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Literature / Desperation

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Desperation is a 1996 novel by Stephen King turned into a movie in 2006. It begins on Highway 50 in Nevada, a place some refer to as the loneliest place on Earth. A couple, Mary and Peter Jackson, are on their way back from a visit with friends when they are stopped by a sheriff who behaves strangely and discovers pot in their trunk, (accidentally left in there by Peter's stoner sister) and takes them to jail in the seemingly abandoned mining town of Desperation.

On the way there, he recites the Miranda warning, only mixing "I'm going to kill you" in with it, which unnerves the couple.

The cop proceeds to abduct more people as they pass through the lonely Nevada road, using one excuse or another. He repeatedly speaks in a strange, guttural language and seems to have literal control over the local animals, such as coyotes, insects, and birds.

Soon he gets Johnny Marinville, a recovering alcoholic writer. He beats Johnny up and takes him to Desperation, but not before he gets in a call on his cell phone to his following-chauffeur Steve Ames (Johnny is riding on a motorcycle, Steve is there to pick him up if the weather gets too foul, etc.), who later arrives with a girl named Cynthia Smith. A family of four, the Carvers, is also stopped and hauled into the Desperation jail.

Several of them are killed by the cop, whose bizarre statements and mannerisms escalate into violence and murder sprees. The dead appearance of the town is no coincidence. Among the survivors is a boy named David, who seems to have a special connection and communication with God. With little time and little choice, the group must establish a chain and fight to survive against the growing evil. The miners Dug Too Deep, and Tak, an Ancient Evil driving this nightmare, wants to play.

This work contains examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Johnny Marinville used to be one, and Tom Billingsley is one. There's also Reverend Martin, David's spiritual mentor.
  • Alternate Universe: The Regulators, another book by Stephen King (and treated as a lost manuscript of King's alter-ego Richard Bachmann), is an alternate universe version of Desperation. It has the same characters, but in different roles (a brother and sister become a married couple for example, with their parents in one book becoming their children in the other). Also, characters who were main protagonists in one book end up being minor characters who are killed off early in the other, and vice versa.
  • All Myths Are True: Averted in-universe; the legend about the origins of the ancient evil is not quite true.
  • Animal Eye Spy: The body-snatching Eldritch Abomination Tak can enter and control animals, seeing through their eyes and feeling their thoughts, but only for short periods. Its presence inside living things causes them to wither and die and it has to hop from one to the other fairly quickly. It prefers humans because they last the longest.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, it's a Stephen King book. Out of the group of 8 people that Johnny nicknames the "Collie Entragian Survivors Society", only four survive until the end.
  • Arc Words: Several, mostly born from Tak's ravings
    • "God is Cruel"
    • 'Holes like eyes'
    • 'Can tak and can tah'- 'big gods and small gods' in Tak's language of the unformed
  • Artifact of Doom: The can tahs, which transform anybody who touches it into a homicidal maniac controlled by Tak.
  • Author Avatar: Johnny Marinville is an aging novelist who has given up drinking and drugs. He's also a little pretentious. Remind you of anybody?
  • Big Bad: Tak, an extra dimensional entity that came from a dimensional gateway in the mines called an ‘ini.’ The being possessed various people in the town of Desperation and killed everyone in a brutal fashion, leaving the town seemingly deserted. It possessed Collie Entragian, the local sheriff and kidnapped people traveling past the town.
  • Big Heroic Run: After she escapes Tak's shed of venomous creatures, Mary is quite literally in a life and death chase with the Tak-possessed Ellen Carver hot on her heels. She knows that if Ellen-Tak gets her hands on her, she's dead by Tak possession. She escapes, JUST barely.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: As it turns out, Audrey Wyler. Seemingly just a desperate survivor like everyone else, the core group takes her in. However, she's been partially converted by Tak. Tom Billingsly notices that her dress is short and she keeps pulling it down over her long legs, but is also drinking and only saw her wearing it once before briefly. Tom finally connects the fact that the dress once fit her perfectly, and now doesn't, because she's growing due to Tak's influence, but he figures out too late to save himself. He's able to warn the others she's dangerous with his dying words. They do manage to keep her from killing David, however. Also, as she's possessed by Tak, Audrey isn't naturally this, it's just what the possession is making her do.
  • Black Speech: The language spoken by Tak and those he possesses/brainwashes.
    "Mi him, can de lach, mi him, min en tow. Tak!"
  • Blood from Every Orifice: This happens to the bodies of the humans Tak inhabits when they start to disintegrate.
  • Body Horror: The ancient spirit Tak is so powerful that it causes any body it possesses to expand and fall apart (animals will explode if it possesses them). Any pre-existing medical condition or illness is sped up and exacerbated to an incredible degree, so Cary Ripton with his prostate cancer begins bleeding heavily from his penis, rectum and belly button within 24 hours.
    • Entragian is Tak's strongest host, but after almost a week he's coughing up throat tissue, an eye has popped, he's bleeding from every orifice, and his tongue easily peels off. All because he sunburns easily.
  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: The sheriff casually inserts the words "I'm going to kill you" into the middle of the Miranda rights.
  • Cell Phones Are Useless: Desperation has very poor cellular reception, if it has any at all. With the story being set in the 90's. and in a small, backwater town in the middle of the Nevada desert, this was to be expected. Notably averted twice. First, Marinville is able to get a phone call through to his following-chauffeur Steve Ames (Johnny is riding on a motorcycle, Steve is there to pick him up if the weather gets too foul, etc.), alerting him to the danger. And later, thanks to God temporarily boosting the phone's reception, David is able to call Steve to tell him and Cynthia to meet them at the movie theatre.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The shotgun shell David puts in his pocket in the sheriff's office is later used to destroy the gate to Tak's dimension.
  • Chinese Laborer: Chinese workers accidentally discovered the gate to Tak's dimension when they Dug Too Deep.
  • Conditioned to Accept Horror: Entragian tries to scare Johnny Marinville by showing him his blood-dripping penis, but it doesn't work because he saw far more disturbing things in Vietnam.
  • Cruel Mercy: See God Is Evil.
  • Death of a Child: Tak murders 7-year-old Kirsten Carver for no reason other than sadism.
  • Demonic Possession: What best describes what happens to the can taks, Tak's host bodies.
  • Don't Eat and Swim: While visiting the land of the dead in a trance, David learns that Reverend Martin drowned two days after the Carver family left on their holiday because he went swimming too soon after lunch and went too far out into the sea.
  • Dug Too Deep: A group of Chinese Laborer miners accidentally broke the barrier between their world and Tak's this way.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Tak, a sadistic, incorporeal monstrosity heavily implied to have no true form, it has no apparent motive other than causing chaos and killing everything it comes across. The effects it has on those it possesses are... disconcerting, to say the least. Tak even managed to corrupt the small statues (can tahs) near its prison just by proximity over thousands of years, causing whoever touches them to be corrupted with maddening lust and rage.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The events of novel take place over a single day.
  • Fate Worse than Death: The victims Tak possesses rather than letting its animal minions kill. especially because They aren't entirely taken over, and aspects of their personality, and perhaps even their consciousness, remains in their bodies as they slowly and painfully disintegrate. This is lampshaded in the novel when discussing Collie Entragian. Entragian was compelled to bring in Mary Jackson and Johnny Marinville, but the Entragian aspect of the body's personality compelled it to have a true reason for taking them into custody, hence it not only took in the Jacksons when it found the bag of leftover drugs from Mary's sister in the trunk of their car, it then kept those drugs to PLANT in Marinville's motorcycle to have a legal reason to take him in as well. Also, even though it is mixed with Tak's language, Entragian still knows Miranda rights and says them, albeit terrifyingly broken up with Tak's pychosis. This means that in everyone Tak takes over, their consciousness likely still remains, suffering it pain as Tak slowly destroys their bodies.
  • Feathered Fiend: Buzzards are among the animals Tak uses for his schemes. As Entragian, he sicks one onto Marinville. Near the end of the story, Tak himself becomes one of these by possessing a golden eagle.
  • The Film of the Book: The 2006 movie with Ron Perlman as the sheriff.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Johnny refuses to believe in God, even after he sees David performing miracles.
  • Ghost Town: Desperation.
  • God Is Evil: Well, not exactly evil, but very cruel. At the very least He's better than Tak, as his cruelty has ultimately benevolent purposes, and he doesn't remove people's free will. However He sends David Carver, an eleven-year-old boy against the Big Bad; his family is killed one by one; when he wishes to die, and the Big Bad needs to be defeated with a suicidal mission, God sends not him, but Johnny, who says to David:
    "You said 'God is cruel' the way a person who's lived his whole life on Tahiti might say 'Snow is cold.' You knew, but you didn't understand. Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel? Sometimes he makes us live."
  • Great Escape: David Carver escapes from his prison cell by undressing, covering his whole body with green soap, and slipping between the bars of the cell, while Marinville distracts the coyote with his motorcycle jacket. David then proceeds to get the gun and keys of another, killed, cop, kill the coyote, and free the others.
  • Happy Fun Ball: Can tahs, small statuettes of 'low animals', corrupted by the Big Bad, have the adverse effect of causing those in contact (and potentially even proximity) with it to give into their savage, normally restrained instincts. While turning the savage Up to Eleven, from the account of several characters. Some murder their loved ones, some follow Tak's will, some feverishly masturbate.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Johnny Marinville
  • Hollywood Atheist: When David prays after his sister's death, his mother angrily yells at him to stop because a good God wouldn't have let her die and because of all the people who were murdered in His name.
  • I Don't Like the Sound of That Place: Desperation? Sounds like a great place to live.
  • Idiosyncratic Cover Art: Desperation and The Regulators had covers which formed a complete picture when laid next to each other. This tied in with the fact that the characters in each book were alternate-universe versions of each other.
  • Irony: Cynthia Smith survived an assault by a villainous policeman in Rose Madder... and now she is threatened by another villainous cop. Collie Entragian is being possessed by an Eldritch Abomination though, whereas Norman Daniels didn't need any possession to be thoroughly evil and insane. In both this and the sequel novel, Cynthia survives and even seemingly ends up with a decent guy in Steve Ames.
  • Killer Cop: Entragian but just because he's possessed by Tak.
  • The Legend of Chekhov: Someone tells the legend of why an old mine was abandoned (a trapped Chinese Laborer summoned a bad spirit). There really is a monster, though its origin is quite different; it's an Eldritch Abomination set loose when miners Dug Too Deep.
  • Leg Focus: Subverted. Tom Billingsly, getting more and more drunk, keeps looking at Audrey Wyler's long legs in her short dress. While some of the others think he's just being a lecher, Billingsly is actually pursuing a thread that he can't quite grasp because of his drinking. In the bathroom, he reaches an epiphany. He's seen her once before in the dress, and it fit her just fine, now she's having problems keeping it pulled down her legs, because SHE'S INFECTED BY TAK AT A MORE MINIMAL LEVEL AND IS OUTGROWING THE DRESS.
  • Miranda Rights: One of the first signs something is very wrong is when the cop mixes "I am going to kill you" into the Miranda rights.
  • Misplaced Wildlife: The story takes place in the Nevada desert during the summer and includes a few scenes with hordes of fiddleback spiders. Said spiders do not live this far to the west, and they prefer a temperate climate.
  • Mission from God: David Carter is forced by God to destroy the evil entity Tak with the help of a group of strangers. Other characters point out how needlessly cruel it is for God to drag David out into the desert and get his family killed before asking him to do that. Furthermore it's implied God may be doing this not just out of a sense of right, but because He finds Tak's existence offensive.
  • Monochrome Past: The flashback showing the first time people encountered Tak is depicted in sepia tones. Johnny's flashback to Vietnam isn't, though.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: One of the main characters, Johnny Marinville, is a writer.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: Subverted. Flat-chested Cynthia wears a Peter Tosh T-shirt. When she notices Steve looking at her chest, she says: "You must like Peter Tosh. It can’t be my tits."
  • Mythology Gag: Desperation and The Regulators were published simultaneously (by King and his alter ego, Richard Bachman), and thus the characters, settings and plot are connected and have a lot of overlap. However, both novels also feature a character called Cynthia Smith, who mentions briefly in Desperation that her nose was broken by a bad man. Cynthia was a secondary character in King's previous novel Rose Madder, in which she was assaulted by Norman Daniels, the villain of that story.
  • Non Sequitur: Entragian makes many of these, sometimes making strange movie references, other times saying words in his Black Speech, and once saying "I am going to kill you" in the middle of a sentence.
  • Panthera Awesome: After filling in the other survivors on some of Desperation's history, and being ever so close to figuring out Audrey's secret, Tak sends a cougar into the movie theater which rips out Billings' throat when he drunkenly uses the bathroom.
  • Possession Burnout: This happens to everyone possessed by Tak during the course of the novel.
  • Rabid Cop: Sheriff Collie Entragian.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: Johnny Marinville, a burnt-out writer in the present had once won the National Book Award.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Entragian delivers a very early one to Johnny.
  • Religious Horror
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Although Johnny is not technically a veteran because he only went to the Vietnam War as a journalist, the trope still applies to him. It's eventually revealed that his experiences basically killed his soul.
  • Shoot Out the Lock: Ralph does this to the padlock on the door of a powder magazine in the China Pit. He even lampshades how this always works great in the movies, but he's not sure if it will work in real life. It takes him two shots to get the job done. Once inside the magazine, they are confronted with another padlock, this one located on a chest filled with blasting agents, but Ralph wisely decides not to try and shoot this one since it would risk setting off an explosion. They search for the key instead.
  • Shout-Out: A local bar is mentioned, named The Broken Drum.
  • Ship Tease: Steve and Cynthia immediately hit it off, despite their age difference. Nothing more comes of it during the course of the story. Though there are minor hints that they may stick together in the end.
  • Significant Anagram: The very tall sheriff is called Collie Entragian. Entragian is an anagram for "near giant".
  • Sinister Southwest: Officer Collie Entragian makes the town of Desparation a deadly place to be.
  • Snakes Are Sinister: Upon arrival in Desperation during the night, Steve decides to check out a brightly-lit house just to see if anything is amiss. Followed by Cynthia, they come upon a seemingly normal family that are seated for dinner... From several days ago. The food is rotting, as well as the bloated, snake-bitten corpses of the mother, father, and baby, and rattlesnakes are slithering around the dining room table, the kitchen, and the floor. When the snakes notice Steve and Cynthia and aggressively start moving towards them as well, Steve beats feet out of there fast, carrying Cynthia who became paralyzed with fear. It should be noted however that the aggression in the snakes is largely due to the influence of Tak, and they are behaving in a way that is far from their normal behavior.
  • The Smart Guy: Mary. She gets kidnapped by Tak to use as the next host as Ellen Carver's body is beginning to break down. Tak locks her in a shed with venomous snakes and spiders and scorpions to paralyze her with fear. Mary figures out that since she's the next host, nothing in the shed under Tak's control can kill her, otherwise her body becomes useless, so she quickly gets over her fear, even pulling aside rattlesnakes to get out.
  • Stupid Evil: Discussed. One character wonders why, if Tak regularly needs new humans to use as hosts, did he slaughter everybody in a city in the middle of a desert. He mostly gets this trope as an answer.
    "Evil is both fragile and stupid, dying soon after the ecosystem it's poisoned."
  • Taking You with Me: Johnny in the end.
  • Those Two Guys: Between this novel, and The Regulators Steven Ames and Cynthia Smith are not only among the few characters who remain virtually unchanged in appearance and manner in both books. They're also the only two major characters to SURVIVE both books, and in both books, it's hinted they may end up romantically involved.
  • Took a Level in Badass: Johnny after his "resurrection".
  • Trauma Button: The song "Good Lovin'" from The Young Rascals triggers Johnny's Vietnam War flashbacks.
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Tak can not only talk to animals but also give them orders in Black Speech.
  • Vehicular Sabotage: Entragian captures the Carver family by using roadspikes to flatten the tires of their RV. Later, when escaping from the China Pit, Mary stops long enough to sabotage Entragian's police car and two other cars so Tak can't use them to chase her.
  • Verbal Tic: Sheriff Collie Entragian has a habit of adding "TAK!" to the end of random sentences. He was possessed by the eponymous ultimate evil at the time.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Played literally. Knowing its current host body of Ellen Carver is about to disintegrate, it kidnaps Mary Jackson and locks her in a shed, which it fills with various deadly insects and plenty of venomous snakes. Its assumption is that locked in there with so many things that can kill her, Mary will be too terrified to try to escape. It works temporarily, until Mary realizes that the creatures CAN'T kill her, because they'll make her body useless to Tak as a host. At one point, during her escape, she has to move aside huge Diamondback rattlesnakes to find an exit.