Stephen King knows the forest can be a scary place. He's used the tall trees of Maine as a backdrop for horror before, most recently in 1999's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a chillingly realistic account of a nine-year-old girl who wanders off into the wilderness. But with his latest novel, Dreamcatcher, it's the author who gets lost in the woods.
The setup is simple: A quartet of lifelong friends from Derry, Maine, reunite in a cabin every November for a hunting trip only this year, everything goes terribly awry. King skillfully sketches each of the main characters: Joe ''Beaver'' Clarendon is a divorced drunk; Pete Moore is a lonely mope who traded in his childhood dream of becoming an astronaut for a career as a car salesman; Henry Devlin is a suicidally depressed shrink; and Gary ''Jonesy'' Jones is a history professor recovering from having been struck by a car. (It's no shock that King, who wrote Dreamcatcher after his own similar accident, provides searing personal insight into Jonesy's physical and emotional pain.)
The vacation starts to go sour when a strange hunter named Richard McCarthy takes refuge in their cabin during a blizzard, babbling about bright lights in the sky and passing noxious gas. As King describes the odor in endless, disturbing detail (''hot and rank but somehow not human...the smell of the body eating itself...an eye watering aroma of excrement and airplane glue''), he seems to be suffering from a severe case of authorial flatulence.
It turns out, of course, that Maine has been invaded by virus-carrying aliens. As our heroes battle to stem the infection, they realize their struggle is metaphysically linked to Douglas ''Duddits'' Cavell, a Derry resident with Down's syndrome whom the foursome befriended as kids (they rescued him from a bully who was trying to force-feed him dog feces enough with the scatological imagery!). The flashbacks to this incident are among the book's most affecting parts. As he proved in his novella ''The Body,'' the basis for the movie Stand by Me, King can expertly evoke juvenile bonding. In a refreshing mirror imaging of King's It, another tale of Derry pals who reunite to fight evil, the event that brought Dreamcatcher's group together was merely mundane, not supernatural.
Yet Duddits is ultimately the novel's most problematic figure. King endows him with extrasensory powers that the gang must harness in order to defeat the aliens. The book's title ostensibly refers to a spirit-trapping Indian weaving that hangs in the cabin, but long before King spells it out, we realize that Duddits is the real dreamcatcher. The character, unfortunately, comes off less a magical force than a cloying man-child. ''Down's syndrome had turned him into Peter Pan,'' King writes in a particularly maudlin passage.
A different literary progenitor inspires Dreamcatcher's human villain, Abraham Peter Kurtz, a bloodthirsty Air Force retiree brought in by the U.S. government to cover up the invasion. The allusions to Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now aren't subtle one of Kurtz's subordinates even observes that his name is ''simply a little too convenient.'' Actually, Kurtz sounds less like Marlon Brando's character than Robert Duvall's Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (''They are cancer, praise Jesus,'' he says of the aliens, ''and boys, we're one big hot radioactive shot of chemotherapy''). But at least he jolts along King's often excruciatingly slow 617-page narrative. Here's a hint of how long it takes the plot to get rolling: The chapter title on page 431 is ''The Chase Begins.''
The pop-cultural parallels, a King trademark/tic, don't end with Kurtz. Dreamcatcher also recalls The X-Files, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fire in the Sky, E.T., Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day, and War of the Worlds. The fact that King directly refers to all of these earlier works in the text (one military officer observes of the invasion, ''It's like Independence Day, only, here's the hook, in the woods!'') doesn't make the book feel any less derivative.
Nor does it ever feel remotely frightening. The supposedly spooky effects of the virus people's teeth fall out, watches run backward all seem pretty silly. By the time we reach the novel's climax, which involves a bacon-craving alien and a mind-reading dog, the story has long ago sunk into ludicrousness. ''The dreamcatcher had snared a real nightmare,'' King notes at one point. After slogging through this overlong muddle, you'll know the feeling.