The jarring issue with the third book in Stephen King’s ‘Bill Hodges Trilogy’
The first book of the Bill Hodges Trilogy is ‘Mr Mercedes.’ It opens with former Detective Bill Hodges on the brink of suicide because he’s unable to a mass murderer. This criminal ran a Mercedes into a crowd of people waiting for a job fair, killing and injuring dozens. Bill pulls himself out of depression and with the help of some friends engages in a cat and mouse game to catch Brady before he kills again. The plot is gritty, at times disturbing and always grounded in reality. King called the novel his first hard boiled detective book.
The second book ‘Finders Keepers’ is a similarly gritty tale of murder, rape and kidnapping.
However King’s third novel in the trilogy makes a disturbing and jarring turn. Brady (the Mercedes killer) gains super powers. He is able to control objects and get other people to do things with his mind. In neither of the first two books was anything supernatural implied or made explicit. Situations were solved or caused with violence, luck on intelligence rather than magic powers.
Here’s what some Amazon reviewers had to say about the third novel ‘End of Watch.’
“What really attracted me to the first two was the lack of any kind of supernatural element in the stories. They were set firmly in the real world, real people, real crimes, real investigation, real conclusions. End of Watch has however been moved rather uncomfortably out of the real world and shunted into an unwelcome supernatural world.”
“I gave up on End of Watch at page 152. The supernatural element, at least for me, was a very lazy way to end the trilogy that had been so grounded in reality from the off. Giving Brady these new supernatural powers actually made him less of a character and more of a caricature. Brady was one of Kings finest creations (nearly a scary the “nurse” Annie Wilkes) that you could imagine existing in real life. His very real contempt for those around him, his odd and very frightening world view, his extremely odd internal narrative and his peculiar relationship with his mother, together made Brady as a character is a real world monster who could be living next door, a work colleague, or the guy who delivers your mail. This new “super Brady” however could not be living next door, will not be a work colleague, will not deliver your mail and as a result has become a “literary monster” with a much reduced impact.”
In crafting a story you create a world and just like our world it must have rules. The more consistent and cohesive the rules are the more real your world will feel to readers. So the novels that are the most believable are obviously the ones that are firmly grounded in our reality even having few implausible coincidences. However, as writers we often like to create more different worlds to our own.
Especially in a world of dragons and unicorns readers must feel the consistency of your world. Are the dragons fire breathing? How intelligent are they? Can they talk? How do they relate to humans? It would have been very odd indeed if in the final Harry Potter book the dragons had suddenly started chatting to Harry like Smaug spoke to Bilbo in The Hobbit.
The rules don’t need to be expressed explicitly. JK Rowling never used the word ‘mute’ to describe her dragons. Indeed it’s better to show instead of tell. However they do need to be there underlying everything.
Stephen King didn’t just change the rules of his world when he added supernatural elements to the last book of his trilogy, he basically changed the entire world the novel was set in. It moved from the world we live in within the limits of nature and science to a supernatural world that plays by it’s own rules. That’s a very strange feeling for a reader.
I’ve always been of the opinion that if your book has supernatural elements you should introduce them as soon as possible so that readers know what’s going on and also to give readers that aren’t fans of the supernatural a chance to bow out. That way you avoid reactions like this:
“Loved the first two books in the series. Just don’t really understand why the third volume suddenly had to deviate into supernatural claptrap. Very odd. Feels like lazy writing really.” – Amazon Reviewer
The reverse is also true. It may be that many readers didn’t like ‘Mr Mercedes’ because unlike most Stephen King novels it didn’t contain supernatural elements. It’s likely that they’ll never read ‘End of Watch’ because of that. They could hardly predict this complete 180.