Friday, December 27, 2013

Stephen King: The Regulators (as Richard Bachman) (1996)

Stephen King explains the genesis of The Regulators, which was published on the same day (September 24, 1996) as Desperation:
As I neared the three-quarter mark on Desperation, I had a scrap with a single word printed on it: REGULATORS. I had had a great idea for a novel, something that had to do with toys, guns, and suburbia. I didn't know if I would ever write it - lots of those "printer notes" never come to anything - but it was certainly cool to think about.

Then, one rainy day (a Richard Stark sort of day) as I was pulling into my driveway, I had an idea. I don't know where it came from; it was totally unconnected to any of the trivia tumbling through my head at the time. The idea was to take characters from Desperation and put them into The Regulators. In some cases, I thought, they could play the same people; in others, they would change; in neither would they do the same things or react in the same ways, because the different stories would dictate different courses of action. It would be, I thought, like the members of a repertory company acting in two different plays.

Then an even more exciting idea struck me. If I could use the rep company concept with the characters, I could use it with the plot itself - I could stack a good many of the Desperation elements in a brand-new configuration, and create a kind of mirror world. I knew even before setting out on this course that plenty of critics would call this twinning a stunt ... and they would not be wrong, exactly. But, I thought, it could be a good stunt. Maybe even an illuminating stunt, one which showcased the muscularity and versatility of story, its all but limitless ability to adapt a few basic elements into endlessly pleasing variations, its prankish charm.

I did not much like Desperation and I enjoyed The Regulators even less. The story at the heart of these two books - the evil machinations of the supernatural being, Tak - does not seem strong enough to have muscularity or versatility.

This is Wikipedia's synopsis of The Regulators:
The story takes place in the fictional town of Wentworth, Ohio, a typical suburban community. On Poplar Street, an autistic boy named Seth has gained the power to control reality through the help of a being known as Tak. Soon, Poplar Street begins to change shape, transforming from a quiet suburb into a wild west caricature based on what Seth has seen on his television. Meanwhile, the other residents of the street are being attacked by the many beings that Seth's imagination is creating, due to Tak's control over them. These residents are forced to work together to stop Seth and Tak from completely transforming the world around them and stop Tak before he kills anyone else.

Seth's imagination is heavily influenced by a western called The Regulators and a cartoon called MotoKops 2200.
King gives what feels like minute-by-minute descriptions of what the block's residents are doing as they attempt to figure out what is going on and how they can stop it. It's neither exciting nor scary nor interesting.

King's Bachman books are supposedly darker or bleaker than the typical "Stephen King" novel, though that point can be well-argued. However, there is nothing to mark The Regulators as anything other than a King novel. The writing style, the use of brand names and pop culture references - it's throughly "King". In fact, one reason why the early Bachman books were not published as King novels is that they avoid the supernatural completely, and it was thought fans would not support King writing outside his established genre. The Regulators would be the first Bachman book to focus on the supernatural (if you ignore the Gypsy's curse in Thinner, that is).

Even the opening of The Regulators, a lengthy description of a hot July afternoon in suburban Ohio - kids playing with a dog, a man washing his car, someone strumming a guitar on a porch, another boy delivering the weekly paper - are presented with a "gee whiz" attitude that seems like the antithesis of Richard Bachman. And just because a lot of people get shot - and we get lengthy descriptions of the bullets' damage - does not necessarily make a book dark and bleak.

One of the obvious weaknesses of both Desperation and, especially, The Regulators, is their excessive amounts of description. Very little of it is important to the plot or any meaningful characterization. Does a scene of four people climbing over a fence really need to be stretched out to more than five pages?

In Desperation, there was a battle of good versus evil. King apparently wants to make a commentary on good/evil as it relates to television as an American religion, but I got absolutely nothing from this novel in that vein. Seth/Tak watches a lot of television and is able to use what he sees to transform Poplar Street into the wild west, but there was no moral against the evils of television. (King is usually pretty heavy-handed when it comes to such messages.)

King has a writing tic in both Desperation and The Regulators. It came up so often that at times I wasn't really concentrating on what I was reading because I was anticipating its next appearance. From The Regulators:
How in God's name could the sound of breathing on the telephone be familiar? It couldn't, of course, but all the same - (page 67)

... made it impossible not to accept. He didn't know why that should be, but it was. (69)

None of this is funny, but he laughs just the same. (94)

There's no way he can know that, but he feels certain of it, just the same. (214)

"It's only chambered for .22s ... but it's a damned fine gun, just the same." (240)

Collie thought Old Doc was mostly talking to himself by this point, but he listened intently just the same. (244)

Understandable, maybe, but Johnny was furious with her, nevertheless. (246)

... but most of what she had to say from this point on would go in one ear and out the other just the same. (249)

Steve didn't like to admit it, but he did. (271)

... but the giggles poured out of him just the same. (387)

... but they were up there, just the same. (389)

He didn't want to understand ... but he thought maybe he did a little, anyway. Like it or not. (400)

It's a small one, but every round from it sounds like a bazooka shell, just the same. (415)

It is only for a moment, as Audrey bolts by, but it is a moment which seems all but eternal, just the same. (443)

Johnny doesn't know how he can know this, but he does. (448)

... and he supposed that was good. He didn't know why, but he supposed it was. (462)
And the phrase "just the same" is used in a similar manner 20 times in Desperation. Even in the introduction to The Bachman Books, when King mentions writing these two novels:
Desperation is about God; The Regulators is about TV. I guess that makes them both about higher powers, but very different ones just the same.
Next: The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass.

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