The relief Stephen King’s Constant Readers feel at seeing the first full-length novel from the horrormeister since his accident most likely overshadows the weaknesses they might find in an effort that, while not King’s best, is neither his worst. Set partially in the Derry, Maine, of It and Insomnia, and with shades of Tommyknockers in its subject matter, Dreamcatcher hearkens back to It and that novel’s theme of the lifelong endurance of childhood friendships — especially when something unspeakable bound those long-ago children to one another.
Four men meet for their annual deer hunting party deep in the Maine woods in a cabin full of happy memories. Though they’ve inevitably grown apart, their childhood ties are still strong. In the cabin’s great room hangs a Native American dreamcatcher, strings woven about sticks said to have the power to protect slumbering humans from night terrors. This year, though, that hanging talisman will prove scant protection against an unearthly horror that will require sacrifices of the highest order from the knot of friends. The animals are fleeing the surrounding forest, for they sense the unwelcome visitors whose precursors were the spate of recent strange lights in the New England sky. For Pete, Beaver, Henry and Jonesy, the nightmare begins when a disoriented hunter named McCarthy stumbles into their camp.
The situation quickly degenerates. McCarthy unwittingly plays host to a deadly parasitic creature and brings a rapidly multiplying fungal growth into the midst of the group. While the childhood friends battle an inexplicable and implacable enemy, a government covert operations team seals off the area. Their plan: to destroy all evidence of a threatening alien invasion like nothing the pulp sci-fi purveyors has prepared the world for. Led by a man who is quite possibly insane, the black ops unit will stop at nothing to contain the menace — including the slaughter of the bewildered hunters they’ve herded from the surrounding forest. Even so, the government’s answer is insufficient to the problem. The combined will of the four men, and their reunion with the dying boy-man whose uniqueness bound them all together so wondrously those years ago, is the only hope against the unrelenting usurper from the heavens.
The very best part of Dreamcatcher is undoubtedly the magic of the boys’ relationship in the flashbacks to an earlier Derry. The easy way their small circle assimilates a specially-gifted Down’s Syndrome child breaks your heart with its glimpse of humanity’s potential actualized. In bits and smidges, King opens windows into his own experiences: one of the friends has drifted into the false warmth of alcoholism; another is recovering from grave injuries resulting from his being hit by a car. It was the extreme discomfort from the same sort of injuries that kept King away from his word processor and at the table writing with a fountain pen. Dreamcatcher, written entirely in longhand, suffers from some diarrhea of that pen. The author has become such a force that it seems his editors have become wary of editing him at all. However, King is still the master of characterization in his genre, and the boys (and men) of Dreamcatcher buttress the whole against the occasional soft spots.