Fresh from the success of The Green Mile, author-turned-literary stuntman Stephen King has devised yet another masterstroke of marketplace gamesmanship: the simultaneous publication of two hardcover novels — the big, serious, scary Desperation and the medium-size, frivolous, not-very-scary The Regulators. Desperation is the ”official” King book; for The Regulators, he revives the pseudonym Richard Bachman, last seen on 1985’s Thinner.
If you’re not up for spending $52.90 and 1,165 pages on this little ploy, here’s a tip: Stephen King is a much better writer than Richard Bachman, and Desperation finds him near the top of his game, albeit in a very different incarnation than that of the folksy humanist who narrated The Green Mile. In Desperation, King returns to apocalyptic-terror mode; he hasn’t been this intent on scaring readers — or been this successful at it — since The Stand. The novel’s heroes are a group of unlucky strangers who drive into a bereft Nevada mining town on the day that a massive, implacable police officer has apparently murdered every single member of the citizenry. He kills some of the strangers and imprisons the others — among them an alcoholic novelist, a professor’s wife, and a young boy who talks to God — keeping them alive for his own unarticulated reasons.
Desperation offers a lot of pleasingly blunt scares — trained spiders, rats the size of cats, devil-worshipping coyotes, hostile serpents, bodies on meat hooks, free-floating demons, and a villain whose claim of having eyes in the back of his head is, as King’s regular readers might guess, probably more than just a figure of speech. But it’s King’s good guys who keep you reading, his willingness to put them through hell without bringing all of them out the other side, that gives Desperation its sense of genuine risk.
King has always been pop fiction’s most compassionate sadist. More than Tom Clancy or John Grisham or Michael Crichton, he establishes an emotional link with his characters — he likes the people he’s writing about, and he shares your sorrow when they’re beset by zombies or rabid dogs or Kathy Bates. All of his best novels are about people who have to test their faith and strength against monstrosity; they could be subtitled When Unbelievably Bad Things Happen to Pretty Good People. Desperation is his most explicitly religious book yet (early on, a demon administers a brutal butt-kicking to a writer, then adds this coup de grace of condemnation: ”You have never written a truly spiritual novel”).
It’s a shrewd tactic, given that books like The Celestine Prophecy and Embraced by the Light have been nuzzling King’s on the best-seller lists. King has taken it as a challenge and risen to it; one chapter, in which Desperation’s 11-year-old hero finds God while his best friend lies dying, has the elegance of a Raymond Carver short story (that is, if Carver had been fond of cool twist endings). Though the prose sometimes drowns in Christian allegory, give King credit: He keeps things scary until the end.
That end brings us, sadly, to The Regulators, a novel that utilizes some of the same DNA as Desperation — its characters are fun-house mirror images of the other book’s, and details as odd as Three Musketeers wrappers and smiley faces recur in both novels. But The Regulators mostly reads like the kind of odd, patchwork indulgence that should have stayed in the cellar where — we learn, in a too-cute editor’s note — it was ”discovered” among the ”late” Richard Bachman’s papers. (Joe Klein, check your attic.) The laborious story — which is not a sequel, not a prequel, and not worth bothering with — finds a bunch of addled Ohio suburbanites defending themselves against gun-toting monsters in a place that, as one character explains, ”is partly the Old West as it exists on TV and partly a place called the Force Corridor, which only exists in a TV-cartoon version of the twenty-third century.” Got it? Me neither. The Regulators reeks of desperation, and not in a good way. After 37 books, King’s earned the clout to publish one this silly — and even his most devoted readers have earned the right to skip it. Desperation: B+ The Regulators: C-