Stephen King is like Taco Bell. Think about it. Taco Bell has just a few ingredients that they can combine a hundred different ways to make something new every time: tortilla, beans, chicken, beef, cheese, sour cream, tomatoes. Sure, that Chicken Burrito may have its own line on the menu, but it’s essentially made from the same exact stuff as the Chicken Soft Taco Supreme. And if you hold the chicken and fry the tortilla you’ve got a Tostada. But it feels like something totally different. Well, different enough.
Likewise, Stephen King has a store of common ingredients from which he has concocted best sellers for the bulk of his career. Here, for example, are the standard Stephen King stock items found in The Tommyknockers:
(1) A new, modern twist on a classic monster. In this case, aliens, which are recast as mind reading, body snatching Tommyknockers.
(2) Telepathy and mind reading. It’s amazing how often this shows up in King’s books to one degree or another, but it’s center stage here.
(3) An ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary situation. This is like King’s tortilla. It’s the foundation of almost every book he’s written.
(4) Taking mundane everyday things and making them deadly and frightening. In this case we have killer Coke machines and deadly vacuum cleaners.
(5) Rural Maine. I’ve read enough Stephen King books to know that I should never go to Maine, much less anywhere near a small, rural Maine community full of tightly-knit and slightly xenophobic Yankees.
(6) Lengthy character studies that end in blood baths. King has this habit of giving us lengthy introductions to characters, replete with back stories and intimate portrayals of their lives. Then he kills them in spectacular ways. This generally happens several times per book.
(7) Colorful, local idioms. Another reason, besides avoiding killer clowns, not to go to Main is that apparently everyone there has a deep bag of extravagant invectives and colloquialisms that they have no compunctions about reaching into. This includes all characters of any age or walk of life.
(8) Quoting rock lyrics. Reading a Stephen King novel is sometimes like listening to a classic rock station without the ads for the local head shop.
That all said, I still like chicken and bean burritos, and I still liked The Tommyknockers even though it is widely considered one of his worst works, written as it was at the height of his drug addiction. It drags in several places, but it’s a demonstration of another thing King does repeatedly (and well): building tension. All this weird stuff builds up, then explodes in the last quarter of the book. I’m not saying it’s anywhere near his best (c.f., The Stand, The Shining) but it wasn’t as terrible as I expected it to be.