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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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Sibling Switch Squick: Thanks to the alternate universe, the Carver family from one version of the story reverses who are siblings and who is married. In other words, David and Kirsten/Pie would be brother and sister in Desperation, and their parents Ellen and Ralph, but in The Regulators, they're married, and Ellen and Ralph are their children.
  • Significant Anagram: The very tall sheriff is called Collie Entragian. Entragian is an anagram for "near giant".
  • 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.
  • 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.


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