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Late last night
And the night before
Knocking at the door.
I want to go out,
Don't know if I can
'Cause I'm so afraid
of the Tommyknocker man.
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Like many of the Mother Goose rhymes, the verse about the Tommyknockers is deceptively simple. The origin of the word is difficult to trace. Webster's Unabridged says Tommyknockers are either (a) tunneling ogres or (b) ghosts which haunt deserted mines or caves.
Because 'tommy' is an archaic British slang term referring to army rations (leading to the term 'tommies' as a word used to identify British conscripts, as in Kipling -'it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that . . .') the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, while not identifying the term itself, at least suggests that Tommyknockers are the ghosts of miners who died of starvation, but still go knocking for food and rescue.
From the Foreword, by Stephen King.
The vitals & non-spoilers
The Tommyknockers is a novel by Stephen King, published in 1988. The book focuses mainly on the central characters of Bobbi Anderson and Jim Gardener, and their discovery and subsequent excavation of something massive just under the surface of the earth in Bobbi's sizable Maine property. It doesn't take long however, for the entire town of Haven to become involved, and a cast of hundreds emerges. Some of the most notable characters (and this isn't even close to being comprehensive) are:
- Roberta (Bobbi) Anderson
- James (Jim) Gardner
- Peter (the dog)
- Ruth McCausland
- Hilly & David Brown
- Ev Hillman
- Butch (Monster) Dugan
There are many more characters, including historical Haven notables, who we visit briefly in a town history early on in the book.
The non-vitals & spoilers
The Tommyknockers is by no means the most popular Stephen King book, and is indeed, the most often dissed by most King fans - including King himself. It is, however, one of my favorite King stories, behind The Stand and possibly It. The reason most often cited as a reason for its unpopularity, is that we start to get a feel for Bobbi and Gard, and their questionable relationship toward the beginning of the book - a subplot as interesting as the main plot itself - then they are abandoned for a good while as we delve into the town's history and the side effects of Bobbi and Gard's actions on the town.
Spoilers abound from here on out
Bobbi and Gard's actions, of course, are unearthing a long buried spacecraft, which is irradiating or poisoning, or otherwise affecting the atmosphere in Haven and which is turning the townsfolk into Tommyknockers. When a townsperson is exposed to the new air - of course Bobbi Anderson is patient zero - they begin to have epiphanies. Inventions, discoveries, and ideas flow from them almost immediately. Health problems, up to and including cancer vanish like smoke. Their coordination improves, they are blessed with increased visual and aural acuity, and they develop a keen telepathy particularly amongst other affected townsfolk, and eventually that becomes the normal method of communication between citizens, while talking is eventually phased out.
The bad news is that they also begin to lose their teeth, and their humanity.
Fortunately, Jim Gardiner is unaffected, as is Ev Hillman, because both of them have metal plates in their heads, which for some reason seems to neutralize the effects of the Tommyknocker air. Ann Anderson, Bobbi's sister, Has a great deal of metallic dental work, and she too is partially shielded from the effects. As we find out toward the end of the book, when Jim's teeth begin to slowly fall out, the metal plate doesn't completely neutralize the effects of becoming, but the progress is retarded greatly.
I just read my review - sounds kind of cheesy. The book is much better than I made it sound here. Honest.
That debacle of a movie
Well, technically, it wasn't a movie. It was a television miniseries. It starred Marg Helgenberger (from CSI) who played Bobbi, and Jimmy Smits as Jim Gardener. One of the interesting things is that neither Helgenberger nor Smits fit the description of Gard or Bobbi very well - however, they were both remarkable for the parts in that they felt like Gard and Bobbi. Bobbi was brunette and skinny, while Helgenberger is red-headed and filled out rather better than one would expect from Bobbi Anderson's description in the book. No mention was made of Jim Gardiner's rugged latin features.
That's about the only good thing that can be said about the movie - the casting was well done. Unfortunately, the spaceship looks nothing like it's described in the book - either inside or out - the becoming in the movie seemed more like a temporary transformation into zombie-like creatures, rather than the irrevocable descent into Tommyknockery as described in the book. The book did not have a happy ending, but the movie had the typical dog licking the face happy ending, which totally ruined it for me.
I suppose the movie wasn't so bad when taken in its own medium, but it differed so much from the book that I know and love, that I got pretty bent out of shape about it.
But the movie had Marg Helgenberger and Traci Lords in it, so how damn bad can it be?
1) Stephen King. The Tommyknockers. Putnam, 1987