Dreamcatcher by Stephen King
Hardcover - 620 pages (March 20, 2001)
Scribner; ISBN: 0743211383
Hardcover - 688 pages (29 March, 2001)
Hodder & Stoughton General; ISBN: 0340770716
Review by John Berlyne
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A new King novel is always a genre event but with the release of Dreamcatcher, published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic, one can't help but give some thought to how close King came to never writing another word. His near fatal accident back in June 1999 is well documented, not least by King himself in the excellent part-autobiography, part-instruction manual, On Writing, After such a  close brush with death, another man might never have got back in the saddle. Not so Stephen King, much to his credit, and on reading Dreamcatcher, much to our benefit.

King is a writer of both extraordinary honesty and great humanity and part of his huge global appeal is his ability to touch on the light and dark in both character and reader. As a horror writer there are many memorable scenes in his works that have made us all squirm, but under the wider appealing term storyteller he has brought a tear to the eyes or rush of inspirational pride to the breasts of millions of readers worldwide. Dreamcatcher has examples of these characteristics in spades.

Initially this is a story about four male friends who have known each other since boyhood and who are bound together through their relationship with another very special person. Through a series of flashbacks that continue throughout the novel, King drip feeds us with the friend's experiences, and through this effective technique we see how these men are joined and how this unity and love for each other ultimately helps to defeat an enemy that threatens the whole of mankind.

The four are recognizable King everyman archetypes - they speak a language we all recognize, they have the kind of every day worries we all have, they take a dump when they need to. King gives us real people and as such his characters are always appealing. This reality is heightened by King writing very much from the heart - Jonesy, one of the four, is struck by a car and through him we get a full picture of the psychological as well as physical damage that befalls the victim of such an accident.

Grown up now, the friends have gone their separate ways somewhat, but every year at the same time, they get together for a hunting trip in the north woods of Maine. While Henry and Pete are off on a supply trip in what passes for the nearest town, Jonesy and Beav are back at the lodge when an unexpected guest turns up. McCarthy stumbles into their lives having been lost in the woods. He is full of strange behavior and talks of lights in the sky and he is very definitely unwell. I won't give too much about the nature of his affliction,  but let's just say that soon enough it makes the chest-bursting scene in Alien look like a number out of Mary Poppins!!

Having given us a little of the unpleasantness we expect from him, King then deftly switches the point-of-view to a whole new set of characters. The lights in the sky  McCarthy refers to are alien craft and one has crashed in the woods nearby releasing spores of an alien contagion that threatens to infect the entire area. A black-ops clean-up is swiftly arranged and the vicinity is soon cordoned off and under the direct command of one Kurzt, a frighteningly unstable and dangerous character who screws up the entire operation.  We follow his folly as he attempts to chase down the one member of his team who could actually stop the alien invasion.

Between these clearly defined protagonist and antagonist characters comes Duddits - the Dreamcatcher. Long ago the four boys chanced upon Duddits - a retarded boy with Down's syndrome - and saved him from some bullies. In doing so the boys were somehow changed and their fate bound up with his. Duddits is very much another of King's archetypes and with him King continues to explore a theme that comes up time and again in his work. He writes [of Duddits] "God has hurt him and blessed him at the same time..." and like John Coffey in The Green Mile, John Smith in The Dead Zone and Paul Sheldon in Misery, it is Duddits's extraordinary talent that ultimately curses him.

Dreamcatcher has all the best ingredients that make it a compulsive page-turner. King cranks the tension up all the way and you'll find yourself reading into the wee small hours. Like many of his stories it is epic in feel though not in geography, but the author's keen insight and attention to detail and above all his sheer heart make it hard to look away from the page. Highly recommended.

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu