March 26, 2001 12:00 PM

by Stephen King

Book of the week

It is supposed to be a simple hunting vacation in the Maine woods, an annual ritual for four guys who have been friends since childhood. But there’s an unplanned detour right into nightmare country, the kind of territory where the only possible tour guide is Stephen King. Before the friends are through, they’ll see all the local sights: intergalactic fungus, homicidal special forces, exploding carcasses and—temporarily occupying a hijacked human body—an alien named Mr. Gray with a mighty appetite for bacon and a bad case of road rage. And the four will take a journey into the past tethered to the book’s strange central image, the core of its unsettling pathos: the yellow Scooby-Doo lunch box they found one day as boys. It led the lads to a simple but momentous act of courage—and a chain of events that could end humanity once and for all. Reappearing obsessively as the story moves back and forth in time, the lunch box becomes an emblem of the absurdly prosaic moment that changes everything.

Dreamcatcher is a creation as weird as any the master of horror has devised: a relentlessly gruesome tale of terror that also manages to be genuinely poignant. King’s habit of inserting autobiographical in-jokes—recall the bedeviled writers of The Shining and Misery—this time turns grimly earnest when one character has painful memories of a senseless car accident like the one that nearly killed King in 1999. Then there are over-the-top elements such as the perverse but exquisitely detailed reconstruction of a teenage boy’s id: the Rolling Stones lyrics, the commando fantasies, the lure of the briefly glimpsed naughty picture. But it works. So does the toilet humor, here carried to hitherto uncharted extremes: There are scenes in this book so stomach-churning that you may long for the relative restraint of Alien. You can’t stand to read another page, and you can’t bear to put it down. Don’t start this one on a school night, kids. You’ll be up till dawn—with that Scooby-Doo theme song ringing in your head. (Scribner, $28)

Bottom Line: Engrossing gross-out

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