pretty obvious that the producers were made aware of The Tommyknockers and just shrugged it off.

The more I think about it, it's a really terrible show."

I've only seen bits and pieces of it, but I have to agree, particularly in light of all the above. And what a waste! The town of Haven - again, like Derry - is fleshed out so well, here; it's a damn shame it seems to be confined exclusively to this novel.

Anyway, back to the book. 

(Actually, one more digression. Hit play on this, if you would. The band - if you can call a bunch of tech-nerds with samplers and laptops a "band" - is The Orb. Like the Magic Theater in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, they are probably "For Madmen Only." But, back in the "heady" days of 1993 and 1994, I was obsessed with this album (Pomme Fritz) and played it an awful lot. Although my only experience with The Tommyknockers at that time was from half-reading it at the tail-end of the 80s, this song always struck me as the perfect accompaniment for Bobbi's finding the UFO in the woods. It captures the mysterious, alien quality of the aliens of the novel/ the townsfolk's possession, if you ask me. If I was making a Tommyknockers movie, I'd have this playing pretty much throughout.)

As with Misery, evidence of what King mentions in On Writing (the mental exhaustion of minds-in-(ahem)-maximum-overdrive, the physical-deterioration of the characters (something that would make a movie adaptation of this a little disgusting, with all the bloody puking and teeth falling out and all; though Star Trek: Voyager managed to construct a compelling and infinitely-watchable episode around a visually-similar theme, in "Course: Oblivion"), the "power source" that must be kept a secret, from state troopers (and wives and families, of course) is throughout...

"Bobbi had discovered some huge power source and had become its prisoner. That same force was simultaneously galzanizing and imprisoning the whole town. And it was growing steadily stronger."

"They would begin the dance of untruth. The "becoming" would demand many lies. This one, the one they told themselves, the one that insisted they were really the same as ever, was the most important lie of all."

"(Ruth) slept, but her sleep was not easy... that part of her which clung stubbornly to sanity knew the truth: these were not the rising voices of the people she had lived with all these years, but those of outsiders. They were the voices of The Tommyknockers."

"She sat in the green, diseased heart of their influence and listened to them tell their lunatic fairy tales."

Cocaine excites the "power and paranoia" centers of the brain. The Tommyknockers seem to, as well. "He had come out feeling ten feet tall, ready to make love in the mud with a platoon of lady wrestlers." (I'm sure Dennis Hopper or Oliver Stone could relate to that one.)

"Don't make me mail you like some letter addressed to nowhere."

The Haven towns-folk build all sorts of new gadgets. Especially ones to guard the town-line. One of these is: 

As with any of these metaphors, they don't have to have been chosen consciously to work for either the plot or the cry-for-help deconstruction. Sometimes, as King alludes to in that On Writing quote and elsewhere, the unconscious screams any way it can. Ergo, a killer "Coke" machine, floating off the ground, attacking any who try to get in or separate the Havenites from their "power supply."
"The scream suddenly became a loud buzz in Gardner's head. He knew he was listening to the mental sound of mortal disconnect."
"When he finally went mad, none of this shit would matter anymore."

At the beginning of King's career, (especially in Salem's Lot) I thought some of the quotations he used at the beginning of chapters, etc. weren't especially relatable to the events in-text. Not so, here. Take the passage that starts Book 3 from The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing:

"I slept and I dreamed the dream. This time there was no disguise anywhere. I was the malicious male-female dwarf figure, the principle of joy-in-destruction; and Saul was my counterpart, male-female, my brother and my sister, and we were dancing in some open place, under enormous white buildings, which were filled with hideous, menacing, black machinery which held destruction. But in the dream, he and I, or she and I, were friendly, we were not hostile, we were together in spiteful malice. There was a terrible yearning nostalgia in the dream, the longing for death. We came together and kissed, in love. It was terrible, and even in the dream I knew it. Because I recognized in the dream that those other dreams we all have when the essence of love, of tenderness, is concentrated into a kiss or a caress, but now it was the caress of two half-human creatures, celebrating destruction."

Very appropos for the "becoming" of the Haven-folk into the Tommyknockers, as well as for the relationship between Bobbi and Gard in the novel. (It's worth mentioning that Book 3 comes charging out of the gate. I found the whole book to be compulsively readable, but there's a strong "second wind" in the whole last act.)

The Tommyknockers are described as an "interstellar band of Gypsies," great sky travelers but as vulnerable as mosquitoes breeding in a shallow pool. They "crashed" in Haven, ME centuries ago and have been lying dormant in their ship (which is huge - three football fields in diameter) awaiting discovery. Once Bobbi trips over one small edge of the ship, they lock onto her and through her, the town, transforming everyone into versions of themselves.

"We have no history, written or oral... Guided by the currents, both large and small, that run through the universe. 'God' is the name some people give those currents, but God's only a word, like Tommyknockers or Altair-4."

"Tommyknockers" is a term plucked from Gard's mind, as is "Altair-4," i.e. stand-ins for the aliens/ their homeworld. Altair-4 is, of course, the name of the alien world in Forbidden Planet.

"Are there more of you out there?"
Bobbi shrugged. "I don't know." And don't care, the shrug said. We're here. There are improvements to be made. That is enough.
"That's really all you are?" (Gard) wanted to make sure; make sure there was no more to it. He was terribly afraid he was taking too long, much too long... but he had to make sure. "That's all?"
"What do you mean, all? Is it so little, what we are?"
"Frankly, yes," Gard said. "You see, I've been looking for the devil outside my life all my life, because the one inside was so fucking hard to catch. It's hard to spend such a long time thinking you're... Homer..." He yawned again, hugely. His eyelids had bricks on them. "... and discover you were... Captain Ahab all the time."

The scene where Gard and Bobbi enter the ship is one of my favorite bits of King's writing, ever. Tense, atmospheric, disgusting, and brilliant. The aliens use humans/ humanoid-lifeforms as slaved-living-batteries. Which reminds me:

Poor Peter! (Bobbi's dog.)

Gardener and the Dallas Police

Played by the future President of the United States Jimmy Smits
"A paranoid-schizophrenic is a guy who just found out what's going on." - William S. Burroughs.

When Gard shows up at Bobbi's house, it is after a monumental-blackout-binge/righteous-piss-up. We are introduced to both his anti-nuclear politics and his alcoholism in cringeworthy, powerful passages that are are brutally-honest depictions of a mind-besotted. Gardener wakes up one morning suddenly possessed by his own Tommyknocker, a need to consume all the booze in the world. Aided and abetted by one of his fellow poets, he attends a post-poetry-reading party, where a pro-nuclear blowhard triggers his rage on the topic. He ends up, several days later, on a beach in New Hampshire. (More on that, below)

Bobbi is able to sell Gard on the whole yeah-they're-aliens-and-we're-keeping-it-secret-so-what? angle by a) enabling his need for booze, and b) invoking "the Dallas Police," as in "Do we want the Dallas Police in charge of this?" Something instantly-recognizable to not just liberals of Stephen King's/ Gard's-and-Bobbi's generation: that beyond-the-law establishment-buffer-zone, the sort of folks represented by "The Shop" in Firestarter. (Who also make an appearance, here, towards the end)

Here's Gard:

"Spent fuel rods that were stacking up in big, hot piles. They thought the Curse of King Tut was bad? Brother! Wait until twenty-fifth-century archaeologists dug up a load of this shit!"

"You talked to people who had lived through one administration after another in which their elected officials told one lie after another, then lied about the lies, and when those lies were found out, the liars said "Oh geez, I forgot, sorry" - and since they forgot, the people who elected them behaved like Christians and forgave...

"You couldn't believe there were so fucking many of them willing to do that until you remembered what P.T. Barnum said about the extraordinarily high birth rate of suckers... when you tried to talk to them, they looked at you as if you were babbling in a foreign language."

I miss this King. I don't think he's necessarily speaking through Gard, here, but there was a real anti-establishment streak in his earlier stuff. I mean, there still is, but he seems to have placed his faith in the same sort of folks he once (correctly) identified as crooks. I don't want to go too far down this path, but it's ironic to me that the guy who wrote all this/ created the Shop ended up on the side of the Dallas Police, at least on the topic most-closely-associated with them.

"I've read all the conspiracy books so you don't have to; Oswald acted alone." - Stephen King, 2011.

Gardener manages to put the proverbial monkey-wrench in the works, and the last we see of him, he is taking off into outer space, flattened to the floor as he makes the jump to hyperspace.

"Lying on the transparent floor of the control room, already better than seventy thousand miles out in space, Jim Gardener lay in a widening pool of his own blood... and smiled."

Godspeed, sir.


Not really, but it's worth mentioning that in the first hundred pages, "Ka" and "Palaver" both appear, and "The Arrowhead Project" (i.e. that strange military experiment from The Mist that seems to have poked a whole in the Todash Darkness) is mentioned. Plus, when Gardener wakes up from his blackout, he runs into Jack Sawyer from The Talisman. Plus, Pennywise, that age-old foe/sibling of The Turtle, makes a cameo, as well. (Briefly, on pg. 510)

Is Altair-4 (where Dave Hillman spends most of the novel, here, having been inadvertently transported there by his brother) the same destination to which the Buick from From a Buick 8 transports people? Doubtful, I guess, but an intriguing possibility.

Some Final Thoughts 

Both Virgil Finlay and Hannes Bok are mentioned a couple of times. Google-image search them; you may enjoy it.

Liked this line: 

"Dick was in a perfect ecstasy of fury... but at the center of his rage was terror, like a cold curdle of rancid cream in the middle of a poisoned chocolate."

The very last line is great. I won't reproduce it here, but after the 746 pages that lead up to it, I felt like standing up and saluting. Again, I started this novel thinking I might not even finish it; I ended it believing it to be among King's finest work.

Late last night and the night before,
Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers knocking at the door.
I want to go out, don't know if I can
Cause I'm so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.

The Dark Half!


  1. This was one of the very few King novels I didn't much like when I first read it (circa 1990). I never even bothered to reread it, whereas I read many of his others probably half a dozen times.

    I finally reread it last year, though, and found that I quite loved it. It has a few problems, mostly in that bloated-yet-fascinating middle section, but I can, and do, forgive every single one of them.

    It's obviously allegory, but the allegory functions on multiple levels, and manages not to overshadow the story itself. Obviously, it's allegory representing King's own struggles with drug addiction; however, it also functions as an allegory for American culture's addiction to technological/scientific innovation at any cost (and, maybe, our relentless need to "plus" things regardless of the consequences).

    It is absolutely stunning to consider the idea that King wrote this while so whacked out of my gourd on coke and other fun substances that he doesn't even remember writing the book. Out of another writer's mouth, I would have a difficult time not thinking that he was just outright lying about that.

    And yet...

    It seems believable from King. He's talked so many times about how writing, for him, is at least partially an act of his subconscious taking over -- not dissimilar to the way Roland takes over Jack Mort in "The Drawing of the Three" -- that it makes sense to me that he could be stoned beyond belief for days on end and yet still be capable of producing lucid prose.

    I especially enjoyed, here, your thoughts on how the novel functions as a metaphor for all the low-grade tech junking up our lives. I'm a child of the late seventies and early eighties, too, and I don't recall a Christmas that didn't involve batteries in some way. That hasn't changed much in the intervening years, either, has it? The fact is, unless we wipe ourselves out -- or unless Snake Plissken sets off that EMP and takes the whole grid down for good -- we are stuck with our tech now. We'll never be able to get rid of it without essentially getting rid of ourselves in the bargain. From here, it's forward we go, or it's into oblivion we go; not much inbetween as far as I can see.

  2. Comment the second:

    The part of the novel that I really responded to was the love story, which isn't even a love story ... except that, of course, it IS, just not of the variety that typically forms the basis of novels. I suspect that it was that element that caused me to not sync up with the book back in 1990. I was a mere sixteen, and in no way ready for the notion that two people can love each other, can be in love WITH each other, and yet not be able to overcome their own personal demons enough to have that love make any sort of real difference to their lives.

    Emotionally, what's going on between Bobbi and Gard is the equivalent of trying to plug a USB cable into an RCA component jack; they're just so far apart that not even an adapter is going to help. The whole thing is just doomed to failure, and not because of any huge drama, per se; it's just doomed because ... well, just because.

    The Orb ... man, that is some trippy shit. It reminds of how I've always kinda intended to become heavily into psychedelics. I'm too big a puss to do it, tough, possibly because I secretly -- or not so secretly, take your pick -- suspect that I might be a closet psychopath who would drop acid and immediately begin doing terrible, terrible things. So probably best to steer clear of that. However, on some other level of the Tower, a Twinner version of me is trippin' balls on a regular basis, and having a grand old time doing it. I bet he loves The Orb, too.

    SO glad you mentioned Jack Sawyer's appearance. Apparently, not all King readers accept the idea that that is Jack. One of them is Peter Straub, who has flat-out denied it. However, I really don't see that there is any room for any other reading. If there is, I can't come up with it, and I've never encountered anyone else who was able to budge me even slightly in my belief.

    What a wonderful/terrible scene that is, too! We learn that Jack's mother has died in a car wreck, which essentially means that everything he went through in "The Talisman" was for nothing. What a gut-punch! And yet, it totally supports the theme of helplessness that runs through the novel; sometimes, you can do everything right, and yet STILL shit will refuse to stay worked out. Genius.

    1. Well-said. Particularly the bits on batteries and the "connection" between Gard and Bobbi; I also really enjoyed the relationship depicted, here.

      Yeah, I'll plead the fifth on any activities I may or may not have indulged in during the nineties... But yeah, the Orb is some wild stuff. I actually saw them a couple of times. Three dudes grooving behind a table filled with samplers and laptops, and the craziest parameciums-pulsing-sort of stuff projected on huge screens behind them. Those were fun days. :-) But, beyond any of that, I just really like the vibe of that song as soundtrack for Bobbi finding the ship/ general-Tommyknockers-mayhem. I can easily see Gard sitting on the porch, a green light around the shed, sipping from his bottle, with those sound echoing from the shadows...

      Peter Straub says it's not Jack Sawyer? I wonder why?

    2. I suspect -- and this is sheer guesswork on my part (possibly not even of the educated-guess variety) -- that it might be because King used the section to reveal that Lily Sawyer had died. If he did that without consulting Straub, which seems thoroughly possible what with the rampant drug abuse and all, then I can see how it would have annoyed Straub.

      I know that in the sequel, "Black House," it is revealed that Lily has indeed died; but I think it was of natural causes, and not due to a car accident. I don't remember for sure, though, and skimming the novel last year to try and find out, I couldn't come up with anything.

      For me, though, there is simply no other way to interpret the scene. I would not be dissuaded in my belief even if King himself came out and said, nope, not Jack Sawyer. He could theoretically revise the novel to make it some other kid, but short of that ... sorry, man, that IS Jack Sawyer.

    3. That's certainly plausible. (And kind of funny to think about it. I can picture the phone call after the fact, if it went down that way! "Sorry, Peter... I got carried away...")

      Also, I forgot to mention:

      " What a gut-punch! And yet, it totally supports the theme of helplessness that runs through the novel; sometimes, you can do everything right, and yet STILL shit will refuse to stay worked out."


      This may sound absurd, but I'd love to see what happened to Gard on his interstellar journey. I think it's probable that he died or was dying in his last scene - it's at least a reasonable way to read the "flow" of that scene, and given his dilapidated state on take-off. But hell, maybe he made his way to Altair-4 and will appear in something-or-other down the line. I doubt it. But it's kind of fun to think about it.

      Maybe for Dreamcatcher 2: GARDENER'S RETURN.

    4. I'm with you: I love that ending, and even though I deeply suspect that Gard dies not long afterward, part of me kinda hopes he lived on to have some weird "Farscape"-style adventures.

  3. It's been 15 years since I've read this one. But, having read it three times, I have a pretty solid memory of the story and its contents.

    I didn't loathe it as many King fans do. But I would rank it below average in his body of work. It has a lot of narrative bloat. The flying Coke machine was silly. The romance between the cops was a cliche.

    But, it was fun waiting to see what they'd find in that ship when they finally excavated it, so it wasn't all bad.

  4. Just a few comments of note.

    Part of the troubling aspects of the novel for me is the implication that King seems to be saying that sometimes drugs "do" enhance your ability to write.

    My response:...Until it takes that ability away that is, and then where would you be?

    As for King's politics and his so called change of mind:

    The following was written as far back as 2004 from the mass mark. paper. edition of the final Dark Tower, page 743:

    "And was he a good dinh, this Kennedy?" asked Roland..."Well, not everyone thought so, certainly not the nut who shot him, but I did," she said. "He told folks when he was running that he meant to change things. Probably less than half the voters thought he meant it...When some folks saw how serious he was, the motherfucks hired that nut to shoot him."


    She nodded, not bothering to correct him.

    That was back in 2004, and I'm willing to bet that no matter what he may says in public, what's in writing is his real opinion. Why would he lie even to himself though? I have a theory on that, but don't take my word for it.

    I think it has to do with that Bachman frame of mind I mentioned back in the Shining entry. Here's the thing, reading about his comments on the sixties both in Hearts in Atlantis and Danse Macabre has convinced me that that whole decade plus the fifties is a really great determiner of his attitudes, beliefes and behaviors.

    The problem is, with the Bachan frame of mind, King, despite his protests to the contrary, got hooked right into the whole downside-Bad Trip-Paranoia angle of the sixties. There were two sides to that decade, one was the anti-war, civil rights Woodstock side of it, and then there was the Dem Ol' Cozmic blues side and people who went down there, well, there are still Baby Boomers with a lot of damage from that decade. I sort of wonder if King might be one of them.

    I think the reason he denies his real beliefs about JFK is 'cause he remembers how a lot of his sixties beliefs drove him, like i said, to the Bachman frame of mind and hence the drugs and alcohol.

    I think he's afraid that if he embraces even a trace of those old beliefs he be right back where he started from. Just my thinking. All I'll say is thank gosh someone else out there doesn't buy the Warren line.


    1. Almost forgot, a good catalogue of King's thoughts about the sixties is Tony Magistrale's "The Landscape of Fear."

      Here's synopsis from the back cover:
      One of the very first books to take Stephen King seriously, Landscape of Fear (originally published in 1988) reveals the source of King's horror in the sociopolitical anxieties of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era. In this groundbreaking study, Tony Magistrale shows how King's fiction transcends the escapism typical of its genre to tap into our deepest cultural fears: "that the government we have installed through the democratic process is not only corrupt but actively pursuing our destruction, that our technologies have progressed to the point at which the individual has now become expendable, and that our fundamental social institutions—school, marriage, workplace, and the church—have, beneath their veneers of respectability, evolved into perverse manifestations of narcissism, greed, and violence."

      Here's King's take on Magistrale's Landscape:

      "A great read, insightful and intelligent. . . . Tony has helped me improve my reputation from ink-stained wretch popular novelist to
      ink-stained wretch popular novelist with occasional flashes of muddy insight."—Stephen King


    2. Very, very interesting excerpts, Chris, thanks for those.

      I think King may indeed be saying drugs can help people crank the words out, but I think (especially with Tommyknockers but with Misery, too) he's describing (and pretty well) how debilitating they are. I mean it's right there in the quote from On Writing: what you get is a boost in creativity/ new ideas; what you give up is your soul.

      (Not to mention all the blood-puke and teeth falling out and hair-trigger rage and headaches throughout the book. Radiation sickness, sure, but "junk-sickness," as well.)

      I've got to get that Magistrale book.

    3. My take on the drug angle:

      First, an admission: I have never done drugs. The closest thing I've been through is that I went through a six-month period in which I really, really liked to get drunk on Zima. True story.

      My assumption, though, is that drugs MUST be fun. Or, at the very least, fun for certain personality types. If fun wasn't involved in it somewhere, it seems unlikely that people would do them.

      With that in mind, I can't honestly say it bothers me much that King's work occasionally hints toward the idea that being lit up on drugs can be -- at least temporarily -- a somewhat beneficial pursuit. I've never gotten the sense that he was glorifying it; just that he was taking an eyes-wide-open look, and it seems to me that that look ought to include the upside as well as the down.

  5. I just got a copy of that Magistrale book a couple of weeks ago. No clue when I'll get around to actually reading it, but it sounds like it'll be well worth it.

  6. By the way, here's a link to a humorous take on the Tommyknockers miniseries.

    All I'll say is it features the best joke about exploding coke machines I've ever seen...mainly 'cause it's the only joke of it's kind.



    1. Chris - you no like the Star Trek? :-) Just reading through some old blogs and we miss ya with the new project! Hope all's well. Be Seeing You.