Many people start reading Stephen King while still in their teens, then remain hooked forever. The experience of your first King novel (especially if you start with one of the old great ones, such as Salem’s Lot or The Shining or The Stand or his short story collection Night Shift) can be a life-changer, turning you into an instant addict who greets each of his books hoping for the same kind of rush. In an interview, King once told me he was like the church (“The trick is to get ’em while they’re young”), and although he was making a joke, he was also acknowledging the reason he enjoys so many Constant Readers, as he often refers to us in afterwords and introductions.
Yet even if you’ve read almost every novel King has written — and there are so many, only the most hardcore fan has kept up with all of them — his work doesn’t always leave much of an imprint. Yes, he gives you lots of shivery things and grisly moments to look back on with equal parts dread and fondness (the handcuffs in Gerald’s Game!), but his novels don’t shape your world view the way the works other great writers can do. Ironically, his two nonfiction books (Danse Macabre and On Writing) are the only ones truly capable of changing the way you think, forever affecting your approach horror film and literature and the art of writing. That’s not meant as a slam. The kind of sustained entertainment King pulls off in his best books is supremely difficult to achieve, especially when you’re as prolific as he is (compare him to, say, Woody Allen, who cranks out a movie a year, yet only every fifth one or so is one worthwhile).
Despite his phenomenal commercial success, King is still, all this time later, an underrated artist, notwithstanding a recent reappreciation of his work by critics who once dismissed his books as junk — all calories, no substance. King’s greatest talent, his primary strength as a writer, isn’t his ability to imbue ordinary objects or scenarios with horror, or his (sometimes clunky) turns of phrase, or even his much-lauded skill at creating fully dimensional characters. The thing that drives King’s success, and is the main attraction in his new novel Finders Keepers, is his knack for creating narratives that hurtle along at such a high speed, you can barely keep up. His worst books (The Tommyknockers, Insomnia, Desperation) were bloated, lumpy messes that lacked that unstoppable, dread-inducing race to a finish that sometimes turns out to be almost too horrible (the last pages of Pet Sematary and Cujo, to name just two, are among the most disturbing things I’ve ever read).
But King has been veering away from full-on horror for a while now. The compulsively readable Finders Keepers, the second book in a trilogy featuring characters he introduced in Mr. Mercedes, is dedicated to John D. MacDonald, the celebrated author of crime thrillers and suspense novels who is one of King’s biggest influences. Finders Keepers, in fact, opens with a chapter MacDonald could have written. An elderly man is woken from his sleep by three masked home invaders, who demand he turn over the large stash of cash he keeps locked away in a safe, along with something far more precious: a stack of notebooks containing the last two novels, never published, in the series of books that made him rich.
Two of the intruders are happy with the money. But the third, who peels off his ski mask to reveal “a young man of classic Boston Irish countenance: red hair, greenish eyes, pasty-white skin that would always burn and never tan. Plus those weird red lips” is a monster — a literary psycho. His name is Morris, and he’s furious at the old man for never completing the series that had so deeply affected his life. Morris saw himself in the writer’s best-known character, and he feels betrayed at the way the saga stopped: The fictional protagonist, a free spirit who lived by his own rules, wound up joining the rat race, settling down in the suburbs with a wife and kids and becoming an ad salesman. To Morris, a young man who has rejected society because he knows he’s too insane and insecure to ever fit in, that finale was the ultimate betrayal by a writer he had grown to love.
That first chapter, which ends with a horrific bang, could easily stand alone as a short story (thematically, it is reminiscent of Misery, in which the loony Annie Wilkes kidnapped her favorite author after he was injured in an accident and forced him to rewrite a novel in which he killed off her favorite character). But Misery took place largely inside one house and featured a small cast of characters. Finders Keepers is much more complex, jumping back and forth in time to follow Morris, who is sent away to prison for a crime, and Pete Saubers, a boy who finds the stolen notebooks without realizing their worth.
What ensues is the kind of cat-and-mouse game King excels at crafting, with Morris coming back to reclaim the notebooks after he serves his sentence. There are overlaps with Mr. Mercedes, including the vehicular mass slaughter that opened that novel, revisited here from someone else’s point of view, and the reappearance of the retired detective Bill Hobbs and his two young assistant sleuths, who become the main line of defense between the now-psychopathic Morris and Pete and his family.
Finders Keepers is fueled by real-life issues of economic depression and marital strife, which makes the ensuing suspense and menace more palpable. In a paragraph detailing the state of mind of Pete’s mother, King writes: “She and [her husband] Tom have been slowly but surely digging themselves out of two pits: a money pit and a marriage pit. The year after Tom’s accident, they came perilously close to breaking up. Then the mystery cash started coming, a kind of miracle, and things started to turn around. They aren’t all the way out of either hole even yet, but Linda has come to believe they will get out.”
That sense of contemporary despair — the constant struggle that so many wage daily in order to simply survive, and the sense of hope that follows when you get a glimpse of the end of the tunnel — is what gives Finders Keepers its substance and makes it meatier than, say, Under the Dome, which was a terrific read but also kind of ridiculous. This is not to imply that King has gone all Cheever : The book is, first and foremost, a thrilling, taut read. But there’s something relatable about this one that extends beyond recognizing your own fears while reading about a doomed romance or an alcoholic clinging to sobriety or a group of kids stalked by a killer clown. The title of Finders Keepers could almost double as a commentary on how King views today’s social climate: What was yours is mine now, and too bad for you. That, King argues, is just as scary as being the target of a sadistic murderer who happens to know where you live.
Rene Rodriguez is the Miami Herald’s movie critic.