Written as Richard Bachman
Dutton / 1996 / 475 pages
A Novel Critique
The Regulators opens with a cozy, comfortable depiction of a suburban summer's day, told in the immediacy of present tense. The idyll of Poplar Street in Wentworth, Ohio reads almost poetically, these initial passages reminiscent of King's poem, "Brooklyn August" (Nightmares & Dreamscapes). Within the first twenty pages, though, the quiet is shattered. An unearthly red van with a radar dish on the top pulls onto the street, reveals its armaments, and begins shooting; the paperboy is only the first to die.
Stephen King's impetus for reviving the Bachman pseudonym first reveals itself here. As Desperation worked with classic "Stephen King" motifs to tell its story, so The Regulators updates and twists themes prevalent in "Richard Bachman" novels. Following the preliminary scenes, The Regulators is almost unrelentingly violent, the language used to describe the aftermath seeming to revel in it:
There's a huge red puddle in the center of Carver's stomach, it is surrounded by gobbets of torn white flesh that looks like suet...
While the characters in The Long Walk are systematically gunned down, there is - however tragically - a concrete reason for it. Here, the red van and the other killing machines that follow it onto Poplar Street simply assert themselves into suburbia with no warning. The fact that the vehicles themselves are inexplicable, space-age machines that don't quite seem real adds to the baffling, abrupt feel of the first chapters. Here, The Regulators seems to be edging into the science fiction territory previously occupied only by The Running Man ... though, again, there are differences. While The Running Man explored a dystopic, 1984-type future world, with its own attendant language, landscape, and society, the town of Wentworth, Ohio is instantly recognizable as a slice of twentieth-century American life. The science fiction elements are intrusions.
Eventually, we learn the truth: a young autistic boy named Seth Garin is at the center of these and later intrusions. While traveling with his family across the Nevada desert, Seth had become possessed by a demon named Tak - a name and situation familiar to those who have read Stephen King's Desperation. Here, the connection between the two novels begins to take on more resonance than simply sharing character names and basic traits. While Tak's properties are somewhat different here, its basic motivations are the same: to escape its prison in the mines beneath Desperation, Nevada, and cause malevolence in the larger world.
While Tak uses up bodies while trying to possess them in Desperation, Seth's autistic nature interacts differently with the demon, reflecting and magnifying Seth's imagination into the real world. The science-fiction vans are representations of those in a cartoon series called MotoKops 2200 Seth loves. Later, characters from Seth's favorite B-grade Western movie - The Regulators - appear, interacting with the futuristic vans and the characters within them as naturally as a child will combine toys and action figures to tell stories. Here, King makes an interesting observation on the superficial differences between fiction genres, obliquely referencing the versatility of his own work, the Dark Tower novels in particular. (Like that series, The Regulators is largely a combination of Western, science fiction, and horror. Later, in Wolves of the Calla, King directly remarks on the arbitrary nature of genres.)
The Regulators also works as a sly commentary on American consumerism, bringing the book more in line with Thinner than any of the other previous Bachman novels. Tak, through Seth, is obsessed with television, and the toys and junk food it advertises (occasionally within the cartoons he loves themselves; MotoKops 2200 is - like He-Man, Transformers, and their ilk - a half-hour advertisement for the toys it spawns).
Other Bachman themes and devices surface here, too. Each of the Bachman novels feature a person cut off from society. Bart Dawes (Roadwork) and Charlie Decker (Rage) are sociopathic and mentally imbalanced, setting themselves away from peers and those who care about them through their actions. Despite his efforts to make friends, Ray Garraty of The Long Walk understands at the start that only one person is left standing at the end. Both Ben Richards (The Running Man) and Clayton Blaisdell, Jr. (Blaze) are fugitives. In The Regulators, this concept is expanded, with the residents of Poplar Street literally (and supernaturally) severed from the outside world. The "countdown" device used in each of the early Bachman novels is again employed here, each chapter beginning with a time and date stamp, marking minutes between violence and death.
However, the very fact of multiple main characters and storylines sets The Regulators apart from the other Bachman novels. So, too, does the inclusion of various supporting ephemera: representations of postcards, letters, teleplays, drawings, even movie review guides are far more indicative of King than Bachman. Far from being the result of sloppy writing or construction, this actually serves to strengthen the bond between this novel and Desperation. As The Regulators progresses, the desert town of Desperation begins to overlay itself on Poplar Street, albeit through the eyes of a little boy. Creatures like mountain lions, coyotes, and vultures arrive, real enough to kill but mutated through the lens of Seth's imagination. These elements, too, seem more related to "Stephen King" supernatural horror, again relating it closer to Thinner than any of the other Bachman novels.
Reading The Regulators in tandem with Desperation is interesting. On one hand, it is almost impossible to hold the two to the same standing. Not only is Desperation the "Stephen King" novel and (ostensibly, at least) more substantial than its "Richard Bachman" counterparts, Desperation is also a weighty, important novel in King's canon. The Regulators, for all its successes, is at its base an exciting action story with a cynical message that doesn't approach the larger themes or messages inherent in its counterpart. However, reading the books together also seems to strengthen both; though none of the characters are exact, it is fascinating and revealing to spot similarities and differences between them. Faith and religion, so important in Desperation, don't much figure in The Regulators (unless Seth's action figures and cartoon characters - and by extension, television itself - can be read as this book's version of Desperation's can tah, or false idols). Oddly for a Richard Bachman book, characters are expanded upon and studied. Collie Entragian specifically gets a far more expanded role here, and is allowed a more heroic death than Tak afforded him in Desperation. Johnny Marinville, far more sympathetic in this incarnation, manages to escape death this time.
Published as a mirror-universe equivalent to Desperation - and as a revival of the Richard Bachman name - The Regulators can't help but seeming like a publishing gimmick. The writing, though, is crisp and relentlessly paced, the characters involving, and the situation unique to King's canon (though it borrows elements from the Jerome Bixby short story "It's a Good Life," and its subsequent Twilight Zone adaptation). Its horror is often more visceral than that in Desperation, including one sequence involving a character being forced to choke down a jar of honey, one of King's most extreme and claustrophobic. In final study, The Regulators is a well-written, thrilling novel that doesn't necessarily try for anything deeper.