I decided to reread Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers in December as an appetizer for the 2019 Hail to the King reading challenge. And what an appetizer it is! Fortunately, I got through it with all of my teeth intact. Yes, fair warning, if teeth falling out is a trigger for you, this might not be the book to read. Otherwise, read on.
I don’t remember the last time I read The Tommyknockers. It has been a long time. Although I recalled elements of the book there is nothing like experiencing a book again. In the hands of a master storyteller like Stephen King, it is a delight to revisit the characters of Haven.
They’ve been there the whole time, messing up instruments, causing people to get lost in the woods, but their influence was limited. Right up until Bobbi Anderson trips over a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. It could be anything, but it gnaws at her attention like a tongue probing a loose tooth. The people of Haven don’t know what’s happening up at the old Garrick Farm. Not when Bobbi goes out and starts to dig.
Pretty soon the whole town learns what is going on.
Haven, Maine appears in several of Stephen King’s works including The Colorado Kid and the TV series Haven. Like Derry, Castle Rock, or Chester’s Mill, Haven is a small rural town. In The Tommyknockers, King introduces us to many of Haven’s residents. He kicks things off with Bobbi Anderson, a writer of Western novels, that lives alone at the old Garrick farm. The cast grows from there to include dozens of characters, major and minor. We get to know these people, flaws and all, as the story is told from different perspectives.
Back in 1955 Jack Finney wrote The Body Snatchers in which alien seeds invade Mill Valley. It has inspired several movies and other stories since. In The Tommyknockers, King revisits the concept. As Bobbi uncovers the crashed saucer it begins changing the environment in Haven and the people. They start ‘becoming’ something else. Despite realizing that Bobbi isn’t really his Bobbi anymore, Gard chooses to continue working with her and the others to uncover the ship. He doesn’t try to get out and warn other people because he doesn’t trust the government and what they would do if they got their hands on the ship. He’s trapped in a loop. Despite what is happening in Haven, it’d be worse if the government got their hands on the ship, but if the changed inhabitants of Haven aren’t stopped the result might be the same.
These invaders don’t plan to leave. They’ve got plans. They’re settling in. Finney’s aliens have second thoughts, but not King’s.
In The Thing, a polar expedition discovers a crashed spaceship and releases the thing inside. It takes over and replaces the people that found it, and moves on to the next base. Anyone could be the alien. There’s no way out. And they have to stop it from escaping—no matter the cost.
Note: John W. Campbell Jr., author of Who Goes There? the story that inspired The Thing, wrote a book, previously unpublished, that is coming out following a successful Kickstarter campaign.
King’s book achieves that same pressure cooker environment. As the people of ‘Haven’ become and uncover more of the ship, the air around the town changes. It creates a new biosphere which transforms the residents. People trying to enter the town get sick and turn back. Only a few like Gard can resist the effect—in his case, thanks to the metal plate in his head. But Gard is a drunk, unreliable poet, also protected by Bobbi’s support despite the changes she has undergone.
King is an expert about putting small towns and their residents through hell. He does it in Needful Things, Under the Dome, and ’Salem’s Lot. He also did it in the TV miniseries Storm of the Century and other stories. Haven’s residents are both trapped and protected by the changing environment. It keeps people out, but it also keeps them in as they continue to ‘become’ and can’t tolerate the environment outside of Haven’s influence.
There’s so much that I love about this book. The wonder of discovering the spacecraft in the beginning of the book is an image that sticks with me. What would you do in Bobbi’s place? You find a literal flying saucer—you have no idea what the risks are, but you know that the government will take over if they learn of the discovery. King wrote this at a different time. Today you could share the news of the discovery in live feeds. You could rally the press around the discovery. The outcome might not change, but people would know about it. Unless, as with Bobbi, there were unanticipated consequences.
It’s also an example of an alien intelligence that just doesn’t think the same way as we do. The Tommyknockers don’t share our thought process—a detail that King explores later in the book.
At its heart, this is a straight science fiction what if story. What if aliens crashed and you found the intact spacecraft? What if it released something that changed you and the surrounding environment? It hits my reader cookies.
Over the next year I plan to read another King book each month and share my thoughts. If you’d like, join my readers group and read along. When you subscribe to Readinary you'll get my latest news, offers, and I’ll send you my PDF download of the King titles we’re reading.
Ryan M. Williams lives a double life as a full-time career librarian and a multi-genre writer with over twenty books. He writes across a range of genres including science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, mystery, horror, and romance. He earned a Master of Arts degree in writing popular fiction from Seton Hill University and a Master of Library and Information Science from San Jose University. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine.