Cover photo by Ilona Wellmann/Arcangel Images
First published: November 1984
This edition published: 20 December 2012
On the cover:
'Thinner' - the old gypsy man barely whispers the word. Billy feels the touch of a withered hand on his cheek.
Billy Halleck, prosperous if overweight citizen, happily married, shuddered then turned angrily away. The old woman's death had been none of his fault. The courts had cleared him. She'd just stumbled in front of his car. Now he simply wanted to forget the whole messy business.
Later, when the scales told him he was losing weight, it was what the doctor ordered. His wife was pleased - as she should have been. But . . .
'Thinner' - the word, the old man's curse, has lodged in Billy's mind like a fattening worm, eating at his flesh, at his reason. And with his despair, comes violence.
When reading any of King's Bachman books I'm struck by two things. The first is how easy it is to see that King wrote this, and how strange it is that it wasn't discovered at once. Of course that is pretty much hindsight, and it does take a coincidence (or a tweet) for someone who is in a position to recognize a big name author's style to even be reading a no-name author's books.
The second thing, and very much in connection to the first, is how many people have tried to copy King over the years. It's really not strange that anyone failed to notice Richard Bachman in the myriad of novels that have been published in the hopes of copying King's success.
Of course there's a third thing... There was no internet when Bachman was publishing. No social media making it tempting for those that knew something to spill the beans.
No internet would also have made it harder to discover an obvious huge flaw in this novel, "Gypsy" language. The language used in the book is actually Swedish. Not only that, it is atrociously bad Swedish. As someone who can remember when the number of TV channels available was tripled by the addition of two Swedish channels, I'm very familiar with Swedish.
It goes without saying that seeing a familiar language being mangled on the page of a book is going to bring you out of it to some extent, but that is actually something I could live with. What I actually find worse is that the "Gypsies" do have their own language, Romani, and it is substituted for a different one here.
I completely understand that back in 1984, or perhaps a bit earlier, when this was written, King did not have access to the information he needed to use Romani in his book. And you know what, I have absolutely no problem with that. But being bi-lingual I do not like the idea of substitute languages. It's kind of offensive, it is in a way telling people that what their language is is not important. The only thing that matters is that it is "foreign".
And it really is not hard to make it clear in the text that what is spoken is not English, even if you write it in English. Not that I think King should go back and change his book. As I started with, this was written in different times, and it should remain as it is as an artifact of that time.
Thinner is a strange book, or not really considering it is King. It's pretty normal for King to write things that can be hard to classify neatly into a definitive genre category. Not that you'd notice that from all the people who state that King is a Horror writer.
This is certainly leaning much more towards the Thriller side of the fence. While there certainly is a very central supernatural element making this Horror, that element almost exist as a separate state besides what else is going on in the story. And the other element of the story is absolutely a good one.
As already mentioned this story has two different strands. The supernatural element is the one that we first get to hear about. Presenting it so quickly, without any build up at all, means that you very quickly get dragged into the story. It's very well done too, King hooks you right away and then he lets you simmer for a bit. And that is really my polite way of saying that after a very interesting opening the novel slows down quite a bit.
This slow period is used for a bit of character development, especially of the main character William Halleck. Usually this is where King excels, in that he creates characters that you really care about, and that you really want to spend time with. There's nothing wrong with the "getting to know you" portion of this build-up period in this novel, it's just that the main character at first is not a very sympathetic person.
You shouldn't actually take that as a complaint, it is an important part of Halleck's development. And in many ways it does strengthens the novel that the MC has more than one note to him.
When the novel starts going again after the brief quiet period, it really gets going. This is where the Thriller part comes in to full effect. The structure gets very familiar to Thriller readers, as the story goes into a search mode. Familiar as this structure is, it is kept very interesting. There is some real tension to the narrative at this point. And this is ratched up quite a bit when a previously introduced character steps up to join a strong supporting role.
There's a final confrontation that is really tense, and at times seems to be on the verge of dragging the novel into Action Thriller territory. It does get a nice resolution, although perhaps not a conventional one.
The ultimate ending left me really ambivalent. Although there's a while since I read the novel I am still not wholly sure how I feel about it. It's certainly one I can see divide opinion.
With relatively few characters, and a somewhat limited time frame, this almost has the feel of a shorter work. It feels pretty intimate, perhaps so than most of King's work.
It's a good story that is executed very well, and it is certainly worth reading. Being pretty light on Horror this is a good place to start for those that have been scared off reading King by the impression of him belonging solely to that genre.
For King fans this will of course be a must read, it is a good example of how King can write quality when he focuses on other plot points than the horror ones.
REVIEWS: Stephen King Review Index