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King's Ransom: One Novel for the Price of Two : DESPERATION. By Stephen King (Viking: $27.95, 688 pp.) : THE REGULATORS. By Richard Bachman (Dutton: $24.95, 475 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Charles Champlin | Charles Champlin, retired Times' arts editor, is working on a second edition of "George Lucas: The Creative Impulse" (Abrams)

Truman Capote once said of the work of Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing." History, with a little perspective in hand, may beg to differ. What history will make of the work of Stephen King--Capote being unavailable--is not certain. At the very least, it is a monumental amount of keyboarding.

His credits list 29 novels (and now a 30th), five story collections, nine screenplays, a work of nonfiction and, as Richard Bachman, another six novels. He is not yet 50.

It is an apparently inexhaustible flow of words for an apparently insatiable readership, which is giving his serial novel, "The Green Mile," multiple places simultaneously on Publishers Weekly's paperback bestseller list.

Saying that King has now outdone himself in terms of production is risky, there being no apparent limits to his fecundity. But here he is with not one but two new novels, "Desperation," of 688 pages, under his own name, and "The Regulators," some 475 pages long, under his Richard Bachman pseudonym. (Bachman, the jacket copy coyly explains, died in 1985; the manuscript and others that may yet see print were found in a bundle in his New Hampshire attic.)

At that, the appearance of the two novels is only the beginning of King's cleverness. They are linked novels, both centered on a kind of demonic force called Tak, which represents a spectrum King calls the unformed and which, like a magpie, inhabits and controls other bodies, not just humans but buzzards and other wild things as needs arise, including some creatures that would not be out of place on the island of Dr. Moreau.

In "Desperation," Tak is a giant nightmare of a cop in a played-out Nevada mining town that gives its name to the one book and figures importantly in the other. The cop runs over a few of the surviving townsfolk for the sport of it and arrests travelers foolish enough to take Route 50, slaughtering some on the spot, carting the survivors off to the hellish jail.

Among the tourists is a onetime National Book Award novelist named Johnnie Marinville, riding cross-country on a motorcycle for a book to be called "Travels With Harley." (Marinville shows up again in "The Regulators," the later of the novels. He is still an NBA-winning novelist but is reduced to doing a mystery series about a crime-solving feline called "Pat the Kitty Cat.")

A prayerful child who communicates with Tak telepathically is the hero of "Desperation," leading the publishers to call the theme of the novel redemption. This is true in the sense that democracy is the thrust of Mickey Spillane's work, and chastity of Mrs. Krantz's.

The setting of "The Regulators" is an apple-pie perfect Ohio town, where most of the characters carry the same names but, except for Marinville, not the same personas as those in "Desperation." The central figure is again a child, who this time is 8 and autistic and inhabited by Tak, which has not yet got its full growth.

The town is invaded by garish motor homes, which, like their weird passengers, are out of a TV series whose cassettes Tak the boy adores and plays endlessly, along with an old Western called "The Regulators" (both clever inventions). The visitors gun down everyone in sight and the town begins to change its look, to resemble . . . Desperation. And, indeed, the root of all evil is the deep Nevada mine pit that stirred things up in the first place.

In both novels the carnage is incessant, the verb "to scream" is worn to a frazzle, the talk from all mouths is foul (even admitting the provocations), the same dirty schoolboy quatrain occurs and the resemblance to anyone living, dead, non-dead or undecided is scant.

But the plot detailing is heavy (although, despite the partial change of venue, the two books are quite similar), the pace is fast and King's patented brand of ghoulish virtual unreality borders on both the preposterous and the humorous.

Whether the author's immense popularity reflects his readers' longing for some suggestion of Otherness--any kind of Otherness--in the absence of any more formal belief, or whether it reflects his readers' need for fresher nightmares, is the question.

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