King's Highway pt. 53.5: The Tommyknockers

I'll be revisiting a few King titles over the next few months. Mostly stuff I feel I didn't give enough time to in my original King's Highway series but also to give a second look to some books I ranked much higher than I see others have ranked them elsewhere. Like The Tommyknockers

If you read my original review you'll recall I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'll try not to repeat myself too much. My opinion is pretty much unchanged - still love it. I re-read it right after finishing a re-read of It, which was written more or less at the same time as this one. Of the two books, It has the greater reputation, with Tommyknockers looked at as its Cocaine Album cousin. I think that should be reversed - It is the cocaine album and The Tommyknockers is the unsung punk-rock opera of King's bibliography.

I wish I could re-arrange some things, though. Bobbi and Gard are the main characters, so it makes sense to start the book off with them, but they could have been better integrated into the middle sections. On one hand, the frequent POV changes complement the whole "Becoming" anarchic spirit of the novel quite well. On the other, it's a bit jarring to switch from Bobbi and Gard (and Peter, of course - poor Peter) to 'Becca Paulson (whose conversations with Tommyknocker-Jesus atop her TV are re-purposed from an earlier King story) and then to the Hillmans and Ruth and the town's earlier history, then back to Gard here and there, then to Bobbi's sister, back to Gard, and so on. 

Some of the stylistic flourishes are a bit much, such as "the blank-ing of the bells, the bells" motifs in the "Funeral" chapter. Or when King-the-narrator intermittently steps in to say things like "Now I'm not going to be the one to tell you that there are no dead planets anywhere in the universe..." There are some tonal mismatches.

But man - I mean, people hate this book. King himself hates the book, from what I  understand, or at least that's what he told Rolling Stone.

"Creative people have creative breakdowns."

I don't get it! When they knock it, I've noticed, they usually knock one of two things (or both): its loosey-goosey structure or the flying Coke machine. (I'm also reading a lot about its haphazard pace, in comments left to my posting a link to this post on my facebook.)

Myself, I have no meaningful resistance to the Coke machine. It's silly, sure, but who cares? And I kind of love that a book-length metaphorical examination of cocaine-and-alcohol abuse goes so far as to feature a flying Coke machine that pulverizes someone who's asking too many questions. But whether you love it or hate it, it makes a certain amount of sense for a vending machine to be both on hand and also re-purposed by the Tommyknockers, just like all the other gadgets and background items we see them re-purpose. 

Neither the erratic structure nor the flying Coke machine add up to a narrative disconnect, is what I'm trying to say: nothing that fatally undermines the novel's internal logic (looney as it sometimes is.)

It all begins when Bobbi, walking her dog Peter in the woods on her property, trips over something that looks like the rounded edge of a buried metal plate.

"Bobbi had discovered some huge power source and had become its prisoner. That same force was simultaneously galvanizing and imprisoning the whole town.

"That the ship in the earth was a font of creation was undeniable... but it was also the wrecked craft of an unknowable species from somewhere far out in the blackness - creatures whose minds might be as different from human beings as human minds were from the minds of spiders."

"It was a marvelous, improbable artifact shining in the hazy sunlight of this Sunday morning... but it was also a haunted house where demons might still walk between the walls and in the hollow places."

There's also a metal plate in Gard's head, which is a nice touch. What she mistakes for a metal plate sticking out of the ground turns out to be her (and the town's) doom, but the metal plate in Gard's head protects him from it just enough where he can save the day. (Albeit in an equally-doomed way.)

Now as you've likely noticed, I've been using screencaps from The Tommyknockers mini-series. The mini-series is a very different animal than the book. The book is dark, cynical, indulgent, and gross; it utilizes these qualities to great effect. The mini-series is okay, but it is none of the above. It has the straight-to-video sensibility of a low budget, functionally-atmospheric-but-don't-ask-too-many-questions slice of 80s horror. (Despite coming out in 1993).

I sympathize - I mean, the book poses many difficulties to the adapter. (As its screenwriter discusses here.) In addition to a flying saucer that's three football fields in diameter and other set and special f/x logistics, there's an endless stream of vomit, lost teeth, and blood.  And sometimes all three.

"(Gard) realized he had never experienced this sort of vomiting in his entire life. He had read about it, however. He was ejecting stuff - most of it bloody - in wads that flew like bullets. And bullets were almost what they were. He was having a seizure of projectile vomiting. This was not considered a sign of good health in medical circles." 

"'Devils on every side!'" he cried out grandly. He slugged back the last of the Scotch and threw the bottle over the porch railing and into the bushes. 'Devils on every side!' he repeated, and passed out."
Jimmy Smits is okay as the Gard of the mini-series, but the Gard of the book is one of King's better drunk-characters. And hell, for this kind of story, he's kind of perfect. An actor could really sink his teeth into the role. 

And while Marg Helgenberger is not the "Becoming" Bobbi of the book, she's perfectly fine as the Bobbi of this particular version of the story, watered down as it was to fill two nights of PG-13 early 90s TV.

Do people remember China Beach? Normal people, I mean, not us.
She and Gard have a more traditional marriage-sort-of-relationship in the mini-series, but they are less traditional (and both far better sketched) in the book.

I can see why it had to be cleaned up for TV, but unfortunately almost all of the book is scrubbed away in the process. Not beyond recognition - the Dallas Police, the nukes, obsession, and alcoholism are all there, but deprived of most of their edge and relevance. By sanitizing everything, we get a serviceable but bland UFO story with an abundance of tropes that were well-worn even in 1993.

Let's have a look at some of the other changes from novel to mini-series:

- Lawrence D. Cohen must have agreed with me about introducing the other main characters (particularly Ruth) alongside Bobbi's and Gard's intros rather than after them.

Owen and Joe David and Hilly.
And Ev ("Talk to me!") and Ruth (T'Pol's Mom).

Bobbi's sister Anne - a significant presence in the book - is excised altogether. As are John Leandro (the reporter trying to crack the story who is killed by the Coke machine) and Dick and Newt and all the other townies - 

compartmentalized into Davey and Hilly's father, played by Robert Carradine.

Ruth is the town's conscience, and due to the affection practically everyone in town had for her prior to Becoming, she is treated to a constant litany of "We all love you a real lot, Ruth"s. It has the quality of any of King's too-often-repeated phrases, but this one manages to convey some of the icky disorientation of the town in the throes of its metamorphosis. ("She could feel them all in her head, loving her.") She manages to stave off her own possession until "the compulsion to blow up the town hall became a maddening mental poison ivy." Which she does, sending its spire rocketing through the sky like a Roman Candle, with the hopes of it being read as a distress signal by her friend Butch Dugan, the biggest state cop in Maine and her devoted friend.

Wait a minute... That's Butch Dugan? Marvin from Midnight Run? Don't get me wrong - he (John Ashton) is a fine actor, and any Midnight Run alum deserves to be cast in whatever the hell he or she wants to be cast in, forevermore. But yeah - that's some miscasting right there. Anyway, as in the book, he and Ev hook up to investigate, and Ev is turned into an organic battery in Bobbi's shed. Unlike the book - where Butch's mind is wiped and he commits suicide upon returning to Derry - he's just blown up.

I appreciate that they at least got the Coke machine in there, though it doesn't fly. (And it's generic Cola.)

- I can understand making Becca Paulson into a deputy of some kind as another compartmentalization, but Alyce Beasley isn't the most believable cop. Then again, I'm from this exact sort of small New England town and can personally vouch for this as authentic casting. When I worked for the RI Department of Environmental Management, I had to visit dozens of HQs and town halls throughout the state to collect data and what not, and Alyce Beasleys abounded. (Traci Lordses, not so much.)

Becca's arc - and her husband Joe's affair with Nancy - is mostly the same as the book's, though Jesus is changed to this talk show guy, whom I thought was the old Isuzu ad / Empty Nest guy at first. (It isn't, though)
Here he is with one of his uber-80s/early-90s-looking guests, who all urge Becca to kill Joe.
Ergo, Fried Green Joe-matoes.
I'm really sorry about that one.

- The only sex in the novel (not counting some really gross but emotionally-sensible sex between Gard and Bobbi out by the ship shortly before she goes full-on translucent jelly-blob toothless and tentacle-y) is between Joe and Nancy. So, they cast Traci Lords as Nancy and expanded her role considerably

She's the Tommyknockers' head enforcer. And stages these sort of theatrical whip-off-the-mourning-coat-to-reveal-the-red-dress post-graveside-monologues for herself.

If only her lipstick-weapon worked on dirt removal! Would've saved everyone a whole mess of time. Then again, the Tommyknockers are clever tinkerers, not creative thinkers. Or so they say. (They also refer to themselves as "great sky travelers," which seems a romantic self-description for these guys to make.)

- I can understand not having the budget to construct or computer-generate a realistic-enough-looking flying saucer. (They would have just went for it in the 50s, but okay, audiences expected much more in the 90s.) So, the ship is changed to a temple of some kind.

It's disappointing to see such a central visual symbol of the book lost in transition, but just from a production and logistics perspective, okay whatever. But in the book, those in-Becoming can't work near the ship/temple for very long, so Gard is vital to the process of unearthing it. Not so in the mini-series - we see the whole town out there swinging a shovel with their super-energy not waning at all. Granted, the rationale for keeping him around is the same - he's Bobbi's friend/partner - but it makes him just another assembly-line digger. Lame. 

I'll give Jimmy Smits credit for really selling the digging, though. I didn't get a good enough screencap of it, but he indulges in some kind of digging performance art 

- The Shed is more or less the same, even if they blink-and-you-miss-it the horror of Peter's role in the town's becoming/ Bobbi's descent. I'll chalk that one up to the network.

- And as for the ending, it's broad-strokes the same (Gard takes the ship out of Haven and ends the threat of the Tommyknockers forever), but Bobbi is magically transformed back to her old self and rescues David, who is not in Altair-4 (i.e. that cosmic-attic-space at the other end of a wavelength no one quite understands) but in the ship itself.

I vastly prefer the book's, with the ship translating Gard's thought command of "warp speed" and his ascent exploding the minds of almost all Havenites and pinning him to the floor in a pool of his gathering blood, grinning his toothless grin. It's such a fantastic over-the-top end to an over-the-top book. Heroic self-sacrifice by an honestly-drawn anti-hero.

And as a positive-note coda, David Hillman appears in his brother's hospital room and climbs into bed with him. It's undeniably gratifying to see David return home, in both the book and the mini-series, but in the book... well, his parents and grandfather are dead, and his town's obliterated. 

Maybe it's a not-so-positive note, I guess, but it feels right to me, despite how much I love the Gard-warping-off-in-a-gathering-pool-of-his-own-blood ending.

The book's connections to other King works (among them The Talisman, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, It, and Pet Sematary) are intriguingly explored a bit in a 4-part examination of both book and mini-series over at The Truth Inside the Lie. I believe you'll find reference to Dreamcatcher therein, as well. It struck me at numerous times while re-reading that Dreamcatcher was King's attempt at fixing The Tommyknockers, mainly by grafting It and The Plant onto it. (And what he came up with is a way bigger mess than The Tommyknockers. But not an entirely unlikable mess. I, Duddits!) For the Constant Reader, the works overlap in instructive ways.

There's also a specific reference to "Shatterday" made by Bobbi in her and Gard's final showdown. The Harlan Ellison story, presumably - I've never read it so I can't tell you how it relates at all to the Tommyknockers. I've read its wiki and this review and still, no soap.

One last thing. Apparently John Power or some other production decision-maker felt the only way for a veterinarian's office to read on-screen was to turn the waiting room into a menagerie:

Keep in mind this is a small tucked-away town in central Maine.

Well, that's all I've got for this Tommyknockers redux. See you next time on the King's Highway Bridges and Infrastructure Renewal 2016 Tour with some Salem's Lot.


  1. If I had to defend "It" over "Knockers" (yes, I'm shameless), then I would have to say it is all down to one thing, drugs and creativity don't always go together, it seems. At least they didn't work out for me in this case (to give a positive example, take Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, although even there it's possible he wrote the novel "after" he was momentarily clean).

    In "On Writing" King has stated that the novel was a "cry for help" and cites that as his real reason for not liking it. For whatever reason, the doors of his perception were hindered more than helped by drugs, and the result is a novel that often does read like it's wondering in a fog to me.

    Another reason is simply that the story at the heart of "It" is just so darn archetypal that the only way it could lose was if it were put in the hands of someone like Michael Bay.

    Finally, MIDNIGHT RUN! Wow, I watched both films and never even recognized it was the same guy!

    "Run" is one of those 80s comedies that somehow doesn't get enough respect, honestly. In fact, I wouldn't mind is, say, Disney were to do a "Zootopia" sequel that's basically a feature length homage to the De Niro flick.

    I mean just watch this scene and see how almost easily the two main characters fit right in:


    Of course, the other option would be to go for something more along the lines of Corey Hart:


    ...I'll go take my meds now.


    1. I'll be getting to my official re-evaluation of It in a separate post, but I just want to say: King was every bit as coked-and-boozed-up writing It that he was with the Tommyknockers, the Tommyknockers just came at the tail end of the run.

      It has a hell of a lot of fat to trim, and King completely sticks the landing. Those two facts alone make it an inferior novel to the Tommyknockers. I agree that it could stand a re-edit/ re-org, but all I'm saying is, its problems are less fatal to the overall health of the novel (which at least has a valid in-textual excuse to read like it's "wandering around in the fog") than It's are.

      (Holy pronoun confusion...!)

      But, I'm sure I'll provoke much disagreement on the topic when I get round to It. I finished re-reading that a couple of weeks back and am still organizing. Plus I've got to watch and screencap the mini-series, so it'll take some time.

      Going to do the same with The Stand, as well. (Spoiler alert: I'll also be provoking much disagreement with that one, I think!)

      Nice "Sunglasses" joke/ "Zootopia" sequel suggestion. Yeah, "Midnight Run" is basically the greatest. I agree, hard to pigeonhole into one genre. And DeNiro and Grodin have such effortless chemistry in that one; I always wondered why they never worked together again.

      "I'M MOSELY!!"

      I keep wanting to watch that recently, but it's usually while the kids are still up, and since every other word is an f-bomb, maybe I'll hold off... it'll be all the sweeter when I get back round to it.

  2. I love that "The Tommyknockers" has grown a few passionate defenders! I'm one of them. I was a bit shocked by how much I liked it when I re-evaluated it a few years ago. It's not a perfect novel by any means, but I think that the things that work are working at a very high level indeed. For example, I think the Gard/Bobbi relationship is maybe one of King's most poignant.

    I wonder how much of the world's antipathy toward the novel is due to King's own rather public antipathy. There's a tendency in King fandom toward sycophancy, leading vast swathes of readers to blindly parrot any opinion he espouses about his own work. All you've got to do is visit a King-centric message board to find examples. So my theory with "The Tommyknockers" is that a lot of people read it, didn't entirely feel what King was laying down, and then read him dismiss it at some point down the line. At that point, they doubled whatever dislike they already had, because King was essentially giving them permission to do so.

    That's my theory, anyways. But in fact, I think there is a lot of meat on that novel's bones, and it's a shame King himself can't give it a reappraisal. It makes sense to me, though; if you're the guy who writes a novel, and the writing of that novel is mixed up in all sorts of unpleasant personal memories, why wouldn't you have negative memories of the novel itself? Seems a very natural thing.

    1. I can buy that theory. Both theories, actually - it makes total sense that he'd disavow this as a symptom of a mad period, the book equivalent of "Maximum Overdrive" or something, and just move on.

      It behooves us, then, to champion it, since we're getting no help from the home office!

  3. Regarding the miniseries, it's okay in a trashy way. As you say, it was definitely a case of an eighties aesthetic pushing well into the nineties.

    Allyce Beasley doesn't really work at all, but it's interesting to me that you say you've encountered many civil servants just like her. It's funny how realism sometimes reads as patently false in a work of fiction. Of course, every piece of fiction (or television in this case) functions -- or, in some cases, fails to function -- as its own self-contained reality, and it's that reality which really matters in the moment. And Allyce Beasley kinda doesn't work in that regard; she works arguably even less than Traci Lords does, which is saying something.

    Overall, though, it's not AS bad an adaptation as it's sometimes credited with being. Lord knows it's better than "Under the Dome."

    1. I'm looking forward to doing a rank-the-miniseries post soon. UTD won't be on it, of course (and thankfully for me), just while we're here.

      Good point on the Allyce Beasley Factor in realistic fiction - always best to go with the self-contained reality if it conflicts with verisimilitude.