Book Review: ‘The TommyKnockers’ (1987) by Stephen King

Reviewed by Jesse Miller,

Late last night and the night before,
TommyKnockers! TommyKnockers!
Knocking at my door!

Coming out in 1987 at the height of his addictions, The TommyKnockers is Stephen King’s angriest novel, its story and nightmarish imagery fuelled by the manic energy of cocaine.

One of its main characters, Jim Gardner, is a self-loathing drunk teetering on the edge of suicide when he gets a vision that his good friend and past lover, back in the quaint town of Haven, Maine of course – has found something buried in the Earth. Something that compels her to dig deeper and unearth the secrets contained within.

For the first few hundred pages or so, we’re with Gard as he wanders through black out after black out, trying to make sense of the lost time while trying to function as a once-successful poet.
We come into the story when Gard is just about to hit rock bottom and King, as is his way with capturing every-day folk, masterfully portray Gard’s downfall, particularly in a potent and wince-inducing sequence involving Gard at an after-party rambling about the destruction of nuclear power.

It doesn’t take much to see that King, struggling with his addiction, is using Gard as a reflection. Gard is drowning in his desperation for a drink. Without it, his head pounds mercilessly. And without it, he sees himself as a sap, a washed up artist.

It’s both a fascinating character but at the same time, painful to read – because you can feel the pain coming off the sequences. And as Gard tries to make sense of something ancient and powerful, something addictive, it’s brutal to see him try and cope.

When events turn horrific, it’s some of King’s best work – imaginative, nightmarish, disconcerting. There are quite a number of passages where he captures the sensation of a waking nightmare vividly.

There’s body horror worthy of Cronenberg. Things get nasty. Things…transform. It’s all very detailed, in effective and hypnotising passages that I couldn’t look away from.

From across the three acts of the novel, King builds dread effectively. Things escalate at a slow-burning pace. We never really know what’s happening until it happens and even then the character’s revealing the important story beats are unreliable. Like Gard, we are paranoid of whom to trust.

When it comes to characterisation is where The TommyKnockers struggles. Chapters wander on meandering, focusing on the minute detail that isn’t very interesting to begin with.

The act of including the perspective of the townsfolk, as they too are drawn to the thing in the woods, is a mixed bag. Some perspectives can be omitted entirely, feeling like filler to get to the point.

King admitted this in an interview with Rolling Stone a few years back, mentioning that the novel could’ve been a lot sharper in the form of a 350 page book, as opposed to the 700+ it is here.

I admit to being intrigued with the slow passages including some townsfolk, but only because I was curious as to what was fuelling Mr. King from a narrative viewpoint. There is an undercurrent of potboiling tension throughout the three acts – something is coming – but my intrigue came less from the tension and more from looking at the work technically.

In the end, The TommyKnockers is a strange beast. It features some of King’s best work, especially in the nightmarish quality to the horror, but the characters and the long passages seem like an afterthought to what King did with IT, which came out shortly before this piece of work.

As a King fan, It was definitely interesting to work through, but in terms of horrors in a small detailed town, it pales in comparison to some of his other works.

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