(writing as Richard Bachman)
Over the years, Stephen King has written a number of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, and, technically, Thinner is the fifth of these. For coverage of his earlier books, see my review of The Bachman Books (1985), which tackles them in sequence. Also awaiting discussion in that review are King’s reasons for writing under an assumed name in the first place. But, for now, let’s get back to Thinner.
The plot sees obese lawyer Billy Halleck suffering the effects of a gypsy curse. Having accidentally run down an old gypsy woman while receiving a handjob from his wife in the car, Halleck escapes legal punishment thanks to his friendships with the town’s police chief and the judge handling the case. While leaving court, an ancient gypsy, Taduz Lemke – father to the murdered woman – strokes Halleck’s face, whispering one word: “Thinner”.
Spoilers ahead! We then follow Halleck as he begins to lose weight at a steady rate, journeying from 251 pounds to a skeletal 127 pounds. As he slims down, his wife, Heidi, and daughter, Linda, progress from delighted to troubled to terrified. Visits to the family doctor reveal no abnormalities, and Halleck gradually comes to understand that Lemke is inflicting his own form of justice upon him. And the thinner he becomes, the more Halleck blames Heidi for her part in his physical deterioration, his rage becoming increasingly uncontrollable.
Having finally put two and two together, Halleck approaches his erstwhile cronies, only to find that they are suffering their own punishments. Judge Cary Rossington is growing scales all over his body, and Duncan Hopley, the chief of police, is afflicted with a particularly gruesome form of full-body acne. These passages are vintage King, engrossing the reader in the stories of each character in a convincing manner. The gypsy’s lesson is horribly effective, as neither official is able to bear living with his affliction.
Increasingly desperate, Halleck enlists the help of a former client, Richie ‘The Hammer’ Ginelli. Stylistically, King gradually builds more and more pace into the novel to mirror time running out for his protagonist; the majority of the chapters are headed up with Halleck’s current weight, which helps to drive the novel along to its conclusion. Becoming weaker and weaker, and under threat of committal from his increasingly distant wife, Halleck tracks the Romany band up the eastern seaboard. Once he finds them, Ginelli begins to systematically terrorise the gypsies, hoping to scare them into lifting the curse. This mad-dog approach eventually pays off, although there is a catch: Lemke cannot lift the curse, but can only transfer it to someone else. He creates a pie filled with blood – whoever eats from the pie will suffer the fate meant for Halleck. This transferral of responsibility at the eleventh hour could potentially leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth, but King throws in a twisty ending which is ultimately fairly satisfying.
The curse seems to be a staple of human society, from the ancient world to the modern. Much like spiritualism and the mumbo-jumbo of the medium, it has captured the imagination of the credulous to such an extent that it has become one of the classic clichés of the horror genre, being co-opted into the mythology of werewolves, vampires and all manner of things that go bump in the night – from the Egyptian pharaohs to the deadly videotape of Ringu. The gypsy curse is not exempt from such cliché, and indeed has become a well-worn device to explain weird goings-on in popular mainstream entertainment (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons).
And this is my major issue with Thinner: cliché. The curses which Lemke dishes out are compelling for much of the novel, but I couldn’t help but notice a much more serious problem - the general air of cliché which also hangs over several of the main characters. Ginelli is a typical Italian-American mobster, the sort of man who calls you ‘paisan’ as he tucks in to a plate of his mother’s dingamagoo, while Gina Lemke (Taduz’s grand-daughter) conforms to the stereotype of the fiery gypsy female, beautiful but deadly. This is surprising, as King generally (although not always) manages to avoid such obvious caricatures in his work, and is especially jarring given that Halleck swiftly comes to recognise his small-town bigotry for the unfair stereotyping that it is.
The underlying themes of the novel – guilt, justice and the taking of responsibility for one’s actions – suffer as a result, which is a shame, because there is much to enjoy about the book (its pace and the grotesque nature of the various curses, among other things). What could have been a strong, moral tale ends up being slightly undermined, making Thinner feel a little silly when it could have been a humdinger.
Next: Skeleton Crew.