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Literature: The Tommyknockers

"Late last night and the night before,
Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.
I want to go out, don't know if I can,
because I'm so afraid of the Tommyknocker man."

The Tommyknockers is an 1987 novel by Stephen King.

While walking in the woods near the small town of Haven, Maine, Roberta "Bobbi" Anderson, a writer of Westerns, stumbles upon a metal object which turns out to be the slightest portion of an alien spacecraft, that crashed into Earth in prehistoric times. She begins to dig it out, and slowly becomes obsessed with it. Meanwhile, her best friend, alcoholic poet Jim "Gard" Gardener reaches the nadir of his life, and decides to kill himself, but changes his mind when he feels that she is in trouble. He travels to Haven, and finds Bobbi at the point of complete exhaustion. While the spacecraft has no effect on him because of a steel plate in his head, he still decides to help her in unearthing it, hoping to change the world for the better with the power it holds. As more and more is exposed of the ship, the inhabitants of Haven begin to change (the process is called "becoming"), and they become like the aliens who built it (dubbed the "Tommyknockers" after a nursery rhyme); they gain telepathic abilities, and build futuristic devices from simple household appliances. Gardener, seeing that their intentions are far from his idealistic goals, starts to doubt himself, and thinks he should do something against them.

The story is influenced by HP Lovecraft's short story The Colour Out of Space and the British television serial Quatermass And The Pit. King wrote the book during a period of substance abuse, and has written that he realized later on that the novel was a metaphor for that addiction.

It was adapted into a 1993 miniseries starring Jimmy Smits, Marg Helgenberger, E.G. Marshall, Joanna Cassidy, Cliff DeYoung and Traci Lords.


The Tommyknockers provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Jim Gardener. Unfortunately, he's a mean drunk.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Well, at least Becka Paulson is. At first, she's actually relieved when she suspects that her husband is having an affair, because this means he doesn't have sex with her anymore. To her, sex was "just as her mother had told her it would be, nasty, brutish, sometimes painful, always humiliating".
  • Asshole Victim: Beach, Anne Anderson as well (see Jerk Ass)
  • Author Avatar: See The Alcoholic. Stephen King had substance abuse problems for years, and it sneaked into his writing a lot (much to his own surprise, after he sobered up enough to notice).
  • Author Tract: In-story example: Gardener wrote a collection of poems under the title "The Radiation Cycle", which were basically anti-nuclear propaganda. He sent it to five different publishers, and it was rejected by all five. An editor tells him "Poetry and politics rarely mix, poetry and propaganda never."
  • Auto Erotica: Gardener remembers that he and Bobbi once had sex in her truck "during some stupid Ryan O'Neal picture".
  • Badass Grandpa: Ev Hillman, though you wouldn't expect it at first.
  • Berserk Button: Don't praise nuclear power in front of Gardener.
  • Better as Friends: Gardener and Bobbi used to be lovers, but by the time the book is set, they're just friends though they end up having sex once more.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Gardener dies, but he manages to defeat the Tommyknockers and save David Brown.
  • Body Horror: The process of "becoming". For most people, it's just teeth falling out, but a select few's skin becomes transparent, and tentacles appear in the place of their genitals.
  • Canon Welding: Several. Johnny Smith of The Dead Zone is referenced a few times, as is the Shop from Firestarter. It appears twice in the novel, first to Everett Hillman as a chuckling noise in the Derry hospital's plumbing, and later to Tommy as the familiar clown with silver eyes and balloons in a sewer. Both characters dismiss it as a hallucination and the two events are never referred to again.
  • Classical Anti-Hero: Jim Gardener. While not unintelligent, he is an alcoholic and often ends up doing stupid or even violent things when drunk.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Stephen King himself is referenced in the book; the townspeople think that Bobbi writes good stories, "not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the books that fellow who lived up Bangor way wrote". Also, when Gardener wants to get into the shed, he considers grabbing an ax "and make like Jack Nicholson in The Shining". However, events in The Dead Zone, It and Firestarter are mentioned as fact or at least hearsay, not as fiction.
  • Dangerous Key Fumble: After Gardener visits the shed, he realizes, just as the "Shed People" are returning, that he forget to put the padlock back on the door. As he runs out to put it back, he drops it and the key falls out.
  • Decoy Protagonist: The book starts out with Bobbi as the main viewpoint character only to switch to the real main character Gardener after Bobbi dug up the spaceship.
  • Determinator: Gardener in the final act (though it's implied that some kind of supernatural force is helping him).
    The Tommyknockers, Bobbi had told Gardener, were great sky travelers. This was true. But never, anywhere, had they met anyone quite like this one man, who kept going, even with his shattered ankle, his great loss of blood, and his ingestion of a drug that should have rendered him unconscious fifteen minutes ago, in spite of the great lot he had vomited up.
    Impossible - but happening.
  • Disappearing Box: Played with. Hilly Brown made a machine that didn't make things disappear, but sent them to Altair IV. However, he uses it with the intent of making things vanish under an ordinary cloth as a magic trick.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: After gaining mind-reading abilities, Hank Buck, one of the Havenites discovers that a member of his poker circle, "Pits" Barfield regularly used to cheat. Hank teleports him to "Altair 4", a faraway, desolate planet that hardly has any air. Just how much did Barfield steal? Pennies. This story is included to show the Tommyknockers' crazy temper, as well as to show the last time they killed each other due to petty differences.
  • Doorstopper: Actually, many parts could be cut, as they don't really advance the plot.
  • Drink Order: Late in the story, Bobbi's sister Anne shows up. Watch what happens when she orders a drink at a hotel on her way to Haven. (It's not so much the drink itself that's revealing, mostly the way she orders it.)
  • Dying as Yourself: Ruth Mccausland's death manages to alert Gardener that there's something sinister going on in the town, but the narrative flat out states she'd be happier with her other accomplishment: "Voices or no voices, the lady died sane."
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Bobbi's dog, Peter is afraid of the spaceship from the very beginning. As more and more of the ship is unearthed, all animals disappear from the forest, even insects. Bobbi finds some animals killed by the ship's effect; it's unclear if they all died, or many of them just escaped.
  • Final Battle: The climax of the story is Gardener's struggle to survive as the entire Haven township sets out to kill him.
  • Flare Gun: Ev Hillman has one; he originally wants to use it to give an emergency signal, but he ends up killing one of the Havenites with it.
  • Flashback Nightmare: Gardener regularly has them about his teenage skiing accident (after which he got the steel plate in his head).
  • For Want of a Nail: All the events are triggered by Bobbie stumbling on a piece of metal. The book actually starts with this sentence: "For want of a nail the kingdom was lost - that's how the catechism goes when you boil it down."
  • Gadgeteer Genius - What everyone in town becomes, doing such things as turning a tube of lipstick into a laser gun.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Gardener dies smiling, because, as he lies dying, he has a happy dream.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: The entire race of the Tommyknockers have it.
  • The Hard Hat: Gardener and Ev Hillman are immune to the effects of the spaceship, because they have metal plates in their heads (Gardener because of a skiing accident, Ev because of a war wound). Anne Anderson is somewhat protected by extensive metal dental work.
  • Hate Plague: Thanks to the bad tempers of the aliens transforming them, some of the citizens of Haven act this way and start killing anyone who has wronged them, regardless of whether that wrong was real or just perceived.
  • Heroic RROD: Gardener dies because he over-strained his brain by using Bobbi's computers to rescue David Brown, and launching the ship.
  • Homicide Machines: The Havenites built several of these, to guard the city borders. One of them is a floating Coca-Cola vending machine which kills John Leandro.
  • Hot-Blooded: Gardener becomes very irritable and violent when he's drunk.
  • Idiot Savant: The townsfolk can invent antigravity, but go through batteries at a terrific rate, because they need direct current and wall current is alternating. When Gardner hears this, he rages at Bobbi in utter disbelief; you can buy an AC/DC converter at any electronics store and nobody just picked one up on a shopping run, or built a few? Bobbi responds that it just never occurred to any of them. Bobbi actually calls herself an idiot savant early on.
  • Infant Immortality: Almost the entire population of Haven dies at the end. Presumably, this includes the children, but the only ones we actually see - Hilly and David Brown - survive.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: The Tommyknockers. They don't even begin to understand the technology they somehow managed to figure out how to use make.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Gardener is about to jump into the sea when he has an intuition that Bobbi is in trouble; that's why he doesn't do it, not because he wants to live (though later, he's grateful that he didn't do it).
  • Intrepid Reporter: A young reporter, John Leandro starts to see that something is wrong with Haven, so he goes there to find out what it is. His colleague, David Bright, ridicules him for it: "And - TA-DA! No One Will Believe This Heroic Young News-Hawk! Robert Redford Stars as John Leandro in This Nail-Biting Saga of..."
  • It Tastes Like Feet: After the owner dies, the food at the Haven Lunch gets crappy: a character thinks the fried eggs look like "broiled assholes" and taste that way too "although he'd never actually eaten an asshole, broiled or any other way."
  • I Want My Mommy: Leandro's last thought, right before he's killed is "Mama!"
  • Jerk Ass: Bobbi's sister, complete with introductory Kick the Dog moment (she reduces an airline stewardess to tears, seemingly for the hell of it). When she was younger, she bullied her own parents. (One such incident involved her habit of grinding her teeth until she had to get dental work done. She tried to force a guilt trip on them for not stopping a habit that she herself refused to give up). When she tells her mother that she called Bobbi to tell her that their father was dead, she said that Bobbi laughed (untrue). Then she goes to Haven and tries to pull this on the locals. BIG mistake. She ends up as a Brain in a Jar.
    • Also Joe from the TV miniseries who not only cheats on his wife, but he throws her lunch for him and his sons, laughs evilly after making his wife feel bad for herself and abandon a search for a lost kid to have an affair again knowing that his wife would be more concerned about the search than him.
  • Karmic Death: Beach creates a bazooka that shoots green light and giddily uses it to immolate two policemen investigating the area, and is quite eager to use it again on other non-Havenites. When cornered by them, Ev Hillman fires off his flare gun and hits Beach, causing him to burn painfully to death.
  • Last Name Basis: Jim Gardener is called "Gard" by Bobbi, his best friend. The narration also refers to him as "Gardener" or "Gard".
  • Let's Get Dangerous:
    • Ev Hillman first appears as a "garrulous-going-on-tiresome" old man. However, he proves to be very brave and heroic, when he tries to save his grandson.
    • The Tommyknockers are shocked when Gardener turns against them: "this was one man, a man they had all regarded with the kind of wary contempt reserved for a stupid dog which may bite; this was one man who had spent most of his time with Bobbi in a drunken stupor, one man who had somehow tricked Bobbi and killed her and who refused to die no matter what they did."
  • Living Battery: The people in Bobbi's shed. The ship also worked with power drained from aliens.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters
  • Meet the New Boss: Gardener realizes the Havenites are becoming just like the governmental authority figures he didn't want to show the ship to. He even references "Won't Get Fooled Again" several times.
  • Mercy Kill: Gardener does it to Bobbi, and later to the people (and the dog) in Bobbi's shed.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: It is mentions several times that the Tommies have a track record of accidentally destroying whole planets with their inventions. Usually when a couple of hicks get in a fight and use what turn out to be planet busters on each other.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Bobbi and Gardener.
  • Mundane Utility: Bobbi uses her technical abilities to power up her water heater by creating a small sun in it, making a tractor that can fly, and a typewriter that can read thoughts. Other Havenites create similar things.
  • My Beloved Smother: John Leandro's mother.
  • Never Live It Down: In-universe, the only thing that anyone can ever remember about Gardener is that he shot his wife. Never mind that it was non-fatal, she didn't press charges, or any other thing he's ever done, all that important is that he shot his wife. However, this does establish Gard's position as a Classical Anti-Hero and show just how dangerous he can be when his drinking lowers his inhibitions.
  • Next Sunday A.D.: The book is set in 1988.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted. Practically all the women in town wind up with theirs at the same time when the Tommyknockers show up, to the point that the stores run out of tampons. Even Ruth winds up with one, despite the fact that she'd hit menopause years ago.
  • Parasol of Pain: At the beginning of the novel, Gardener gets into an argument with a guy at a party about the safety of nuclear power. Eventually, it deteriorates into Gardener beating the guy up with an umbrella. He notes to himself that this is the only part people will remember.
    • Also, the energy weapon that Gardener uses to kill several Havenites, which is specifically noted to look like a parasol.
  • People Jars: The people in Bobbi's shed.
  • Puny Earthlings: Subverted. While the Tommyknockers have innate abilities beyond those of any human, they're also psychotically unstable and completely unable to develop any worthwhile uses for the technology they create. Humans, on the other hand, are rational at least some of the time and have used their scientific advancements to improve their quality of life.
  • Psychic Static: Ruth McCausland thinks of tongue-twisters to hide her thoughts, playing them constantly in the back of her mind. Gardener (who has it much easier because of the steel plate in his head) uses "old addresses, bits of poems, snatches of songs", or just repeats the word "shield".
  • Random Teleportation: The Tommyknockers are able to teleport things, but they can't determine where they go, so for traveling, they use spaceships.
  • The Reveal: When Gardener goes into Bobbi's shed, and finds out what's in there.
  • Shur Fine Guns: When Gardener drops a gun, it goes off, and the bullet breaks his ankle. It might be justified, since it's an old .45 from World War II. It's especially ironic, because earlier, when he tried to shoot Bobbi with it, it misfired.
  • Sickly Green Glow: The alien power has it.
  • Smoldering Shoes: Two cops are almost completely disintegrated with a Tommyknocker weapon. All that remains is a single smoking shoe. With a foot still in it.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the film, pretty much everyone survives, including Bobbi and most of the townsfolk (Gardener still dies, though). The novel has the exact opposite outcome, with pretty much the entire town being wiped out and both main characters dead by Mercy Kill and Heroic Sacrifice respectively.
  • Stage Magician: Hilly Brown, a Child Prodigy, wants to be one; when he gains technical abilities, he builds a machine that sends things to a faraway planet (referred to as Altair IV), then brings them back, and uses it for magic tricks. However, when he sends away his little brother, David, he can't bring him back; rescuing him later becomes a major plot thread.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: Haven becomes this.
  • Touched by Vorlons: Everyone in Haven (except Gardener).
  • Understatement: When Gardener gives a rant against nuclear power at a party, he mentions that before the opening of the power plant at Three Mile Island, it was discovered that the plumbers accidentally hooked a tank for liquid radioactive waste to the drinking fountains instead of the scuts. The people investigating wrote in their report that hooking up radioactive waste-coolant pipes to the ones feeding water to the drinking fountains was a "generally inadvisable practice".
  • Vengeful Vending Machine: In the miniseries, some guy tries to retrieve a soda can from a vending machine, which is possessed or powered by the Alien technology and have a greenish glow. His hand gets stuck in there and the whole thing blows up, killing him.
  • The Virus: Gardener theorizes that the dead aliens inside the ship are not the original crew. Instead, he thinks the ship is engaged in a long cycle in which it mutates the local inhabitants of whatever planet it crashes on, turns them into crew, then uses them to travel to another inhabited planet where it crashes and repeats the cycle.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?:
    • Before the start of the novel, Gardener shot his wife in the face during a binge (she survived). He woke up in a prison cell, not remembering it; when he asked the deputy what did he do, he answered: "Shot your wife. That's what you did. Good fucking deal, uh?"
    • After an 8-day binge, he wakes up on a breakwater on Arcadia Beach, New Hampshire, with no idea how he got there.
  • Writers Suck: Gardener is a violent alcoholic, his poetry is largely unsuccessful, and he gradually ruined his own life. Averted with Bobbi, though.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Time is a lot slower on Altair 4; that's why David Brown can be brought back alive about a month later he was sent there, despite the fact that the planet hardly has any air.

ThinnerWorks By Stephen KingUnder the Dome
Time Of DeathHorror LiteratureTooth and Nail
Time WarsLiterature of the 1980sTo Reign in Hell

alternative title(s): The Tommyknockers
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