Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thinner by Stephen King

[I read this an audio book, in case that makes a difference to you.]

For a few minutes, I thought about marking this as being by Richard Bachman, but it's not like anyone is fooled these days by Stephen King's pseudonym and it makes it easier to find for those who might want to see my thoughts on books I've read by one of the masters of horror.

All told, this is my 11th Stephen King book, and that's not even a third of his total output. It is, however, one of the best I've read, and I think it might just be my favorite now. (Previously, that was held by Different Seasons, closely followed by Cujo. Clearly, I like early 80s King.)

Thinner is the story of attorney Billy Halleck, a man living the American Dream. He's got an amazing job, a sexy wife, and a darling daughter, all while living in one of the most prestigious areas in New England. Not even making an arrogant mistake while behind the wheel can stop him. After all, powerful white men like Halleck have powerful friends, who can help him out when he's in legal difficulty.

You see, Billy Halleck has killed someone, and gotten off scott free because it's only a Gypsy. Who cares, right? They're drifters, nobodies--people who are so far below Halleck and his ilk, they might as well be ants.

Maybe, maybe not. An old Gypsy man cares, and when he takes the law into his own hands, Halleck and his friends find themselves dying in various, hideous ways. Only Halleck, the man with the biggest guilt complex, can figure out why. The trouble is, what can he do about it? Can he convince the old Gypsy to take off the curse, even as he takes off pounds faster than a Photoshopped picture? His time, like his very self, is getting...Thinner.

The book begins in media res, which is a bit different for a horror story but works quite well. As we see Halleck's situation slowly growing worse, we also see inside his mind, as he links his problems to the events of a night in which neither he nor his wife used good judgment. Halleck's mental guilt drives a lot of the horror early on, which might disappoint those looking for a more splatter-filled book. There's quite a bit of build-up going on, even if King splashes a bit of horror here and there. If you want immediate gratification, you're likely going to be disappointed.

Since I am a fan of the horrors of the mind, I found this part of the book to be quite a bit of fun, especially since it stays with us, even as Halleck's desperation leads him to allow very uncomfortable--and bloody--choices to be made on his behalf. Even if they work, Halleck will have a lot to live with for a very long time. The old Gypsy's death won't be the only thing on his conscience, and that fact is allowed to sink in nice and slowly, fitting again with the psychological horror theme.

And oh boy, does this book get some bloody imagery by the end. There are dead bodies, severed limbs, and dripping blood--and that doesn't count the stuff going on inside Halleck's head. Yet none of it feels added on to please those who want blood. Every action in this book, no matter how horrible, relates back to the story in a natural way. Halleck is in the middle of a blood feud, and the results happen accordingly.

One of the things I found most interesting about the book is that the reader should never want Halleck to win--after all, he's guilty as sin--yet they must follow his quest and listen to his perspective. The Gypsies are the wronged party, and King makes that abundantly clear. All through the book, you can see King's social commentary about how rich white people treat those they consider beneath them, especially the Gypsies. Even Halleck comes around to this idea, although far too late to help him.

When the time comes for Halleck to strike back, using his friend Ginelli the Mobster, there is a sense that maybe we are to root for Halleck. After all, Ginelli is built up to be the likable Italian Gangster. However, as he plows onto the scene and starts using horrible means to get his way, both Halleck and the reader learn that no matter how nice, a killer is a killer. King's description of the maniacal glee that Ginelli gets in bringing pain to the Gypsies is just as chilling as his depiction of the curses. Perhaps even more so.

As much as I enjoyed the way in which this story builds, the ending is one of the best payoffs, because it's exactly what you think might happen, if you're following along closely. I like when a book has an ending that meshes nicely with what's come before. Halleck thinks he can be rid of his sins, but our old, seemingly ageless Gypsy antagonist knows better. So do we, and so does King. When we get to the final scene, it hits Halleck worse than the car he used to kill the old Gypsy woman in the first place. The setup and execution are about as well done as I've read in a good long time.

In some ways, this book is more literary than it appears. We have violence, but it's almost secondary to Halleck's reflection on the way he--and many, many others--live our their daily lives. We don't think about how much we have until something causes us to lose those advantages. (Think of how many people out of work now who never gave a thought about the other 5% of the country who are chronically and constantly unemployed.) We try to dismiss that which we cannot control, and ultimately, look to blame others for our problems. We keep our dirty little secrets, and hope like hell they never come to light, all the while hating those who share in them.

Come on, you know you have a few. Don't try to deny it. You can't, and neither can I. By the end, neither can Halleck. That's a commentary worthy of being taught in school, and frankly is made all the more interesting because it contains supernatural elements and bloodthirsty mobsters.

Thinner is a great horror story on its face, with multiple levels of commentary weaved in and out of the descriptions of nightmares and cancerous tumors. It's a tribute to King's qualities as a writer that he can do both without taking away from either one. If you only think of Stephen King as a schlocky master of cheap horror, think again. Try Thinner on for size--you might just change your mind.

1 comment:

  1. great review! I used to read a lot of Stephen King, and Thinner was always my favorite.

    btw, found you through the friday hop!