The Barnes & Noble Review
Stephen King has, in many ways, created the horror genre and claimed the largest stake in it for himself. Lest you believe this is selfishness, I'll assure you: It's through no fault of his own. The guy is just too talented, and in many ways, his fiction has defined popular literature and culture for the past 20 years. His novels have been markers along the climb to the 21st century, from Carrie and its "High School Confidential" horrors through The Shining with its nuclear-family nightmare, into his instant classics like Misery and the recent Bag of Bones. His serial novel, The Green Mile, was one of the most absorbing books of the past few years.
Returning to the short form almost as an intermediate step between Bag of Bones and his next huge novel King has offered up The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
First, this is not your typical horror novel I'd hazard a guess that King himself doesn't see it as a horror story. It has more in common with the fiction of Jack London and Stephen Crane than it does with the fiction of Poe or Stoker. But, of course, London and Crane both wrote about a kind of horror that didn't involve creatures from another planet or from graves. They wrote about the horror of humans, nature, and the ability of human beings to survive against the shadows of "what's out there."
No recounting of the plot will convey what King manages to create in this short novel. A girl of nine accompanies her mother and brother on a brief trip, hiking a small portion of the Appalachian Trail. The girl, Trisha, wanders off the path and manages to get lost. She has some family issues: Mom and Dad have divorced, and her brother is constantly squabbling. But by removing Trisha from the family, by isolating her into the woods, the novel becomes one of human survival.
What begins as a bit of a simple tale little girl lost soon turns to the larger questions of what is at the center of creation, what motivates any of us, and the place where darkness and human imagination cross. I resisted this story to some extent, for King is wily. He begins with a soft lull, a bit of a dramatic moment that gets lost quickly in the sweet worry of a young girl who is resourceful enough to pick berries for survival and to do all the right but ultimately wrong things in order to find her way back to civilization. But soon, nature itself becomes a force, more often for ill than for good. And as Trisha's imagination begins to re-create the dark forest around her, a slow, sure terror mounts.
This is not a shocker, and no one will stay up till dawn having nightmares over Trisha and the darkness she must face. But The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a major step forward for King into the realm of fiction that matters, fiction that is about what humans face as one century turns to another: the meaning at the center of existence.
And it's a fun book, too. Let's not forget that beyond being a terrific writer, King is one of the most entertaining storytellers on the planet. His passion for baseball comes through, as does his love for children and the terrors they must face. Get this book. Stay with it. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is the nightmare at the heart of existence; it is the story of those of us who get lost and must face our worst fears.
Douglas Clegg is the author of numerous horror novels, including Halloween Man and Bad Karma, written under his pseudonym, Andrew Harper. His recent Bram Stoker-nominated short story, "I Am Infinite, I Contain Multitudes," can be found in the anthology The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Volume 11. The world's first e-serial novel, Naomi, will be coming out in May; his next book, The Nightmare Chronicles, will be out in the fall.
Read an Excerpt
Mom and Pete gave it a rest as they got their packs and Quilla's wicker plant-collection basket out of the van's back end; Pete even helped Trisha get her pack settled evenly on her back, tightening one of the straps, and she had a moment's foolish hope that now things were going to be all right.
"Kids got your ponchos?" Mom asked, looking up at the sky. There was still blue up there, but the clouds were thickening in the west. It very likely would rain, but probably not soon enough for Pete to have a satisfying whine about being soaked.
"I've got mine, Mom!" Trisha chirruped in her oh-boy-waterless-cookware voice.
Pete grunted something that might have been yes.
Affirmative from Trisha; another low grunt from Pete.
"Good, because I'm not sharing mine." She locked the Caravan, then led them across the dirt lot toward a sign marked TRAIL WEST, with an arrow beneath. There were maybe a dozen other cars in the lot, all but theirs with out-of-state plates.
"Bug-spray?" Mom asked as they stepped onto the path leading to the trail. "Trish?"
"Got it!" she chirruped, not entirely positive she did but not wanting to stop with her back turned so that Mom could have a rummage. That would get Pete going again for sure. If they kept walking, though, he might see something which would interest him, or at least distract him. A raccoon. Maybe a deer. A dinosaur would be good. Trisha giggled.
"What's funny?" Mom asked.
"Just me thinks," Trisha replied, and Quilla frowned -- "me thinks" was a Larry McFarland-ism. Well let her frown, Trisha thought. Let her frown all she wants, I'm with her, and I don't complain about it liNKING. PLEASE FILL PRIMER JUG FOR NEXT PERSON.
She had a bottle of water in her pack -- a big one with a squeeze-top -- but suddenly all Trisha wanted in the world was to prime the pump in the little hut and get a drink, cold and fresh, from its rusty lip. She would drink and pretend she was Bilbo Baggins, on his way to the Misty Mountains.
"Mom?" she asked from behind them. "Could we stop long enough to -- "
"Making friends is a job, Peter," her mother was saying. She didn't look back at Trisha. "You can't just stand around and wait for kids to come to you."
"Mom? Pete? Could we Please stop for just a -- "
"You don't understand," he said heatedly. "You don't have a clue. I don't know how things were when you were in junior high, but they're a lot different now."
"Pete? Mom? Mommy? There's a pump -- " Actually there was a pump; that was now the grammatically correct way to put it, because the pump was behind them, and getting farther behind all the time.
"I don't accept that," Mom said briskly, all business, and Trisha thought: No wonder she drives him crazy. Then, resentfully: They don't even know I'm here, The Invisible Girl, that's me. I might as well have stayed home. A mosquito whined in her ear and she slapped at it irritably.
They came to a fork in the trail. The main branch -- not quite as wide as an avenue now, but still not bad -- went off to the left, marked by a sign reading NO. CONWAY 5.2. The other branch, smaller and mostly overgrown, read KEZAR NOTCH 10.
"Guys, I have to pee," said The Invisible Girl, and of course neither of them took any notice; they just headed up the branch which led to North Conway, walking side by side like l overs and looking into each other's faces like lovers and arguing like the bitterest enemies. We should have stayed home, Trisha thought. They could have done this at home, and I could have read a book. The Hobbit again, maybe -- a story about guys who like to walk in the woods.
"Who cares, I'm peeing," she said sulkily, and walked a little way down the path marked KEZAR NOTCH. Here the pines which had stayed modestly back from the main trail crowded in, reaching with their blueblack branches, and there was underbrush, as well -- clogs and clogs of it. She looked for the shiny leaves that meant poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac, and didn't see any...thank God for small favors. Her mother had shown her pictures of those and taught her to identify them two years ago, when life had been happier and simpler. In those days Trisha had gone tramping in the woods with her mother quite a bit. (Pete's bitterest complaint about the trip to Plant-A-Torium was that their mother had wanted to go there. The obvious truth of this seemed to blind him to how selfish he had sounded, harping on it all day long.)
On one of their walks, Mom had also taught her how girls peed in the woods. She began by saying, "The most important thing -- maybe the only important thing -- is not to do it in a patch of poison ivy. Now look. Watch me and do it just the way I do it."
Trisha now looked both ways, saw no one, and decided she'd get off the trail anyway. The way to Kezar Notch looked hardly used -- little more than an alley compared to the broad thoroughfare of the main trail -- but she still didn't want to squat right in the middle of it. It seemed indecorous.
She stepped off the path in the direction of the North Conway fork, and she could still hear them arguing. Later on, after she was good and lost and trying not to believe she might die in the woods, Trisha would remember the last phrase she got in the clear; her brother's hurt, indignant voice: -- don't know why we have to pay for what you guys did wrong!
She walked half a dozen steps toward the sound of his voice, stepping carefully around a clump of brambles even though she was wearing jeans instead of shorts. She paused, looked back, and realized she could still see the Kezar Notch path...which meant that anyone coming along it would be able to see her, squatting and peeing with a half-loaded knapsack on her back and a Red Sox cap on her head. Em-bare-ASS-ing, as Pepsi might say (Quilla Andersen had once remarked that Penelope Robichaud's picture should be next to the word vulgar in the dictionary).
Trisha went down a mild slope, her sneakers slipping a little in a carpet of last year's dead leaves, and when she got to the bottom she couldn't see the Kezar Notch path anymore. Good. From the other direction, straight ahead through the woods, she heard a man's voice and a girl's answering laughter -- hikers on the main trail, and not far away, by the sound. As Trisha unsnapped her jeans it occurred to her that if her mother and brother paused in their oh-so-interesting argument, looking behind them to see how sis was doing, and saw a strange man and woman instead, they might be worried about her.
Good! Give them something else to think about for a few minutes. Something besides themselves.
The trick, her mother had told her on that better day in the woods two years ag o, wasn't going outdoors -- girls could do that every bit as well as boys -- but to do it without soaking your clothes.
Trisha held onto the conveniently jutting branch of a nearby pine, bent her knees, then reached between her legs with her free hand, yanking her pants and her underwear forward and out of the firing line. For a moment nothing happened -- wasn't that just typical -- and Trish sighed. A mosquito whined bloodthirstily around her left ear, and she had no hand free with which to slap at it.
"Oh waterless cookware!" she said angrily, but it was funny, really quite deliciously stupid and funny, and she began to laugh. As soon as she started laughing she started peeing. When she was done she looked around dubiously for something to blot with and decided -- once more it was her father's phrase -- not to push her luck. She gave her tail a little shake (as if that would really do any good) and then yanked up her pants. When the mosquito buzzed the side of her face again, she slapped it briskly and looked with satisfaction at the small bloody smear in the cup of her palm. "Thought I was unloaded, partner, didn't you?" she said.
Trisha turned back toward the slope, and then turned around again as the worst idea of her life came to her. This idea was to go forward instead of backtracking to the Kezar Notch trail. The paths had forked in a Y; she would simply walk across the gap and rejoin the main trail. Piece of cake. There was no chance of getting lost, because she could hear the voices of the other hikers so clearly. There was really no chance of getting lost at all.
Copyright © 1999 by Stephen King