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The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Stephen King
Scribner Books, 224 pages

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
Stephen King
Stephen King was born in Portland, Maine, in 1947. He attended the grammar school in Durham, Maine, and then Lisbon Falls High School, graduating in 1966. King graduated from the University of Maine at Orono in 1970, with a B.S. in English and qualified to teach at the high school level. He met his wife, Tabitha, in the stacks of the Fogler Library at the University of Maine of Orono, where they both worked as students. Unable to find a teaching job, the couple lived on his earnings as a labourer at an industrial laundry, and her student loan and savings, with an occasional boost from a short story sale to men's magazines. In the fall of 1971, King began teaching high school English classes at Hampden Academy, the public high school in Hampden, Maine. In the spring of 1973, Doubleday & Co. accepted his novel Carrie for publication. A few months later, its paperback sale provided him with the means to leave teaching and write full-time.

Stephen King Website
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SF Site Fiction Excerpt: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
SF Site Review: Bag of Bones
SF Site Review: Storm of the Century
The Green Mile Website
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

I am perhaps the best and worst person to review a book by Stephen King. This is only the second Stephen King novel I've ever read (the other being The Shining, over 20 years ago) and I only saw Carrie because I had huge crush on Sissy Spacek. Thus, I have few expectations, besides all the media hype, of what a Stephen King book should be. On the down side, I'm really not in a position to compare it to the rest of his work. I must also plead guilty to assiduously avoiding overexposed authors of 1000-page doorstops, though this is somewhat hypocritical given all the equivalently long 19th century novels of Alexandre Dumas and Paul Feval I have devoured over the years.

However, perhaps my greatest beef against Stephen King, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub and many of today's best known horror writers is their brand of horror -- what I might term "event-based" horror. Stephen King stated in an interview a few years ago that he was not so much interested in creating atmosphere for its own sake, but rather to scare his readers through tangible events, people or things. While this brand of horror is obviously very popular, I personally prefer the work of the British atmospheric horror writers of the early 1900s, particularly Algernon Blackwood. I point out Blackwood for two reasons: (i) his ability to write classic horror stories with few if any acutely horrific events, yet an incredible sense of suspense and horrors lurking just out of sight, and (ii) because his classic novella "The Wendigo" has much the same theme -- something inimical to man, lurking in the woods -- as King's short novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

King's novel is about a resourceful 9-year-old girl lost in the Maine woods. While bushwhacking her way out, she views her situation, and particularly the threat of something lurking in the shadows, through the metaphor of the danger-filled situations that her hero, Red Sox relief pitcher Tom Gordon, faces in the late innings. Notwithstanding all the things that I might have, in my prejudice, held against the book, I very much enjoyed it, though much more as a tale of survival than as one of suspense or horror. As a biologist, I consider that if someone gets lost in the woods and is killed and eaten by one or more of the members of the local fauna, it is more a question of survival of the fittest than of anything horrifying. As both a big baseball fan and someone who enjoys bushwhacking alone (with a compass and topographic map) in the woods of northern Quebec, this book certainly touched a chord. I particularly enjoyed the realistic portrayal of Trisha's gruelling passage through a wetland full of dead trees, sucking mud, hummocks of grass, and mosquitoes galore. Certainly the depiction, from Trisha's point of view, of what it feels like to be lost in northern woods and the reactions of a city kid were very well done in terms of the psychology, if somewhat weaker in the sense of the vastness and mystery of the woods.

In Algernon Blackwood's "The Wendigo" a group of moose hunters are out in the woods of northern Canada -- two of them are alone around a campfire on the shores of a remote lake:

"The forest pressed round them with its encircling wall; the nearer tree-stems gleamed like bronze in the firelight; beyond that -- blackness, and so far as he could tell, a silence of death. Just behind them a passing puff of wind lifted a single leaf, looked at it, then laid it softly down again without disturbing the rest of the covey. It seemed as if a million invisible causes had combined just to produce that single visible effect. Other life pulsed about them -- and was gone."

("The Wendigo," In: Algernon Blackwood, The Lost Valley and Other Stories, New York: Vaughan & Gomme, 1914)

Compare this very similar passage from King's novel, which occurs near the sleeping Trisha, ending the fifth chapter:
"A puff of air moved through the woods, ruffling the leaves, shaking the last of the rainwater from them. After a second or two the air fell still. Then it was not still; in the dripping quiet came the sound of twigs breaking. That stopped and there was a pause followed by a flurry of moving branches and a rough rasping sound. A crow called once in alarm. There was a pause and then the sounds began again, moving closer to where Trisha slept with her head on her arm."
While the threat in the "The Wendigo" is supernatural (a Native America wind-spirit), and biological in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, these passages show how Blackwood uses the movement of a single leaf to create tension, whereas King spells out clearly that something is present through a series of fairly transparent cues. In Blackwood's "The Wendigo" as well as in his other classic horror-in-the-wild stories "The Willows" and "The Camp of the Dog" the horror is built up slowly with subtle hints and barely tangible events. In King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the horror is built on fairly clear statements that "something is creeping up on you." Either you enjoy one approach or the other.

Where King is superior to Blackwood is in his character development. First, the story, while not narrated in the first person, describes Trisha's reactions and thoughts throughout her ordeal, personalizing the story. In much of Blackwood's stories on a similar theme, the main thrust is how the mysterious forces of nature impact upon individuals who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Blackwood's story is frequently told by a narrator/observer who, while present and involved, recounts in a somewhat detached, impersonal manner events and their effect on his and others' frame of mind.

Also, Blackwood's human characters have minimal baggage: in "The Wendigo" we have an older French Canadian guide, and a young doctor on his first trip to the deep woods, but besides a short description of their physiognomy we know nothing of who they are. This is partly because, to Blackwood, the main character(s) in his stories are not the people, but that which threatens them. In The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon we learn intimate details about Trisha's relationship which each of her divorced parents, with her school friends, and with, in particular, her baseball idol, Tom Gordon. This is also where King and Blackwood's approaches differ. To Blackwood the threat can never be a crazed psycho with a big knife, because anything human is weak and insignificant compared to Nature, which will always triumph in the end. To King, man is an intelligent, resourceful creature that can adapt and survive most of what Nature throws at him, biological, supernatural or otherwise.

Did The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon completely change my opinion about Stephen King? Well I did pick up his six-part serial novel The Green Mile at a garage sale, something I wouldn't have even considered before. Unlike many of his previous titles, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a book with an engrossing story that can appeal to and is appropriate for both young and old. How it rates in the author's pantheon I will leave those wiser in the ways of Stephen King to decide.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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