Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Why revive the Bachman byline more than a decade after Stephen King was found lurking behind it? Not for thematic reasons. This devilishly entertaining yarn of occult mayhem married to mordant social commentary is pure King and resembles little the four nonsupernatural (if science-fictional) pre-Thinner Bachmans. The theme is the horror of TV, played out through the terrors visited upon quiet Poplar Street in the postcard-perfect suburban town of Wentworth, Ohio, when a discorporeal psychic vampire settles inside an autistic boy obsessed with TV westerns and kiddie action shows and brings screen images to demented, lethal life. The long opening scene, in which characters and vehicles from the TV show Motokops 2200 (think Power Rangers) sweep down the street, spewing death by firearm, is a paragon of action-horror. The story rarely flags after that, evoking powerful tension and, at times, emotion. The premise owes a big unacknowledged debt to the classic Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life"; echoes of earlier Kings resound often as well -- the psychic boy (The Shining), a writer-hero (Misery, The Dark Half), etc. But King makes hay in this story in which anything can happen, and does, including the warping of space-time and the savage deaths of much of his large cast. The narrative itself warps fantastically, from prose set in classic typeface to handwritten journals to drawings to typewritten playscript and so on. So why the Bachman byline? Probably for fear that yet another new King in 1996 in addition to six volumes of The Green Mile and Viking's forthcoming Desperation might glut the market. Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is certain: call him Bachman or call him King, the bard of Bangor is going to hit the charts hard and vast with this white-knuckler knockout.
Stephen King dusts off his nom de plume for this tale of the supernatural.
It is a summer afternoon on Poplar Street in Wentworth, Ohio, and the 14-year-old who delivers the local shopper is biking his route. A weird-looking red van waits, motor running, at one end of the block. When the vehicle coasts down the street, the "fun" begins. Its windows roll down to let shotgun barrels protrude. The boy is blasted off his bike, the first of many victims of a wave of assaults by a strange company of cartoonish, futuristic shock troopers and western-movie cowboys. What's more, telephones, electricity, and wristwatches are dead all up and down the block; nobody from the next street over in either direction seems to notice the gunfire and burning buildings; and when some of the besieged neighbors try to get to an adjacent street, they discover their surroundings transformed from suburbia to a western desert landscape resembling a child's drawing. What in hell is going on? Actually, as the "documentary" interstices between chapters gradually illuminate, something from close to hell, if you identify hell with the earth's molten interior, is what's going on in this variation upon the old Twilight Zone episode in which a little boy with psychokinetic powers terrorizes his family. Stephen King revives his alter ego Bachman, who "died" in 1985, for a rip-roaringly violent thriller whose main action takes place in little more than an hour and a half. Whew!
King says that The Regulators and Desperation (see below) are companion volumes, like Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. And The Regulators, set on one suburban block in Wentworth, Ohio, employs many characters from its mirror novel, set in Desperation, Nevadabut often in far different roles: Bad cop becomes good cop, and Peter Jackson, shot to death early on in Desperation, reappears here only to die as a zombie impaled on cactus spikes. A shining Bachman/King (The Running Man, 1985) gimmick acts as armature for this horror fantasy. When his parents and brother and sister are murdered in a drive-by shooting, Seth Garon, an autistic six-year-old (his mirror character in Desperation is vastly verbal), is adopted by his aunt, Audrey Wyler, and her husband Bill, and taken to live on Poplar Street. Not only autistic, Seth has also been invaded by Tak, an evil entity once buried in a silver mine, who emerges and brings to Poplar Street futuristic vehicles based on images from a Saturday morning animated cartoon, MotoKOPS 2200, as well as characters drawn from reruns of Bonanza's Cartwright saga, and from a 1958 B-movie Western, The Regulators. Poplar Street turns into a killing field as nasty MotoKops blast away at houses and their terrified inhabitants and strange wild beasts with bodies as outlandish as a child's drawings haunt the block. Can Audrey and Seth, helped by aging novelist John Marinville, take on Tak and save Poplar Street from the Saturday morning TV grislies?
Television takes a beating as Bachman gooses his cast with forced vulgarity and dumb jokes, and a lovely whimsy clanks off like a 12-ton robo-toy. Read Desperation first and The Regulators may come off in the spirit Bachman/King intends.