It’s been a couple of months since I’ve read a Stephen King novel so choosing the next one read is an important decision. I chose to read Dreamcatcher, initially because it’s a “Derry book” but also this was the first book King wrote after his near-fatal accident in June 1999. What a relief it was when I started reading Dreamcatcher. It’s definitely a page turner as I read the book in a week, averaging 100 pages a day. Hodder & Stoughton categorizes Dreamcatcher as an “Epic Thriller” sharing the category with the likes of Insomnia, IT and The Stand and I would certainly suggest that this book is in the same league as those.
The book begins by setting the scene of four protagonists who are childhood friends: Jonesy, Henry, Pete and Beaver. Now they are grown up leading separate lives, they only meet up once a year to go on a hunting trip. You can fall into the trap by investing a keen interest in this quartet, however soon after the ground is laid, Pete and Beaver are killed off essentially leaving Jonesy and Henry as the main characters. This is a shame, perhaps a flaw, as you are left wondering what could have been or it’s a deliberate melancholy device as this book is very dark.
Like in most King books, telepathy plays an integral part in the story as the friends possess the power. As adults, the four are all going through a rough time: Jonesy has been in a near-fatal accident, shattering his hip (parodying King’s own accident), Henry is suicidal, Pete is on the cusp of admitting is alcoholism and Beaver is miserably loveless. As children, the four experienced a potentially traumatic event together: they came across a young boy with Down’s syndrome being tortured by sadistic teenage bullies. They managed to summon up the courage to rescue the boy who we find out is called Douglas Clavell, but affectionately called “Duddits” as this is how he pronounces his name. This experience begins a strong bond between the quartet and Duddits.
There are quite a few connections between Dreamcatcher and IT especially between the main characters. There is a connection with Pennywise however I will go into much more detail about that later. In IT, the Losers’ Club in 1958 battle IT in order to save the children of Derry. The memories of these events are supernaturally repressed by the Losers’ Club and they go on to be remarkably successful adults with the exception of Mike Hanlon who is the only one who remained in Derry.
Both the Losers’ Club and the friends in Dreamcatcher battled a traumatic event with heroism however the consequences for the characters as adults are quite different. In Dreamcatcher, the heroic event of saving Duddits reverberates through the book and casts a dark shadow on their adult lives. On a few occasions, a character will state that saving Duddits was their finest hour. This is seemingly positive affirmation however the friends spend their lives unable to live up the purity and kindness of who they were when they were children. Perhaps it was the supressed memories of the Losers’ Club that made them successful adults.
Now that the protagonists have been mentioned, it’s time to introduce the antagonists: the aliens. Whilst on their hunting trip, the friends soon discover that eating or inhaling the red mold found in the woods causes large worm-like aliens called byrum (derived from the name of the alien mold ‘byrus’) to infest the host. When an infestation is sufficiently established, the host develops a form of telepathy with other infested individuals. The adult aliens resemble deformed serpent-like beings with legs, while the younger aliens, or byrum – nicknamed “shit-weasels” because they can be created in a host organism’s stomach and escape by eating their host’s body between the stomach and anus – are legless, smaller versions of the adult alien.
The adult aliens are capable of not only telepathy, but the ability to give those around them telepathic abilities. They can also manipulate the minds of those around them. They use this power to appear as “Gray Boys”. “Gray Boys” look nearly identical to the stereotypical grey alien look, but with pus-like skin. Gray Boys may spontaneously explode in a cloud of red dust for two reasons: if near death, or as one final attempt to spread the infection.
The main alien protagonist is unimaginatively called Mr Gray. Jonesy is uniquely affected by the byrus: instead of being infected with the red growth or the implants, an adult alien possesses his body. Mr Gray inhabits Jonesy, attempting to use him to carry out its mission to infect the town water supply with byrus to eventually conquer planet earth. Therefore Mr Gray is desperate to find the standpipe in Derry in order infect the water. Jonesy is acutely aware of this so tries to hide his memories of Derry and Duddits from Mr Gray. It is the journey of Jonesy, possessed by Mr Gray, where we come across the reference to Pennywise:
Extracts from Chaper Sixteen: Derry
“‘Where is it?’ Mr Gray screamed into the howling mouth of the storm. ‘Where’s the fucking STANDPIPE?’
There was no need for Jonesy to shout; storm or no storm, Mr Gray would hear even a whisper.
‘Ha-ha, Mr Gray,’ he said. ‘Hardy-fucking-har. Looks like the joke’s on you. The Standpipe’s been gone since 1985.’”
“He, it, whatever Mr Gray was, at last reached the pedestal, which stood out clearly enough in the glow cast by the Ram’s headlights. It had been built to a child’s height about five feet, and of the plan rock which had shaped so many New England stone walls. On top were two figures cast in bronze, a boy and a girl with their hands linked and their heads lowered, as if in prayer or in grief.
The pedestal was drifted to most of its height in snow, but the top of the plaque screwed to the front was visible. Mr Gray fell to Jonesy’s knees, scraped snow away, and read this:
TO THOSE LOST IN THE STORM
MAY 31, 1985
AND TO THE CHILDREN
ALL THE CHILDREN
LOVE FROM BILL, BEN, BEV,
EDDIE, RICHIE, STAN, MIKE
THE LOSERS’ CLUB
Spray-painted across it in jagged red letters, also perfectly visible in the truck’s headlights, was this further message:
Mr Gray knelt looking at this for nearly five minutes, ignoring the creeping numbness in Jonesy’s extremities. (And why would he take care? Jonesy was just your basic rental job, drive it as hard as you want and butt out your cigarettes on the floormat.) He was trying to make sense of it. Storm? Children? Losers? Who or what was Pennywise? Most all, where was the Standpipe, which Jonesy’s memories had insisted was here?”
“The years of 1984 and ’85 were bad ones in Derry. In the summer of 1984, three local teenagers had thrown a gay man into the Canal, killing him. In the ten months which followed, half a dozen children had been murdered, apparently by a psychotic who sometime masqueraded as a clown.
‘Who is this John Wayne Gacey?’ [sic] Mr Gray asked. ‘Was he the one who killed the children?’
‘No, just someone from the midwest who had a similar modus operandi,’ Jonesy said. ‘You don’t understand many of the cross-connections my mind makes, do you? Bet there aren’t many poets out where you come from.’
Mr Gray made no reply to this. Jonesy doubted if he knew what a poet was. Or cared.
‘In any case,’ Jonesy said, ‘the last bad thing to happen was a kind of a freak hurricane. It hit on May thirty-first, 1985. Over sixty people died. The Standpipe blew over. It rolled down that hill and into Kansas Street.’ He pointed to the right of the truck, where the land slopped sharply away into the dark.”
I wanted to provide these extracts because when I read this chapter, this was the first time I found out that Pennywise was actually modelled on an actual serial killer! I just want to make a quick point before I write about the serial killer. The last quoted paragraph refers to a “freak hurricane” resulting in the standpipe blowing over rolling down “Kansas Street” – I wonder is it end up somewhere over the rainbow way up high?
So in the extract referring to Pennywise, John Wayne Gacy is mentioned, in Jonesy’s mind, he had a similar modus operandi as Pennywise the Clown. As soon as I read this passage, I immediately had to google “John Wayne Gacy” and it was utterly amazing: reading about him really does shed light on Pennywise.
John Wayne Gacy was an American serial killer and paedophile rapist who was convicted or the sexual assault and murder of a minimum of 33 teenage boys and young men in a series of killings committed between 1972 and 1978. All of Gacy’s murders were committed inside the Norwood Park Township just as all of Pennywise’s murders were committed in Derry. Gacy buried 26 of his victims in the crawl space of his home, 3 further victims were buried elsewhere on his property (totalling 29 within the property), whilst the last 4 known victims were discarded in the Des Plaines River (totalling 33 known murders overall).
There is a book written about John Wayne Gacy titled, “29 Below” by Jeff Rignall and Ron Wilder. This got me thinking about the house where IT appears: 29 Neibolt Street. In the book IT, the Losers’ Club go to 29 Neibolt Street to confront IT however the creature disappears into the sewers through a toilet pipe. Near the beginning of the book, the mutilated corpe of a gay man named Adrian Mellon is found from the canal. To be honest, this is what fascinated me the most from Dreamcatcher, the revelation made about Pennywise being modelled on John Wayne Gacy.
When I’m preparing to write a blog about or reviewing a Stephen King book, if the book has been adapted into a film, I’ll try to watch it soon after I’ve finished reading the book. This is exactly what I did with Dreamcatcher and I would only recommend watching this film once you have finished the book. I’ve heard people who have blogged about Dreamcatcher to NOT watch the film but I have to disagree. The film did get terrible reviews and just about broke even at the box office but I think this film cannot be appreciated without having read the book so the viewer has context for what they are watching.
The film was directed and, produced and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan. In a 2012 interview, during a promotional tour for his film Darling Companion, Kasdan admitted that the commercial failure of Dreamcatcher left him:
“Wounded careerwise . . . But not so much personally. I’ve been personally wounded by other movies, where I’d written it, and thought, ‘Oh, God, the world’s not interested in what I’m interested in.’ With Dreamcatcher, the career was hurt. I was planning to do The Risk Pool with Tom Hanks. I had written the script from a great book by Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool). And it didn’t happen. Then another one didn’t happen. Meanwhile, two years have passed here, two have passed there. That’s how you’re wounded.”
A fun fact to put this movie into contemporary entertainment, Lawrence Kasdan is the writer and producer for the new Star Wars movies with Episode VII being released next year. I’m glad I bought the Dreamcatcher DVD as it contains a fantastic interview with Stephen King in the special features. I thought the interview was so good, I decided to type out a transcript of the interview verbatim and here it is:
‘I had a road accident in June of 1999. I was out on my afternoon walk, and a guy came long in a van. He was trying to deal with animals in the back of his van without stopping, so was turned around, and he hit me and it was serious. I broke most of the ribs on the right side of my body. Fractured hip, fractured pelvis, tibia fractured in nine or 10 places. Really, the guy described this area of my leg . . . from knee to ankle, as so many marbles in a sack.
‘When I got started on Dreamcatcher, I couldn’t really work on a word processor because it was too uncomfortable to sit at my desk for any period of time. But I wanted to write because it’s my drug. It takes me away. When I’m writing, I’m in another world. You don’t feel the pain or anything for that period of time that you’re writing. So I had a bunch of ledger books, and I wrote the book longhand.
‘I’ve had people say to me: “I don’t understand why you wanna write horror stories all the time.” And my reaction is, “I don’t write horror stories all the time.” I write stories the way that any novelist does about the relationships that people have with one another and the interactions that have with one another.
‘I wanted to write a story that was pretty much set in one cabin. I want to write a story about guys and what guys are like when they are on their own, and I visualised a hunting camp. And I really wanted to write an old-fashioned monster story, an invasion-from-space-type story.
‘But the other thing that I wanted to do with Dreamcatcher is, what you’re looking for if you write stories that are scary, you’re looking for the taboo zone. You’re looking for a place where ordinarily the door is closed and we don’t go beyond that door. And it used to be that the taboo zone was the bedroom but eventually the movies got beyond the bedroom door and I thought to myself, “Well, is there a door that’s still closed anymore?” And the answer was: “Yes, it’s true. The bathroom door is a place that we don’t go anymore.” And I started to think about the bathroom as being a room where really, a lot of nasty discoveries are made.
I would guess that probably 60 to 70 percent of our first realisation that maybe we have a tumour, we have cancer, that sort of thing, happens in the bathroom. You’ve done your number one or your number two, and you look in the bowl and there’s blood. And you say, “Uh-oh, I’ve got a problem.” You can say IO wrote the whole book in order to have the scene where he sits on the toilet and can’t get off because the thing is inside. It won’t go down because it’s too big to flush. In a way, it was that that became the driving force of the book. It’s gonna do for the toilet what Psycho did for the shower.
‘I don’t think that it’s by accident that when you see Dreamcatcher there are scenes in that movie that call up Stand By Me because when kids do something together that gives them a common memory, they have more of a tendency to stay together. So I wanted to write a story about some boys who had done something really extraordinary when they were young. And together they have a secret. Something they’re done that they just don’t talk about, a sort of psychic link, a psychic bond.
‘I always said to myself: “Well, if you were taken over by an alien force, what happens to your mind?” I think that in most cases the mind would simply be absorbed by the more powerful creature. But because I wanted my guys to sort of stand against these aliens and because they’ve had this encounter with this remarkable young man named Duddits, I thought to myself, “Well, maybe this guy’s got a place to go.” And then I thought to myself, “Well, where would you go to escape the presence, the possessing presence?” And I thought, “Your mind really is a little bit like a storehouse.” It’s a place where you have all these different cabinets. So I was able to visualise Jonesy running away into his own subconscious. But he has this one room where Mr Gray, the alien, can’t get in.
‘It’s a quantum leap from book to film. When it’s the book, it’s just me. I run all railroads. I’m the casting director, because I’m the cast, right? I’m the director, I’m the screenwriter, I’m everything. You’re always excited when you go in to see how someone is going to realise for the screen a story that you saw only behind your eyes, in your mind that you are only visualizing and translating with the pen or the word processor. It’s always exciting. The last thing I thought of before I went to bed last night was, “I’m gonna see Dreamcatcher tomorrow and then I’ll know if it’s bad, if it’s good, if it’s indifference.” Thank God it’s good.
‘Sometimes I go back and read the books over. Once you get beyond a certain point, five, six, seven years after a book has been published, it seems more like something that was written by somebody else. And then you almost read it as a novel by another writer. We’re doing this interview in the year 2002, the fall of 2002. Come back and ask me what I think of it as a novel around the year 2009 and if I’m still around, I’ll read it and tell you.’