King sets otherworldly eye on anti-abortion violence

October 16, 1994|By Peter Blauner | Peter Blauner,Newsday

Has anyone noticed that Stephen King is becoming one of the most interesting writers around?

I'm serious. It's not that the man needs attention. After all, he sells novels the way McDonald's sells hamburgers. The point is that Mr. King -- master of horror, author of 33 books, and practically a genre unto himself -- has become a writer who takes chances and sticks his neck out. In "Misery" and "The Dark Half," he grappled with some of the metaphysical, novelist's dilemmas that Philip Roth has been chewing his cud over for years, but with far more brio and showmanship. In "Dolores Claiborne" and "Gerald's Game," he experimented with Thornton Wilder-like portraits of small-town cruelty and claustrophobic studies of repressive psychology.

Now, in his latest work, "Insomnia," he alights with unnerving timeliness on the subject of murder and violence among anti-abortion protesters.

The setting is the mythical town of Derry, Maine, where Mr.

King's novel "It" also took place. The protagonist is a 70-year-old retired salesman named Ralph Roberts, who has just lost his beloved wife, Carolyn, to cancer. Stunned and grieving, he goes through the motions of life while the town awaits the arrival of a famous abortion-rights activist named Susan Day. In truth, Mr. King is only passably good at this kind of drab realism. He has a little trouble staying in character, and his choice of details doesn't always seem appropriate: Ralph must be the only septuagenarian extant who can recognize the songs "Woodstock" and "White Rabbit."

But then the thin parchment of reality is sliced away, and the book comes alive. Ralph's recurring bouts of insomnia somehow lead him to a higher plane of perception where he's able to see other people's "auras," indicating their health or state of mind. At the same time, his good friend Ed Deepneau, a young research chemist, has gone bonkers, beating his wife and leading a band of right-wing lunatics bent on keeping Susan Day out of town by any means necessary.

It all turns out to be part of some vast eternal plan in which Ralph and his new girlfriend, Lois Chasse, a 68-year-old widow, are called upon by a higher force to restore order to a universe threatened by chaos. A malevolent sprite called Atropos, visible only to Ralph and Lois, is going around randomly slashing the lifelines of innocent people and laying the groundwork for an apocalyptic strike by Ed Deepneau.

Lest any of this sound silly or pretentious in summary, it's worth noting that Mr. King is much more convincing in writing about the supernatural than he is about everyday life. So if "Insomnia" isn't as tightly focused as Mr. King's last couple of books, it nevertheless gives readers plenty of time to luxuriate in the rich alternative world the author has created. And the climax is brought off excitingly and poignantly, not the least because it ties together the novel's social themes and its otherworldly elements.

Mr. King doesn't worry much about refinement; his talent is for conjuring nightmarish visions and capturing visceral sensation on the page. What's striking about "Insomnia" and Mr. King's other recent books is his determination to combine that ability with an interest with the world as it is. His horror-movie effects are a means of looking at the world through fresh eyes. He lets you see that the real terror isn't in faraway monsters; it's in the people waiting behind you in the supermarket checkout line.

Mr. Blauner wrote "Casino Moon" and "Slow Motion Riot," which won the 1992 Edgar Allan Poe award for best first novel.

Title: "Insomnia"

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 787 pages, $27.95

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