My favorite Stephen King books typically go two ways: the big ensemble of characters enclosed within a town (It, Under the Dome, Salem’s Lot, etc.), or far more intimate madness between two or three characters (The Shining, Misery, Gerald’s Game, etc.). So, 1987’s The Tommyknockers falls under that first category, and upended my expectations of how that setup would normally go.
Normally, in a King book of this ilk, something externally is happening to a town, and the town’s inhabitants, who we come to know, band together to fight back, despite whatever internal strife they have going on amongst each other and within themselves. However, in The Tommyknockers, the external threat preys upon the internal strife, turning the townspeople, until there are only a few people left in the town who can fight it due to the fortunate circumstances of either becoming wise to what’s going on (Ev, the awesome grandpa), being a dog (Peter!), hating their sister so much that they can fight back (Sissy), or our main character (Gardener, or Gard), who has a silver plate in his head.
Gardener, who is an alcoholic screw-up nomadic poet, is in love with Bobbi, a relatively successful writer of Westerns, living in the small town of Haven, Maine. Bobbi and Peter stumble (literally) across an object in the ground one day. If humans are anything, we are curious, explorers, and excavators. She begins digging. And just by virtue of “digging into” this mystery, the object, which is a small part of a gigantic alien spaceship, begins giving off gas into the Haven atmosphere. That gas will transform, or as King calls the process, “becoming,” Bobbi and most of the town into the aliens that resided on the ship. They are translucent beings (you can see their organs and such through their “skin”), with snouts, inordinately long legs, and tentacles near where their reproductive organs are. And they are makers and fixers. King said they are more like Thomas Edison in that way than an Albert Einstein. The poisoned air allows the townspeople to generate these wacky ideas.
In addition to wacky inventions, the Tommyknockers communicate telepathically. Which is a necessity because another feature of their physiology is they have no teeth, so the townspeople who start to “become” lose their teeth, same with anyone outside the town who ventures into the town and is exposed to the poisoned air. But again, with people like Gardener, his steel plate prevents this “becoming” and the ability for others in the town to read his thoughts.
As an example of what the Tommyknockers are able to do, they can reconfigure any normal human object into doing what they want, usually powered through batteries. One of the townspeople, after she “becomes,” transforms a Coca Cola vending machine into a flying fortress of death that unfortunately smashes and kills a journalist looking to win a Pulitzer (and prove his doubting colleague wrong) for uncovering the happenings in Haven.
That’s hilarious, genuinely. Yes, someone was smashed to death by a vending machine, but it’s hard not to find that hilarious. King even sort of pokes fun at it by having the state police who responded to it, and are then attacked by the vending machine, too, until they have to literally shoot it out of the sky, cackling over it (due to inhaling too much oxygen to avoid the poisoned Haven air)
But there are moments of genuine terror, or at least horrific images to consider, throughout the book. For example, consider poor Hilly, a little boy that always seems to be screwing up. Once the air is poisoned, Hilly, who wants to put on the most memorable magic show ever for his parents and friends, figures out a way to legitimately “disappear” his little brother who dotes on him, David. But what Hilly doesn’t realize is that David not only won’t come back, but he will be sent to Altair 4, some sort of floating storage planet the aliens use. How terrifying of an image is that? Of a four-year-old kid stranded in some alien world, begging for Hilly to bring him back?
The Tommyknockers also aren’t just these weird aliens who concoct weird inventions; they use slaves, whether in their own ship, or humans in Bobbi’s shed, to power a lot of what they do. So, eventually, two humans, and Peter, are wired in the shed to produce the energy they need. That poor dog! Bobbi did that to her own dog once she was “becoming.”
I know it is cliché to project out every central character in a book to its author, especially with King, but the connection between Gardener and King is hard to ignore: Both faced with crippling addiction, and in the case of Gardener, alcoholism, and he just can’t seem to stay on the sober wagon. And yet, Gardener, as even the aliens come to discuss, is the one man who will stop the Tommyknockers. Others try, like the grandpa, or the journalist, or a really gung-ho would-be firefighter, but they fail (except for the grandpa, who does play a role in helping Gardener, to be fair). So, yes, it comes down to the “drunk,” as he’s repeatedly referred to as by the aliens.
I’m down with that redemptive arc for Gardener, that he’s able to pull it together in the end and do something more meaningful with his life than literally drink it away, but my one criticism of that arc and of Tommyknockers: Gardener takes forever! We get hints from King that Gardener is clearly aware of what’s going on, and that he’s actively interfering with Bobbi’s efforts to read his mind. And yet, he does … nothing for the longest time to actually stop what’s going on. Instead, he’s actively helping by continuing to dig up the spaceship so that he and Bobbi can go into the hatch and see what’s inside the ship.
But still, in the end, he does thwart Bobbi and the aliens, relatively easy, and flies away on the spaceship after bringing David back from Altair 4 to reunite with Hilly (in a rather beautiful ending from King!).
Another aspect of the book I was thinking about, and I didn’t draw this connection until I finished: Somewhere in the beginning of the book, King spends a rather long time talking about the history of Haven, and how it went through all of these name-changes since its founding. And while reading it, I didn’t really get why that mattered. Later in the book, though, when Gardener is trying to understand more about the Tommyknockers, and in fact, his central question is, What are you?, and Bobbi, as a Tommyknocker at that point, responds with something like, We have gone by many names, Tommyknockers is only one of them. To me, that’s similar to what King was getting at with the town of Haven: It doesn’t really matter what you go by, the town of Haven, the alien species known as Tommyknockers, it matters what you do.
And that’s really the rub of the whole book. Yeah, the Tommyknockers might be able to come up with incredible (if weird) inventions, or make you suddenly have a mathematical breakthrough, but they have no moral or ethical safety net to catch those ideas, to filter them through some semblance of good-doing. This technological advancement without the moral safety net could also be seen as a metaphor about the dangers of the nuclear arms race, which would have been on King’s mind in the 1980s certainly, and which was always a hot topic of science fiction stories since the first atomic bombs dropped in 1945. Gardener himself is literally obsessed with the dangers posed by nuclear plants, and nuclear weapons. He’s constantly talking about it, and he’s constantly getting into violent altercations over it.
Which is why the Tommyknockers are bad, and when they come knocking at the door, you probably shouldn’t answer! They seem like a godsend of sorts at first, helping one town’s person to win riches through gambling, or Bobbi to finish a novel in record time, but that’s only at the surface level.
Eventually, those controlling the technology become hollowed out (one could even say, a slave to it), both literally from a physiological standpoint, and from a moral standpoint.
I know King is often quoted as saying The Tommyknockers is his worst book, perhaps because it was the last one he reportedly wrote while on drugs, but I think he needs to give himself more credit. It’s a darn fine book! Not the best in his canon by any means, but I enjoyed its blend of horror and science fiction, and there are some genuinely scary, and interesting, ideas he explores within. In general, the idea of not being able to breathe the air you live under is quite terrifying in and of itself!
In addition, Gardener might be one of his more sympathetic characters in terms of, I was desperately rooting for him to get his act together and save Bobbi, save himself, save the boy, save the dog, and save the town.
So, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend The Tommyknockers as the first book someone new to King should read, but I would recommend it! And if you’re already a diehard King fan, but have avoided this one, don’t! Answer the door (I know this goes against my prior advice).