Desperation Paperback – 17 Jul 1997
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A notice to those who feel that Stephen King has lost his magic touch: Desperation is the genuine goods. The ensemble cast of ordinary Americans thrown together by chance, including a disgruntled alcoholic writer and a child who is wise beyond his years, may be a bit too familiar. But the nearly deserted Nevada mining town with an enormous haunted mine pit and an abandoned movie theatre where the survivors hang out makes for a striking battleground, and the grisly action rarely flags. Best of all, though, are the characters of Tak, the ancient body-hopping evil who emerges from the mine, and of "God"--whom the New York Times describes as "the edgiest creation in Desperation. Remote, isolated, ironic, shrouded behind disguises, perhaps another legendary shadow,' this deity forms a sly foil, and an icy mirror, to Tak."
Genuinely masterful (Daily Telegraph)
A massive volume of terror crafted creepily (Daily Mail)
King again proves himself the premier literary barometer of our cultural clime...The terror is relentless...deeply moving and enthralling masterpiece (Publishers Weekly)
Top customer reviews
King's novels are rather variable in quality. I suspect that most careful and discerrning readers, even King's Constant Readers, will acknowledge that as true. I'll qualify the statement and state that I haven't yet read a single King that I *didn't* like but I *can* recognise their flaws. Perhaps that's the mark of a true fan (I'd like to think so)?
Now; I'm re-reading a lot of his old stuff and (slowly) coming up to date with his newer work so I can't claim to have a huge base across which to compare, but I think that Desperation has to be one of his better novels. It scores highly on a number of counts, the best probably being the atmosphere that King develops: the desperate, deserted, dusty desolation of the setting, the sense of rising foreboding as events build to a head, the terror and uncertainty evoked by the murderous cop, the helplessness of his victims and the sudden randomness of their deaths. This *feels* like a horror novel. The depiction of the mad cop is also masterful: he's not simply insane Tak, his problems go far deeper than that and his strange mannerisms and sayings convey his demonic posession rather well.
That said, King lets himself down somewhat with the dialogue he constructs for his other - less mental - protagonists and they frequently talk as if their lines had been scripted by a Hollywood B-movie dialogue coach; wordy and schmaltzily sincere. Perhaps it's less noticable to an American, but I found it hard to swallow without gagging slightly.
The characters are, as ever, King's usual band of non-descripts and includes a regulation college lecturer. The cast is supported by a slightly stronger character in the guise of Johnny Marinville a self-centred, self-important writer trying to resurrect his fading star by going on a road trip. He's obviously meant to be deeply unlikeable (see The Stand's Larry Underwood) but this is always a dangerous tactic in my book as an unsympathetic lead can detract from or even put you off the story altogether (which is why I never managed to complete Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series). That doesn't quite happen here because Marinville just isn't strong *enough*.
Anyway, I've spent more time criticising the book than I intended. At the end of the day it's a good, page-turning story with a strong theme and plenty of gore! I realise now that, over the last few years I've been plodding through my reading list unenthusiastically and under-engaged, struggling to find anything that I really wanted to finish. Returning to King after a ten (or more?) year break, I seem to have rediscovered a joy in reading. Suddenly I find myself creeping downstairs at 1am to read another chapter, or turning off the telly so that I can read instead. For me, with all its faults and failings, Depseration is a part of that discovery.
`Did you puke in the back of my cruiser, Lord Jim? Because if you did, the first thing you're gonna get when we hit town is a big old spoon.'
Maybe there’s something I’m missing, but as far as I can tell, "Desperation" is not a good novel. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of Stephen King, but he had a bad run during the 90's, with "Gerald's Game” and "Dolores Claiborne" being very poor. Then came "Insomnia", and you get to thinking that he was back on track, a slight blip there, but it happens, no problem, here we go again. And then...oh, dear!
It’s a fairly simple story, in essence. It’s based on that old favourite of good versus evil or even God versus evil. Evil in this case is embodied by a local policeman in the town of Desperation, Nevada, who has been taken control of, infected even, by an evil presence that has for many years lurked patiently in the mine that has provided most of the population of Desperation with work, either directly or by serving the mining community. Closed down several years before, it has been reopened, and the evil released.
The good are a bunch of people, mostly travellers who happen to be passing near to Desperation on the nearby Interstate. None of them have any business in Desperation and would simply pass it by at 55 miles an hour if they hadn’t been unfortunate enough to be singled out by Officer Entragian and dragged into the Desperation jail. Apart from those who were travelling together in a family unit, there’s no links between any of them, apart from their desire to be somewhere else.
As is often the way, their group is whittled down, mostly through various random killings, which seems apt given that they were supposedly thrown together in fairly random circumstances, to a manageable size. It is this group that can manage an escape and attempt to battle the evil that is in Desperation, all held together by a young boy who has already lost his mother and sister to the force of evil that is Officer Entragian and his faith in God.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a terribly original idea. It’s been done better elsewhere, by other authors and, indeed, by Stephen King himself. This novel is, essentially, a watered down version of “The Stand”, only without the road trip part that bought the characters in that novel together in the beginning. Whereas in “The Stand”, there was a constant state of moving on with the story, with very little attention paid to the past, it seems like there is a constant back trail to “Desperation”, with a lot of the reasons behind what is going on based in the past, rather than the present. As a result, the story seems to take too long to get going, circling around issues rather than progressing the plot. It makes for a book that feels longer than it is which can’t be a good thing, especially as it is a pretty lengthy read to begin with.
There’s a great deal of suspension of disbelief required to get through all this. If anything strange happens, it’s largely down to the power of God. Whereas the basics behind “The Stand” were a little more interesting than that, this is what underpins the whole thing in “Desperation. To draw the comparison further, whilst the God of “The Stand” is a force for good, the God of “Desperation” is a cruel God, which makes the boundaries between His side and the supposedly evil side a little less clear. Although “bad” is clear, the line that marks the start of “good” isn’t at all obvious. You don’t end up cheering for the wrong side, but it’s difficult to feel any great sympathy for or kinship with the right side. If you were forced to pick a side to cheer on in the battle for Desperation, the real problem wouldn’t be choosing which side is the right one, but whether or not you can be bothered to nail your colours to either mast.
Whilst the basis behind “Desperation” isn’t a bad idea for a story, it’s not told terribly well here. This in itself is fairly unusual for Stephen King. Although he frequently takes us through too much back story than is necessary, he does usually have a pretty good eye of the way a story should be told. Here, he somehow seems to miss that mark, and the effect is one of boredom and a lack of interest in how things are going to pan out.
If you’re not a Stephen King fan, this certainly isn’t going to change your mind, and I can’t recommend you buy this. If you are a Stephen King fan, I can’t really recommend you buy this either. Chances are, you already have a copy of “The Stand”, and you’d be far better placed to re-read that instead. The basic idea is the same, and it’s more engagingly told. There’s a very good reason that it was that novel and not this one that made the BBC Good Read lists – “The Stand” is a heck of a lot better.
However, if like I am, you’re a big enough Stephen King fan to be a completist and be missing this from your collection, you’ll want to buy regardless, just don't be expecting too much from it.
This review may also appear under my name at any or all of www.ciao.co.uk, www.thebookbag.co.uk, www.goodreads.com, www.amazon.co.uk and www.dooyoo.co.uk
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