Ambitious Summer Reading List: Desperation By Stephen King (1996)

Two down, fourteen to go! Considering summer only officially started a few days ago and I’ve got a few week long vacations in the offing, it’s almost looking like I’ll make it through a good number of these books! As I said when I wrote about Dell Shannon’s The Death-Bringers, I’d actually been reading Stephen King’s Desperation when I not only put this Ambitious Summer Reading List together, but also when I took a break to read through that much shorter police procedural. Why you ask? Because Desperation is a tough book to read for both good and bad reasons.

I’ve actually had my copy of Desperation since the book came out back in 1996. I would have been around 13 at the time and remember my aunt and uncle getting it for me for either a birthday or Christmas. This might sound crazy now, but I hadn’t actually gotten into King yet. I wouldn’t read The Shining for a few more years and actually wasn’t even that into horror at the time. In the past few years, I was going through boxes at my parents’ house and came across this book sans jacket and put it in my ever-growing pile of King books to read. It’s got connections to Richard Bachman’s Regulators, so I originally intended to read them back-to-back, but those plans changed when I put together this list.

So, this one’s about a group of people from all over the country brought together in a small Nevada mining town called Desperation. They all wind up in various holding cells because a very large and very insane sheriff purposefully and forcefully stopped them as they tried to drive by the town and locked them up. As the story unfolds we, of course, get to know these strangers all the better and also find out that something found in the mine woke up, wasn’t too happy and started messing with us mere mortals.

Reminiscent of something like The Stand or Under The Dome, King takes a lot of time introducing us to each of the parties involved. There’s the married couple driving through in his sister’s car, the world class writer riding his motorcycle (of course), the writer’s assistant driving miles behind him just to make sure he’s okay and a family with a kid who’s got some kind of spooky powers among others. In other words, you’ve got a pretty standard collection of King characters all thrown into this nutty situation trying to get out with their hides in tact.

As I said above, it took me a while to really get into this one. I’m not a huge fan of the way he kicked this book off, focusing on each person individually up to the point where the cop took them to the jail and then going back and doing the same thing with a different character for several more chapters. I got the gist the first time around and would have preferred we just jump into the actual story instead of introduction hour. There’s also some of the over-writing that I’ve come to expect in his books, the kind of stuff that I let my eyes skim over until I sense something important about to happen.

But the thing that really slowed me down — and this is kind of a spoiler, though it’s pretty early in the book — is that the evil sheriff killed a kid, our hero-kid’s little sister. While the above could have been handled better from a writing/editing standpoint, this is just a piece of the story that hit me and made me not feel very good. Yup, that’s the whole point of these kinds of stories and I applaud King for going there and making me uncomfortable, but with two kiddos of my own running around, it’s hard for me to get into a tale where that kind of thing happens. I actually put the book down for a while and thought about coming back to it down the line, but stuck it out and ultimately enjoyed the yarn spun.

I’ve been trying to figure out if I’d recommend this book to folks and I think I’d say yes. It might actually be a good entry point for someone looking to dive into the larger Stephen King books, almost like training wheels for something like Stand or Dome. I’d also say it’s not as good as those books, so it makes a better starting point because you’re looking up from there. There are also a TON of elements in this book that have been touched upon in other King books and stories ranging from the Kid With Powers and the Hero Auther to the exploration of abandoned spaces. Having just listened to Just After Sunset not long ago, I noted a lot of those kinds of continually explored themes. For me, that’s a cool thing. I like when you can see a writer continue to work through various ideas and come at them from alternate angles, but I can also see why it might seem old hat to other readers.

Even though I might not have liked the experience as much as I wanted to, I must say that Desperation did exactly what I wanted it to by giving me a thrilling, tense and even mean story that kept me wondering not just how it would end, but also curious about how it began. In the end, I was happy with the answers I got and am ready to move on to my next pick. I’m thinking of finally finishing Anansi Boys and then either getting into the Cary Grant book or When Eight Bells Toll.

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