Recently I read Thinner (1984) by Richard Bachman. For those who don't know, Richard Bachman is a pseudonym of the great Stephen King. When King was embarking on his writing career, many publishers opted not to release more than one book per year by each author, since they believed more would be unacceptable to the public. (How times have changed!) King therefore chose to write under a pen name to increase his sales without over-saturating the market for his books. There are seven books in the Bachman collection, with Thinner being the fourth; the others include The Running Man, later made into a well-known film.
King has stated that that writing as Richard Bachman was also his way of discovering whether his success was due to talent or luck. He deliberately released his Bachman novels without much marketing fanfare, but his identity was revealed before he ever got his answer.
Here's a taster:
'Thinner' - the old gypsy man barely whispers the word. Billy feels the touch of a withered hand on his cheek.
Billy Halleck, prosperous if overweight citizen, happily married, shuddered then turned angrily away. The old woman's death had been none of his fault. The courts had cleared him. She'd just stumbled in front of his car. Now he simply wanted to forget the whole messy business.
Later, when the scales told him he was losing weight, it was what the doctor ordered. His wife was pleased - as she should have been. But . . .
'Thinner' - the word, the old man's curse, has lodged in Billy's mind like a fattening worm, eating at his flesh, at his reason. And with his despair, comes violence.
Wow! A gypsy curse - great material for a maestro like King! And Thinner doesn't disappoint. It's shorter than his usual trademark novels that weigh in at several hundred pages, but its writing style is pure Stephen King. How did it take four Bachman books before his cover got blown?! Sprinkled throughout the narrative are his trademark motifs, such as splitting a sentence over a few lines, with italicised and bracketed text in between. Also evident is his penchant for all-American brand names, and the fact that much of the action takes place in Maine. What's more, his characters even refer to a situation as 'like something out of a Stephen King novel' at one point. Cheeky, but amusing!
Billy Halleck is not a likeable character; he's arrogant and lacks self-awareness. Nobody else in the book, with the possible exception of Billy's wife Heidi, comes across any better. The originator of the curse, Taduz Lemke, and his granddaughter Gina are especially vicious, unforgiving individuals. This lack of anyone with whom to empathise might mean some readers could find it hard to connect with the story, but that aspect didn't bother me. To me, Billy is all too human in his failings; had the woman's death been murder rather than an accident, the gypsy's curse may have been more understandable, but the old man acts out of malevolence and spite.
What I found fascinating was King's examination of the various emotions Billy experiences throughout the book. From the start we know he killed another human being through a motor accident, and the story is very much about guilt, responsibility and justice. At first, Billy wants to put the incident behind him, and it's not until he understands he's been cursed does he begin to deal with his demons. Having said that, the book contains much injustice; it's hard to say more without giving plot spoilers, but the cruel twist at the end is a good example. That was unkind of you, Mr King, although I guess you intended it as poetic justice! Anyone for strawberry pie?
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