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Review: King's 'Dreamcatcher' has too much deja vu

By Stephen King
620 pages

March 20, 2001
Web posted at: 5:16 p.m. EST (2216 GMT)

In this story:

UFO sightings and abductions

Homegrown villains

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(CNN) -- Stephen King has the power to move millions.

Not just people, of course -- but books, and e-books, and Web serial novels. His e-novella "Riding the Bullet" was downloaded more than 500,000 times; before he pulled the plug, the chapters to his e-book "The Plant" sold tens of thousands of copies each, even in their worst month. Even his nonfiction work "On Writing" was a bestseller.

King sells in these numbers because he's become a brand name. Loyal fans, and even casual readers, know that a Stephen King book will provide them with thrills, chills and a little humor -- and, especially lately, some very fine writing. When the new one comes out, they line up to buy.

Exclusive from 'Dreamcatcher'

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But the drawback for a brand-name writer is that he risks repeating himself. King has determinedly worked to avoid this trap with his recent works, mostly steering clear of classic horror in "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" and "Hearts in Atlantis" and adding new twists to the genre in "Bag of Bones."

But, with "Dreamcatcher," you get this strange feeling of deja vu. It's well done, but there's nothing to distinguish it from his other works.

UFO sightings and abductions

"Dreamcatcher" starts off with newspaper headlines announcing stories of UFO sightings and abductions. The reader then encounters the novel's four main characters: Joe "Beaver" Clarendon, Henry Devlin, Gary "Jonesy" Jones, and Pete Moore.

These four, friends since childhood, are linked by a low-level psychic awareness they call "the line." As young teenagers, the four saved Down syndrome sufferer Douglas "Duddits" Cavell from the school bully. That heroic act has created a connection that has lasted throughout their lives. (Duddits is the "dreamcatcher" of the book's title.)

Stephen King  

As they grow older, garden-variety midlife crises befall the group: alcoholism, spousal drug abuse, divorce, suicidal tendencies. Except for their annual hunting and camping trip in the Maine woods, they seem to have little to look forward to.

Then, one day, a stranger named Richard McCarthy wanders into their campsite. McCarthy speaks phrases like a child; he also has an itchy red fungus-like growth on his cheek and a serious case of flatulence. The animals in the forest are reacting weirdly. Then a strange woman, who seems to share the same symptoms as McCarthy, arrives.

Add in some lights in the sky and a slimy weasel with a mouth full of otherworldly razor teeth and you've got the makings of another classic yarn.

Homegrown villains

But then the homegrown villains show up. They're captained by an insane ex-Air Force member named Abraham Kurtz. (The name "Kurtz," so prominent as the name of the mad figure at the centers of "Heart of Darkness" and "Apocalypse Now," cannot be an accident.)

King starts skipping over narratives and storylines, dropping in a wide variety of set pieces. Kurtz rounds up and eliminates alien-possessed humans; aliens are chased around the area; and there are flashbacks involving the four main characters and their simple-minded friend Duddits.

All this for more than 600 pages.

"Dreamcatcher" is an exciting novel. There are great scenes and some very good characterizations, particularly those of Kurtz, Devlin, and Jonsey. It just feels familiar. Very familiar.

There are features that are borrowed from previous King novels, such as aliens ("The Tommyknockers") and childhood friends having to come together as adults to stop a cosmic evil ("It"). King's personal life also makes an appearance: Jonesy is hit by a car while crossing the road. ("Dreamcatcher" is the first novel King has written since his own devastating car accident.)

There's nothing wrong with mining familiar territory. Authors from Shakespeare to John Grisham have returned to the same themes, and even the same characters, more than once. But "Dreamcatcher" suffers for it. The ending is anticlimactic; very little seems new.

Overall, it just doesn't work. "Dreamcatcher" will probably sell millions, but we have read this book before. In fact, its author is Stephen King.

RELATED SITE: -- Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

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