To celebrate the release of End of Watch this week, I've decided to do a few throwback posts, one on each book in the trilogy! First up: Mr. Mercedes.
This book from the King of horror is an altogether new kind of devil, which is truly saying something when you've written over 50 books, all of them bestsellers, most of them adapted for the screen or television. Mr. Mercedes is more of a crime thriller than the chilling horror most people expect when they pick up a book with those big, full caps that prominently declare: Stephen Was Here.
I am an advocate of erasing the altogether untrue bias against horror as a stereotypically stomach-turning and poorly written genre, and I think King's books show that horror is truly for everyone. It is the only genre that gets such a strong reaction—whether negative or positive—from basically everyone, and that means there is something in fear that resonates with us as humans. King is beyond a single shadow of a lurking doubt the most well-known modern day author in the world and he writes horror, so how can anyone say that horror is only a fringe genre read by a small following?
What King has always astutely tapped into is our predilection for overcoming what we're afraid of, even if we never knew we were afraid of it. (I think we can pretty easily assign him the blame for all of our nightmares about clowns.) The story of man-against-fear is the oldest classic there is, and we all go through it, on some level, almost on a daily basis. First day of school. Having to give a presentation. Standing up to your boss. Reading about Jack Torrance and how he battles his own internal demons as well as the all-too-real demons at the Overlook lets readers know that we too can overcome the demons in our lives. Horror gives us faith, and how can we go on without some hope that our struggles will end?
Mr. Mercedes has no supernatural leanings or psychological mind-bending, unlike the bulk of King's work. It resides resolutely in the world of the real—our world, the world that you and I currently live and breathe in. And that is what makes it all the more terrifying. The first clue is that the narrative is set in an unnamed Midwestern city. It's not Derry, it's not Castle Rock, it's not very specific at all, though some hints are dropped that it might be in Ohio. King also lets us know that the characters in this book don't live in the same world as George Bannerman, Ace Merrill, and (thank the lord) Pennywise the Clown. King makes this clear because there aren't any characters from his other books (correct me if I missed one, though). And not only that, but when he references his own work, it is to the movie adaptations, rather than the Easter eggs that he tends to devilishly drop in his other books.
Here's an example:
". . .five police cars were parked in the yard, two drawn up nose-to-nose behind the car's back bumper, as if the cops expected the big gray sedan to start up by itself, like that old Plymouth in the horror movie, and make a run for it" (60).
And, about the mask found in the killer car compared to Christine:
" 'Creepy as hell. You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?' Hodges shook his head. Later—only weeks before his retirement—he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie" (62).
King goes to great lengths to state similarities to the movies of his books rather than the books themselves, taking us out of Kinglandia and leaving us on our own Planet Earth, where movie versions of his world exist. This tells us that this is not the world that he created, that scary place that interweaves throughout his other novels and stories. The place we are always a little relieved we can just shut the cover on when it gets really bad. This is the REAL world, and in our world, someone like the Mercedes Killer could exist. If that doesn't make your skin creep up and your eyes dart around, paranoid about every slightly suspicious looking character, I don't know what will.
Not that King is necessarily looking to expand his readership, but this novel expands beyond the realm of horror and serves as a good toe-dipping spot for people who believe the stigma associated with horror. Hey, if I liked Mr. Mercedes, maybe I'll try The Shining. And once they see how amazing King is as a storyteller and as a writer, maybe they'll try Joe Hill, Dan Simmons, Peter Straub, Adam Nevill, Dean Koontz, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Graham Jones, or even classics like Poe and Lovecraft. I maintain that horror is for everyone.
And for content, Mr. Mercedes, of course, delivers. The aged Det-Ret Kermit William Hodges is a brilliant character and not just because he is an intelligent man. He is no longer aging, he's just old, and he is out of the game. But Hodges isn't done yet, and his comeback in this book is King's way of saying that he isn't finished yet either. I mean, the man has published at least one and usually two books a year for many years—and 2016 isn't going to be an exception. He is far from done, and I don't think anyone is complaining.
King is a genius at what I'll dub exhibitionistic foreshadowing, where he gives away crucial details—usually about someone's imminent death—well before they happen. This is an amazing technique that stirs the dread in your stomach to almost unbearable levels. I don't want to know all the intimate details about this guy right before he dies a brutal death! I don't want to know what an amazing person he was and about his loving family that will soon be in mourning! Oh, but I so do, because that makes him real, and that makes his death matter, makes me feel his death. And it is oh, so good.
This is taken to a whole 'nother level here, because the reader is privy to not only Hodges' movements and thoughts but also to the killer's. By the second section, we know who he is, where he lives, what he does for a living, and we are learning what he's planning. Not that revealing the villain early is a new technique, but it is one that has to be handled intelligently and just plain old gently, like a buzzing wasps' nest tucked in a high place. Too easily, the reader can get bored, because we know too much, but King holds onto the high tension by making his characters fallible. In other words, they are real people because they make mistakes, they get angry, they have to alter their plans. Plus, we all know that King is not afraid to let bad things happen to his characters, so he kept me guessing all the way to the end, and he even digs the hook in that much deeper on the last page.
I don't want to give away too much more, but suffice it to say that Constant Readers will thoroughly approve (and probably already have if they devoured it the way I did). Also, lovers of crime/detective/mystery/thriller writers like Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, Gillian Flynn, Tana French and the rest will love this book, and I hope they'll give it—and horror in general—a chance. But most importantly, Mr. Mercedes proves that the old dog still has new tricks and he's using them, so be warned. There's no stopping the King.
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End of Watch
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.