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The Plant

Stephen King's only published unfinished work.

Philtrum Press • 1982 / 1983 / 1985 / 2000

An (Unfinished) Novel Critique

In a letter addressed to Zenith House, a small publishing house in New York City, Carlos Detweiller asks editor John Kenton if he would like to read his book True Tales of Demon Infestations. The letter isn't particularly well written, but Kenton thinks the book might have some merit; the fact that Zenith House is struggling to stay afloat has a little something to do with his letter of encouragement back to Detweiller. But instead of sending some sample chapters as requested, Detweiller - a florist from Central Falls, Rhode Island - sends his whole manuscript ... and several photos that appear to depict the actual sacrifice of a human being. Terrified, Kenton gets the police involved, thus evoking the wrath of Carlos Detweiller. But instead of taking revenge in the usual manner, all Detweiller does is send a plant to the publishing house, a plant named Zenith the Common Ivy. That's when Kenton's troubles really begin.

Told in an epistolary style King with which King had experimented in the Night Shift short story "Jerusalem's Lot" (as well as to a limited degree in Carrie and The Regulators), The Plant is unique from the outset. Set before the advent of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, The Plant relies instead on handwritten letters, interoffice memos, and diary excerpts to tell its story. In its own way, The Plant seems as old-fashioned today as Dracula - perhaps the most famous epistolary novel - seems to modern readers.

Matters of form and structure cease to matter after the initial acclimation period. As with the serial novel The Green Mile and screenplays like Silver Bullet and Storm of the Century, King has a proven ability to tell a compelling, accessible story in unusual formats. The first letter by Detweiller is far scarier to the reader than it is to John Kenton, and that underlying fear never really abates, providing an unsettling backbone to the story. Unlike recent projects - The Green Mile, Bag of Bones, Hearts in Atlantis - this is King in full "horrormeister" mode. One could read this first segment of The Plant - titled Zenith Rising - with a list of basic fiction conflicts by one's side. From the beginning, King pits man against man (Detweiller versus Kenton is not the only such matchup); man against nature (although this version of "nature" has more in common with H.P. Lovecraft than Robinson Crusoe); man against the supernatural (not only the eponymous plant, but also zombies, psychic phenomena, and a few mysterious "accidents"); and, most chillingly, man against himself. The lengths that Kenson and the others go to justify their actions is chilling in a far more subtle way than the gory tale on the surface, the final sections of Zenith Rising presenting the horror plainly and intimately, in the perpetrators' own words.

Though two major plot threads are tied up in Part Six, the ending of Zenith Rising opens the door to a whole new level of horror. It remains to be seen whether or not King can continue in the epistolary vein; the inclusion of a mysterious "manuscript" titled Z in this final part seems to point toward a reversion to more traditional prose. Without too much reliance on the Z manuscript format, The Plant could very well become one of King's most effective books. Even in its truncated form, it is wildly frightening on a more visceral level than some of his most recent novels.

Unfortunately, it may indeed remain truncated. The initial publication of The Plant ended in 1985, after a series of three chap-books had been sent out by the Kings in lieu of Christmas cards to friends and family. King felt that the story was too similar to the film Little Shop of Horrors, and decided to stop at once. For years, those initial three chapters were the subject of rumor, speculation, awe, and piracy: somehow, a photocopied made an appearance in collector's circles, and circulated among the devotees.

Flash-forward to the year 2000. King's first foray into e-book territory, the short story "Riding the Bullet," was an unqualified success. It was so popular that it ruptured servers. Anonymous webmasters offering the book for download were interviewed in major print magazines. It made the cover of Time and news outlets around the world decried this as the beginning of the end of the printed word. The truth of that future is still undecided, but at the time, the trend was very much looking toward an all-digital future, and much of that trend had been decided by Stephen King.

King then decided, to the delight of fans everywhere, to resurrect The Plant, combining two of his prior successful ventures into one new blockbuster e-book: the internet-only format of "Riding the Bullet" and the serial format of The Green Mile. One chapter a month for as long as it took, and readers would pay on the honor program: a dollar at first, then $2.50 for later, longer segments. The concept seemed simple and fun. To the fans who had read bootlegged copies of the first three chapters, this terrific work would finally be available in the mainstream format, and a continuation was imminent. For the millions of King fans who had never read (or even heard of) The Plant, here was a brand-new work they could finally get their eyes on. It seemed perfect for all involved.

However, at some point, human nature decided to intervene. King decided to trust people to pay for the work after they'd read it, which may have been an error in judgment. When the price of the chapters rose from a dollar to two and a half, people rose up their hands in protest. Even the good-natured folks who paid more for the chapters didn't make up for all the people essentially doing what they'd done in the past with photocopiers: they were reading King's work for free. The only problem now was that they weren't just circulating a halted tale among friends and aficionados; now, they were actually stealing it.

Who knows how much the commerce side of things has affected King's extended hiatus. Critics deemed King's experiment a failure (usually focusing on the unique publication of the story rather than the story itself). When Part Six finished in 2000, readers were promised new segments beginning in summer of 2001, with the payments required before download. That has still yet to happen.

At this point, a decade has passed since the last installment. Were the critics right to focus on the publication of this novel? In other words, was the way it was published - and bought - enough of a deterrent to cease its publication? Installment publishing didn't stop The Green Mile (or the Dark Tower series, for that matter) becoming an unqualified success ... but then, those weren't published directly to the Internet. Perhaps King simply stopped writing the story and either ran out of ideas or the will to continue. In a way, it's interesting to have an official work left unfinished: it's King's The Mystery of Edwin Drood. But it's also unfortunate: The Plant is well-written, uniquely told, and undeniably scary; no matter how King chooses to publish it, it will always remain unlike anything else he has written. Fifteen years after the publication of Part Three, Part Four was made available, which leads to hope and speculation that The Plant is not done, only on another long hiatus.