Pure Evil

Stephen King glories in the gory stuff in Mr Mercedes and leaves you with the tingles 
long after the last page has been turned

By Nivriti Butalia (senior Reporter)

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Published: Fri 24 Oct 2014, 4:21 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 9:22 PM

A toddler named Frankie chokes on a snack of apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon. The cinnamon dust goes up the wrong pipe. His mother Deborah and older-by-a-few-years brother Brady wallop his face and hang him upside down to get the apple bits out of his windpipe. It doesn’t work. Frankie is taken to hospital. He goes into coma. He comes out of coma, returns home. But Frankie is now a vegetable.

Deborah the budding alcoholic mother is fed up of babbling Frankie. Brady, (“honeyboy”, Deborah calls him) is an obedient son, who will do a lot for his mother (and she for him, as the plot gradually reveals). Their collective patience with Frankie and his toy fire truck Sammy, with which he makes ‘rrr-rrr’ sounds all day, starts to run very, very thin. You can sense evil clouds looming right off the page.

One fine day, mommy and honeyboy Brady take care of Frankie. A little nudge down the stairs and a tumblin’ we will go. A neck is broken. A pillow fits over a face. It’s smoothly done, never discussed, and with Frankie out of the picture, life can go back to being normal. Or so they try. But the ghosts, the ghosts! ‘They never talked about Frankie’s accident, but sometimes Brady dreamed about it…’

The apples-sprinkled-with-cinnamon chapter is not at the centre of Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes. But it’s one of those devices, those little titbits that stick in your head after the mystery has been solved, the book is read, and it’s safe again for kids to play outside. Joanne Harris in her novel, Three Quarters of an Orange used a similar device, a ‘sinister-isation of fruit’, if you will. In Harris’s book, one of the characters stitches rinds of an orange into the lining of her mother’s pillow to intensify the mother’s migraines that become worse if her nostrils pick up on the fragrance of citrus. But then Harris’s novels aren’t known for their descriptions of horrific tics and oddities of mass murderers who deliberately topple baby brothers to death.

Brady grows up. Learns to drive. Gets behind the wheel of a gray Merc (‘a two-ton piece of German engineering’) stolen from one rich neurotic Mrs Olivia Trelawney, and kills eight and maims some people standing in line one foggy morning at a job fair. The context is 2009. Peak recession days, and ten years after the author himself nearly died in a car crash.

King is in cruise control when it comes to the story-telling 
part. No pun — and the ride is largely entertaining. A retired detective is addressed ‘Ret. Det.’ He’s so aimless and bored and fat and depressed now that there are no cases to crack that he puts the barrel of his father’s gun — 
a .38 Smith & Wesson MP — in his mouth, just to feel the metal and wonder if he should end it all. He doesn’t.

Ret. Det., like Deborah the alcoholic mother of Brady and the late Frankie, also watches a lot of daytime TV. But soon a letter arrives in the mail full of taunts at the retired detective’s inability to put a killer behind bars. Who ran the Mercedes over all those people? Ret. Det. puts on his thinking cap, snaps his holster in place, and morphs into George of the Famous Five. Hurry for purpose!

The plot towards the climax, instead of horrific, is plain burlesque. Bodies of mothers are decomposing in houses while sons are trotting about in explosive-laden wheelchairs wanting to blow up a public space; people are having heart attacks at pop concerts where preteen girls are swooning over one Cam Knowles, a tight-jeans-wearing chap not unlike Nick of the Backstreet Boys; burger patties packed with poison and meant to contort the spine of a friendly Irish setter and then kill the poor mutt is instead wolfed down by a hungry 
mother who does favours for her son you don’t want to know about. Horror when it doesn’t succeed 
is comic.

Deborah becomes a full-blown alcoholic who watches reality TV in her bathrobe all day. Brady has a job at an electronics store. He also drives an ice cream truck. Ting-a-ling-a ling the bells of the ice cream truck go. “I want chawkklitt!” one kid shrieks at him. Brady, with all the gory inappropriate replies running in his head, deploys restraint. He smiles and gives the kid the chawklitt. Those are the creepy parts. Evil lurks in the backyard, in the everyday, in the familiar apple slices and bells of an ice cream truck.

You snap back into real life and step out of your house after turning the last page. You’re at a road crossing and you slow down more than usual in the face of car headlights. It’s a silly impulse. But an unavoidable one when you’re left with the thought of maniacs, however fictionalised, who kick infants down the stairs — woopsie daisies! — and run over people 
for fun.


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