[ Book Review ] Thinner: The Skin and Bones of Horror

Thinner by Steven King

Since I was little, something about the October air and Halloween displays sends me venturing into scarier shelves.  I’m not much of a horror lover for the rest of the year, but reading a scary novel around Halloween time is a tradition of mine.

Last year, Stephen King’s The Shining scared me so badly I was jumping at shadows for a month. This year, I decided to return to his work, this time going for Thinner. I knew when I read the back blurb that this book wasn’t going to be half as chilling as The Shining was; what I didn’t know was that I shouldn’t even bother reading it in the first place.

Thinner follows Billy Halleck, a hefty, fat-cat-type businessman, who has the misfortune to hit an old Gypsy lady with his car. She’s killed, but her even-more-ancient father, the Gypsy with the rotting nose we hear about over and over, curses him with a word: “thinner.”

From that point, he can’t stop losing weight, and must embark on a quest to find the Gypsy and convince him to reverse the curse before it’s too late.

The main issue I have with the book is that it just isn’t scary. The rotting nose is a little gross, and I can see that if I were losing weight as rapidly as Billy does, I’d be worried, but for a reader, an overweight character dropping some extra weight doesn’t exactly send chills up and down the spine. Maybe it’s just me, but when Billy was gibbering in terror over being 40 pounds heavier than my (admittedly quite skinny, but still healthy) fiancé, I wasn’t moved. King tries to up the ante by cursing a few more people, like the cop at the scene of the accident and the judge who dismissed the case without so much as a tap on the wrist. This backfires, too, as the curses are more laughable than creepy (one gets lizard scales; the other, giant pimples, I kid you not).

King’s gift is in finding real, natural fears, and Billy’s growing resentment of his wife is the scariest part of the book, but it lacks the urgency and crescendo of Jack’s resentment and anger toward his family in The Shining. In The Shining, Jack’s got a compelling need to redeem himself–he loses his job and the trust of his family due to a violent streak and hopes to prove himself. Billy’s got a soft life, a vanilla family, and a vanishing belly pooch. He wants to reverse the curse, but I am left wondering what will change in his life when he gained the weight back. Be a more careful driver, maybe? Not exactly gripping.

Besides the lack of scare factor, there were a few minor annoyances in the book that irked me just enough to snap me out of that nice reading hypnosis you fall into under good storytelling. For one, the doctors diagnose Billy with the extremely rare disorder: “psychological anorexia nervosa.” This, despite the fact that Billy doesn’t exhibit any of the symptom of anorexia nervosa beyond weight loss, and in blatant disregard of the fact that anorexia nervosa is already a psychological disease, not a physical one. I’ll believe in a Gypsy curse, but I refuse to believe in a team of doctors that doesn’t have a clue about how eating disorders work.

The other annoyance is very brief, but equally egregious. Stephen King name-dropped himself. As in, he had a character call another character out for “acting like someone in a Stephen King novel.” Ouch. I’m sure he meant it to be clever or amusing, but I don’t think there is any way to pull that off without sounding awkward at best, and madly egotistic otherwise.

I’m afraid I’m forced to dip down into the lower Canary registers and rate this as One Canary–more fun to make fun of after than to read. If you like horror, there are times when Stephen King will certainly fit the bill, but give Thinner a pass.

What’s your opinion on Stephen King? Any hits I should try or clunkers to avoid? And now that we’re in the crunch time before Halloween, what should I read to get my horror fix?

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7 thoughts on “[ Book Review ] Thinner: The Skin and Bones of Horror

  1. I have never read “Thinner” – and based on your review don’t know if I want to – but Steven King is definitely one of my favorite authors. I don’t really read him for the scare aspect but instead, read him for his incredible talent of imagery through writing.

    Two books by Steven King I recommend everyone read is “Misery” (never saw the movie but the book is amazing) and “Desperation”. These two are my favorites and I highly recommend them.

  2. I think there was a reason that King published “Thinner” as Richard Bachman — because it was kind of a cool idea, but wasn’t up to his standards (especially at the time it was written). I didn’t like Billy, so I had no real sympathy for him.

    King has a had a great career and I loved his early stuff (Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Stand…) but when he got into the 1980s, I really began to dislike his books – they were bloated and pointless (IT, Tommyknockers) — and I think this was due to his booze and drug addictions as well as the lack of a decent editor willing to stand up to such an amazing cash-cow.

    I rediscovered him in the 1990s with “The Green Mile”, which was fantastic and the early books of The Dark Tower series. Recently, he’s been more hit and miss. “Duma Key” was a fun, scary beach read and his recent novella collection “Full Dark No Stars” was fantastic.

  3. King is a bit hot or miss for me, but that makes sense – he’s so damn prolific it would be a miracle if everything he wrote was a masterpiece.

    I actually think my favorite books by him are his short story collections. I’m a bit ADD, so the variety is perfect and he plays with more genres and ideas in those. Novel-wise, I have an enormous fondness for Rose Madder. It’s not really a horror novel in my opinion – it sort of takes on a fantasy edge involving a painting and a minotaur that’s really interesting about halfway through, and I suppose Rose Madder herself (the subject of the painting) is more than a little creepy. But a good deal of the book is pretty realistic and interesting – it’s tense, true, but then again, it’s about a woman escaping her abusive husband. I wouldn’t read it around Halloween, but it was awesome for summer.

  4. Pingback: 2011 Reading Roundup | Jessica Jonas

  5. Just to clarify, the reason he mentions his own name in the book is because when the book came out, it was written by ”Richard Bachman”. People speculated if Bachman and King was the same writer, so to put people off the trail he made it sound as if Bachman was talking about Stephen King as a seperate different person. It’s only now that the book gets published under Stephen King’s real name that it looks a bit weird.

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