by Stephen King
I can’t decide if this is one of King’s least frightening books – or one of the scariest.
It lacks a number of the elements that King usually includes to create fear, most notably the supernatural. There are no demons in this book, no ancient mystical objects, no magic spells or incantations; nobody is possessed, nothing comes to life, nobody comes back from the dead. There is also no raving psychotic waving a bloody knife, and – though I don’t mean to spoil anything – the dog doesn’t die. (It was King who said in an interview that the fastest way to get the audience to hate a bad guy is to have the character hurt or kill an animal; this is true, but it also makes us hate the author – I’m looking at you, Richard Matheson!)
But what this book has instead is: reality. And in some ways, that’s even more frightening. The murderer uses a car to kill people. It’s so incredibly ordinary that I can’t believe it doesn’t happen more often, with results as horrific as what King describes (Because of course there’s gore: I said nobody comes back to life, not that nobody dies, or that nobody has their arm torn off or their skull caved in. It is still Stephen King.). In the past, King has come up with some of the most unique madmen I’ve ever read – the Trashcan Man in The Stand comes immediately to mind, and the sheriff in Desperation, and the whole cast of the Dark Tower series – but the bad guy in this one, Mr. Mercedes himself, really isn’t that crazy. Oh, he’s crazy; but it’s an everyday kind of crazy. And whereas King often steals his lunatics’ sanity through some particularly appalling supernatural experience – thinking of Henry Bowers in It – this guy is crazy for a very ordinary reason, and is a largely well-controlled crazy. He’s a high-functioning lunatic, and because of that, he is able to walk among us, and plot our deaths: and that is very, very frightening.
What you have here is a bit of a mystery: not a whodunnit – King introduces the villain as a point-of-view character, as he frequently does, and then proceeds to freak us out with him, as he frequently does – but a How-did-he-do-it? The prologue shows his initial crime, the murder of several people using a Mercedes sedan as his weapon; the main plot of the book is some time later, after the lead detective on the case has retired, leaving the Mercedes Killer case unsolved. The killer has since struck again, but he has changed his modus operandi; and his new target is the retired detective himself. The detective, no easy target, begins to backtrack through the attempt on his life (And I’m giving away less than you think, here), and through the unsolved questions about the original crime, and tries to catch the one who got away during his active career. That investigation is the core of the book. Until, as so often happens in thrillers, everything falls apart and the killer moves on to a new target: then it becomes a race to see if he can be stopped – if, that is, they can even figure out what he’s planning to do. King leaves their success or failure truly in question until the very end; you really don’t know how it’s going to end until it does, and even then, it’s a surprise.
If you’re looking for a Stephen King-style gore/horror fest like It or Carrie, I’d recommend Desperation or The Dark Half. But if you want a genuine thriller, combining both mystery and suspense, by the master-of-all-dark-genres, then this one is the one to grab.