New Releases: The Red Wolf Conspiracy by Robert V.S. Redick
Underground Reading: Stronghold by Stanley Ellin

Underground Reading: Insomnia by Stephen King

InsomniaStephen King's Insomnia was first published in 1994. It is another lengthy (700+ pages) supernatural thriller set in Derry, Maine. Similar to many of the other Derry books (It, Needful Things), King introduces a Big Dark Evil that is eventually fought off by an Everyman with some sort of latent Goodness Power.

Insomnia is notable in that, although a pretty awful book, it always isn't awful in all the usual, Stephen King ways.

The supernatural element, Mr. King's glaring weakness, is still, definitely, awful. 

The hero, Ralph, is granted some sort of weird archon-donated aura-reading mojo that can be used for everything from teleportation to can-opening. However, unlike many of King's other novels, the mojo isn't just something irritating that shows up at the end to Save the Day - it is there, being irritating, from the very beginning.

The supernatural in the Insomnia-verse is some sort of bizarre bureaucracy. Immortal civil servants futz around in mortal affairs, doing their best to make sure everything goes to plan. Unfortunately, a few Cthuthloid entities are out there, working to make sure things go wrong. The goodish guys and the evilly guys pick mortals to use as their agents. These agents square off, making (theoretically) a plot.

The normal King book doesn't bother to explain any of this. Something awful shows up and does awful things (often in the body of a dog, shopkeeper, motorcycle or Abstract Concept). In Insomnia, we suffer from too much explanation. As these mysterious Powers become more and more detailed, the reader discovers that they're neither mysterious nor powerful. Our Everyman hero - Ralph - not only has direct contact with these Supernatural powers (already something new and different), he outwits, outfights and overpowers them all. The equivalent would be, say, Charles Dexter Ward not just finding a nest of ghouls, but also playing poker with Nodens and then punching Cthulhu in the nose. Coming from King, whose own essay on the nature of horror details the beauty of keeping the big bad hidden, this is all especially terrible.

Although long and meandering, the book doesn't suffer from King's usual lack of fuzzy plotting. It is actually quite tightly-plotted, and cleverly self-referential. Everything has a purpose or a meaning, which, over 760-odd pages, is quite an impressive accomplishment. There's a lengthy build-up, an ensuing chunk of action, the explosive climax, and then the mandatory 20-odd pages of post-climactic conclusion in which everything gets boring again. Unlike many other King books, it is clear that the author knew exactly where he was going from page one, and does a good job getting about it.

The irritating part of this, however, is that the book reads like a 700 page wink-and-nudge to King's own brilliance. All the Derry stories are interconnected, so a certain amount of continuity is expected. But the eventual tie-in to the Dark Tower chronicle was both surprising and phenomenally annoying. Not only did it belittle the protagonist's achievements in this book, but it was a painful pay-off to the reader. Struggling through this brick-like volume, only to learn that the eventual 'win' was something completely unrelated was, well, demoralizing. This is the sort of heavy-handed cross-sell that drives readers nuts in comic books and it certainly has no place in fiction.

The winks continue with clever references to pop culture - a cameo appearance by Connie Chung feels like immensely dated stunt-casting. In a similar vein, the central plot arc revolves around abortion. King is extremely fortunate that the issue (and the dialog around it) hasn't progressed any since 1994. But, if it had, the entire book would be condemned to anachronistic rubbish.

Also of note is that this is the first book I've read in a very long time that has an airplane running into a building. This is neither here nor there, but still, it makes for a unexpectedly chilling scene.

Stephen King is a peerless horror writer - Danse Macabre (referenced earlier) is the book on horror. His short stories are phenomenal and some of his early novels (Rage, The Long Walk, The Dead Zone...) still stand out as the best in the genre. But, without a doubt, he's written a lot of crap. Insomnia is a tiresome exercise in back-patting and world building. And, worst of all, it isn't even scary.

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