Many people I follow on Twitter are Cold War and espionage nuts, which means that I sometimes see interesting things in my timeline I wouldn’t otherwise. One of these is an article from Vice about the history of the nuclear submarine: the writer, Michael Byrne, describes the atom sub as the underwater equivalent of a space station, able to float the depths for decades without refuelling, a hidden biosphere with a lethal capacity – and he uses a gorgeous and chilling phrase, ‘The haunt at the end of everything.’
The Cold War always had a spectral and horror genre element. The idea of large tracts of the planet being vaporised in ten seconds is, of course, pretty scary without even introducing a supernatural element into the process. Read Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, his hard-factual history of nuclear weapons, to understand how close we came. Schlosser writes with sympathy and humanity about the men and women who build and maintain these fearful machines, and conveys a marvellous sense of the contradiction inherent in our relationship with the bomb: nuclear weapons are extremely sensitive and complex to handle, the slightest miscalculation can be cataclysmic, and yet even the best of us make mistakes – ‘the mixture of human fallibility and technological complexity that can lead to disaster.’ Human error is natural, but with nukes, human error can cost millions of lives. (‘Ah, shit, there goes Gloucestershire. Sorry, boss.’) The relationship with technology becomes a dance of careful terrors.
But still there is an otherworldly element to the terror. Douglas Coupland’s Life After God features a section called ‘The Dead Speak’, where people who have died in a nuclear war talk of their last moments on earth: ‘The game show playing on the countertop TV then suddenly stopped and the screen displayed color bars with a piercing tone and then for maybe a second there was a TV news anchorman with a map of Iceland on the screen behind him. I said ‘hello’ into the phone, but it went silent and then the flash hit.’ Most postapocalyptic novels and series contain in the backdrop some kind of nuclear catastrophe. The Cold War seems retro these days – and maybe it shouldn’t: nuclear weapons still exist, imagine if ISIS got hold of one of these things, or if the Kouachi brothers had armed themselves with a neutron bomb? – but the retro adds to the fear. Comic books behind glass with strange eyeless things emerging from Quonset huts in waves of hollow unearthly light. Nukes are eerie. Even Don de Lillo’s highbrow Underworld has children turned into monsters and a feeling of unreality beneath the surface of things.
Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was published in 1987, at the tail end of the official nuclear age. It also came from the peak thrash of King’s alcohol and drug addiction: in On Writing, King says the novel was written late at night, ‘with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.’ Maybe King’s febrile state explains his choice of protagonist: while King heroes are always a little flawed, Tommyknockers protagonist Jim Gardener is a natural and unrepentant train wreck of a man, an alcoholic poet who has lost his job as a college professor after shooting his wife while drunk. In his poverty and desperation, Gardener becomes obsessed with nuclear power, ranting about the dangers of the Bomb whenever he gets a chance. He knows that ‘what he was really protesting against was the reactor in his own heart… There was some technician inside who should have long since been fired.’ But the knowledge doesn’t help him.
We meet Gardener when he is doing a performance tour with something called ‘The New England Poetry Caravan’, a series of readings to Hampshire lay appreciators run by a mean-spirited arts administrator looking for a reason to drop Gardener from the programme. Although Gardener drinks and brawls throughout the tour, the readings go well: at his last performance men give him a standing ovation with tears in their eyes. Things go wrong for good, however, when he attends a post-reading faculty party at the home of a senior academic.
I love this scene, because it shows us King’s gift for comedy – not just the black farce outlined above, but in more subtle ways about the poetry scene. This is King on the beginning of the party:
There was a large buffet for which most of the poets made a beeline, reliably following Gardener’s First Rule of Touring Poets: If it’s gratis, grab it. As he watched, Ann Delaney, who wrote spare, haunting poems about rural working-class New England, stretched her jaws wide and ripped into the huge sandwich she was holding. Mayonnaise the color and texture of bull semen squirted between her fingers, and Ann licked it off her hand nonchalantly. She tipped Gardener a wink. To her left, last year’s winner of Boston University’s Hawthorne Prize (for his long poem Harbor Dreams 1650-1980) was cramming green olives into his mouth with blurry speed. This fellow, Jon Evard Symington by name, paused long enough to drop a handful of wrapped mini-wheels of Bonbel cheese into each pocket of his corduroy sport-coat (patched elbows, naturally) and then went back to the olives.
The comedy turns black, however, when Gardener encounters a braying, ignorant nuclear plant exec – ‘Ted the Power Man’ – and the inevitable drunken debate ensues. In a beautifully sustained chapter, Gardener knocks down the Power Man’s contentions, listing the fuckups, the lies, the projections, the death rates, the diseases, the cancer stats, the contaminated water – intellectually, he wins every argument, but grows more and more aggressive in his tone and phrasing, so in love with his obsession and the darkness that propels it, that the senior academic throws him out: or tries to – Gardener elbows the academic in his immense belly, causing a fatal heart attack, then chases Ted the Power Man down the hall with an umbrella.
After an eight day blackout, Gardener awakes on the Arcadia breakwater with no money and a suicidal depression. One thing defers his self-slaughter: an intuition that his old friend, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Anderson, is in trouble. Bobbi is Gardener’s old student, lover and friend, and is sane in every way Gardener isn’t. She lives a peaceful life in a rural Maine town and is a successful writer of Westerns. But when Gardener arrives in Bobbi’s farmhouse in remote Haven, something spooky has occurred. Bobbi has gone on a frenetic technological jag, building things that couldn’t possibly exist: flying tractors, a water heater that runs off batteries, a typewriter that runs off telepathy. This strange power comes from a UFO buried in the earth, indifferent and colossal, the aliens long dead, but its weird radiation oxidising into the atmosphere, generating a mad creativity in its radius. In it Gardener sees an alternative to the nuclear curse: the ‘pill to take the place of gasoline.’ Enthusiastically he helps Bobbi dig up the ship, and as they uncover more and more of its surface, its force gradually turns the township into demons – the Tommyknockers of the title.
King is great on small communities that go badly wrong and has huge fun with Haven: suddenly gifted with telekinetic powers and mind-shattering ideas, the residents of this obscure village go crazy, converting old household appliances and childhood toys into gadgets that tear holes in the universe. Smoke alarms shoot lasers, machine parts levitate by remote control, and a murderous Coke machine guards Haven’s borders. There are also physical changes: people’s teeth fall out, their bodies become translucent, blood turns green. The Tommyknockers are a villainous species, authoritarian and conformist, yet quarrelsome to the point of ridiculous. ‘We squabble!’ Bobbi tells Gard. ‘Le mot juste!’ Gardener realises their evil – and his enabling of it – almost too late:
We squabble. Every now and then we even tussle a bit. We’re grownups – I guess – but we still have bad tempers, like kids do, and we also still like to have fun, like kids do, so we satisfied both wants by building all these nifty nuclear slingshots, and every now and then we leave a few around for people to pick up, and do you know what? They always do. People like Ted, who are perfectly willing to kill so no woman in Braintree with the wherewithal to buy one shall want for electricity to run her hair-dryer. People like you, Gard, who see only minimal drawbacks to the idea of killing for peace.
It would be such a dull world without guns and squabbles, wouldn’t it?
The Tommyknockers is not a well liked book – James Smythe, in his Rereading Stephen King series, says that ‘it reads like one long, cocaine-fuelled late-night paranoia fantasy’ – but it’s one that I always return to. The science is a mess, but has its own compulsive logic within the mess. King is realistic about space exploration: his Tommyknockers have the power of teleportation, have the power to create portals ‘that actually seem to go somewhere. But in almost all cases, it isn’t anywhere anyone would want to go.’ The book is genuinely scary (‘They got the door shut before Shatterday, but a lot of people cooked when the orbit changed’) and has a truly action packed ending, with Gardener racing to the ship through a burning forest while a variety of mutants and bizarre gadgets try in vain to stop him. And I think it ages better than any other King. As he says in his intro:
Haven is not real. The characters are not real. This is a work of fiction, with one exception:
The Tommyknockers are real.
If you think I’m kidding, you missed the nightly news.