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SSDD
by Lucius Shepard
March 24th, 2003

The idea of the author as franchise was not a new one in the mid-20th century: There were series books aplenty, YA creations like the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, the Oz books, adult detective series featuring characters such as Mike Hammer and Nero Wolfe; and there were writers like Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey who could be counted upon once a year to deliver more-or-less the same bugcrusher novel, only with a different setting and different names for approximately the same cast of characters. It was the advent of Stephen King, however, that inflamed the group-mind of publishing and caused them to conceive of the author as mega-franchise and set them to seeking authorial analogs of Burger King and Wendy�s to compete with the McDonald�s-like empire that swiftly grew from the publication of Salem�s Lot. With King, readers knew what they were getting. The menu was somewhat varied, but whether a Happy Meal like Carrie or supersized like The Stand, you could always count on a heapin� helping of King�s basic ingredient, this being not gruesome horror, but sentiment. Turns out that King hasn�t been so much trying to scare our socks off as he�s been hoping to reassure us that while bad things do indeed happen to good people, goodness just keeps on keepin� on. Scrape away the demons, aliens, vampires, giant spiders and germs and you�ll find at the core of every King novel a big gooey heart whose golden oldies backbeat preaches the indefatigability of the human spirit, all fleshed out with those trusty characters you�ve come to know and love: Maine rednecks; mentally challenged savants; crazed militarists; embittered losers; ordinary joes with supernatural woes, and so on.

Every beloved populist writer from Dickens to Grisham has relied on a tried-and-true stable of tropes, and the interesting thing is watching how they use them and what they choose to illuminate by that usage. Along the way King has written insightful and entertaining books about teenagers (Christine), the varieties of human frailty (The Shining and others), and ought else, but perhaps his most abiding writerly concern has been the purifying armor of friendship, especially childhood friendships as detailed poignantly in �The Body,� which became a decent Rob Reiner picture, Stand By Me; much less poignantly in It, which was regurgitated as a regrettable mini-series; and most recently in Dreamcatcher, which has been incoherently condensed into a Lawrence Kasdan-William Goldman script that plays out like a season of truly abysmal X-Files episodes jammed into a hundred-and-thirty-four minutes, and essentially consists of action sequences larded with clumsy passages of exposition, a number of which entail various characters explaining things to themselves. If that�s not clear enough, it is abjectly horrible, unintentionally laughable, not in the least scary, among the worst films ever made from King material, ranking merely a notch or two above abominations like Silver Bullet, Sleepwalkers, and King�s own directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive.

Dreamcatcher was King�s first completed project after a near-fatal car accident and it seems that as he wrote, his body of work must have been passing before his eyes. At six hundred-plus pages, the novel reads like one of those TV-promoted repackaged Greatest Hits albums sold only at K-Mart�-you got your Native American magic (the dreamcatcher, a ritual object whose function is never satisfactorily explained in the movie); you got your telepathy; you got your aliens; you got your other aliens; you got your boyhood chums gifted with psychic powers by a mentally challenged lad, Duddits, they rescued from bullies who, in something of a foreshadowing, were forcing to eat what we used to call in high school �a Lincoln Log.� Grown to manhood, the chums, whose bond is established in the film by having them repeat various sarcastic catchphrases, the most notable being SSDD (Same S**t, Different Day)�an acronym that would have made a more apt title for the project�are gathered for a hunting weekend at a cabin in the Maine woods when the storm of the century leaves them virtually snowbound. Out hunting for deer, Beaver (Jason Lee) encounters another hunter who is afflicted with a vile fungal rash, prodigious belches, and hellish flatulence. Back at the cabin, Jonesy (Damian Lewis) and Beaver look on as all the forest creatures flee an unknown menace, while the hunter bloodily produces from his bowels a creature that bears a striking resemblance to that which Duddits almost ate, only with teeth. Lots of teeth. Meanwhile, Pete (Timothy Olyphant) and Henry (Thomas Jane), off on a beer run, crash their car in order to avoid a half-frozen, rash-afflicted woman sitting in the road. Henry goes to seek help, leaving behind an injured Pete. As Pete is peeing Duddits� name into a snow bank (with remarkably good penmanship, I should add), the wormlike creature who has surreptitiously exited the woman�s bowels attacks his writing implement.

Into this juvenilely accented phantasmagoria enters Colonel Abraham Kurtz (Morgan Freeman), the crazed leader of a black ops military unit that has been engaged in covering up UFO incursions and slaughtering aliens for lo these many years. Freeman, who seems throughout to be pleading for audience sympathy, saying between the lines, Hey, a man�s gotta work, is cursed with some of the worst dialog in recent memory. Gazing out a window at the detention camp wherein he has penned civilians who may be infected with the alien rash, he laments having to kill them and says, �These people drive Chevys. They shop at Walmart. They watch every episode of Friends. They�re Americans.� Then off he flies to carpet bomb a crashed alien vessel, unmindful that Jonesy, whose body has been possessed by a giant bipedal variant of the bowel creatures (they�re able to transform themselves into a swirling reddish dust for possession purposes) is heading for Boston, where he intends to slip a bowel creature into the water supply and thus destroy civilization as we know it. Since one creature alone can contrive so prolific a contagion, it�s unclear why it�s necessary to start things in Boston. Why not the closer-at-hand Derry?

A Red Sox hater, perhaps.

The most apparent byproduct of being possessed by an alien is that Jonesy now speaks in a pert English accent, giving rise to the impression that the alien invasion may have been launched from some heretofore unguessed-at off-planet backwater of the British Empire. Jonesy himself is trapped inside his brain, wandering about in a metaphorically constructed memory warehouse whose internal architecture is redolent of late-period Florentine Renaissance, busy hiding folders containing secret knowledge about Duddits from the alien�s prying mind. Henry, imprisoned by Curtis, manages to persuade the colonel�s second-in-command, Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore), that only Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), now stricken with leukemia, can save the world. This excessive waddage of plot culminates with Duddits pitifully tottering into battle clutching a stuffed Scooby Doo doll and a Scooby Doo lunchbox full of cancer medication, a battle whose outcome hinges upon the fact that aliens capable of controlling human minds, biting people in half, and building a spaceship the size of Portland, seem baffled by the problem presented by opening a manhole cover with a crowbar. Perhaps they�re cousins to the aliens in Signs, who exhibited a similar curious dysfunction as regards cellar doors.

There are no end to logical gaffes in Dreamcatcher, but listing them would beg the issue. Where Kasdan (who once made a couple of decent movies) and Goldman (who served King far better in his scripts for Misery and Hearts in Atlantis) went wrong was in eliminating the sentiment of the book and turning it into an action horror flick. Five or six minutes more footage would have been sufficient to allow us to relate to the adult versions of the four friends. Though they are scarcely unique characters, it has always been one of King�s great tricks to make us care about people to whom, if we were to meet them in the world, we might pay no more than nominal attention. He persuades his readers of the beauty of the ordinary, brand-name consensus that cloaks the mechanisms of our culture, and of the specialness of the individual, no matter how small-minded or deluded or debased. However you might judge him as a writer, he shows us the hearts of real estate agents, car dealers, gas station owners, janitors, accountants, and many other salt-of-the-culture types (perhaps more significantly, he shows us how they perceive themselves), and the concern we feel for these folks permits us to overlook the illogics, the unwieldy plot devices, the repetitions, the supernatural flotsam and jetsam of desultorily imagined spooks and demons and creatures that crop up in his lesser novels, of which Dreamcatcher is surely one. Kasdan and Goldman have focused on what is really the least compelling element of King�s work, the horror�horror is only the hook of the song he sings, not the beat that gets us dancing; they have directed us to consider the bad things and not the good people. Thus Pete, Jonesy, Beaver, and Henry come across as somewhat annoying pencil sketches and our sole interest lies in wondering which of them will die and how and when this will occur.

I used to be put off by King�s penchant for investing mentally challenged people with wild talents or extreme purity of heart. It seemed and still seems a kind of indignity visited upon such people that we are asked so frequently to consider them as sacred vessels, God�s (or the Devil�s) chosen. Furthermore, it has become tiresome. While watching Dreamcatcher, however, I noticed a mentally challenged kid sitting nearby and realized that the only time his interest was fully engaged was when Duddits was on-screen. It occurred to me�snidely�that the movie had found its audience, but then I thought how few role models this kid must have and I recalled another kid, severely abused, mentally beaten down by a domineering father, to whom I gave several King novels and how reading them provided him an escape from his circumstance and ultimately enabled him to get some distance from the oppressive force in his life. Populist writers do what they do. It�s their inclusiveness that makes them so effective. Few can read a King novel and�though they may not appreciate the craft involved in the achievement this implies�not find someone with whom they can at least partly identify. Stephen King has been the target of much critical snobbery, some of it my own, some of it deserved�pretense, when it rises to a certain level, demands critical dismissal. But the generous inclusiveness of King�s casts of characters, the attentiveness he lavishes on their predictable reactions, the canonization of their mundane observances, the oversimplified karmic particularity of their fates, his often overly patient charting of their irresolute and unremarkable courses . . . That�s his job. Though King�s later work has, in my opinion, been less disciplined and impressive than his earlier; though there are assuredly writers of greater precision and insight and technical skill, writers more capable of fulfilling a lofty ambition, of illuminating some new corner of possibility or the human psyche, no one has come along to supplant him. The gig is still his, and despite hiccups like Dreamcatcher, both the book and its celluloid bowel creature, he�s done pretty damn well at it overall.