OCTOBER 1, 2016
STEPHEN KING’S newest novel, End of Watch (the last book in the Bill Hodges trilogy), opens with a cliché — “It’s always darkest before the dawn” — and although this might be seen as a tired gesture made by a hack writer who possesses little creativity, clichés do, sometimes, have their place. For instance, the old truism “timing is everything” seems appropriate to End of Watch, not just because it offers a play on the title of the novel, but also because this particular cliché captures the essence of King’s newest book. Time is a crucial element here: there is a race against the clock that propels readers to find out if the hero, Bill Hodges, will be able to defeat his nemesis, Brady Hartsfield, before the latter sets off a dangerous chain of events. Time and memory are also vital because this book (and the entire trilogy) relies upon references to King’s earlier writing. Finally, time takes center stage because coincidence and serendipity combine with metatextual repetition to provide a narrative that gestures beyond cause and effect toward something more strange, elusive, and inexplicable.
King himself has noted that he finds it worthless to plan detailed outlines for his novels in advance — the story has to be organic, and any problems that his characters encounter cannot simply be resolved through some sort of deus-ex-machina intervention that would drive the Constant Reader (or, say, Annie Wilkes of Misery) insane. This suggests that coincidence, rather than divine intervention, populates King’s tales as a sort of narrative compromise. Coincidence, however, is not always a matter of mere chance. Most seeming coincidences can be traced back to origins in specific earlier moments; the conjunction of two apparently unrelated or unbelievable events can thus be seen as having an interconnected genesis. This lack of magic within End of Watch warrants observation, not because of the overall absence of magic within this text (there is actually quite a bit of magic that propels the story and its numerous coincidental threads toward the conclusion), but, rather, because it seems as if King has become enslaved, as an author, by his fixation upon the pervasive power of time and timing.
End of Watch shares key similarities with its predecessor Finders Keepers beyond a shared cast of characters. Finders Keepers, for example, echoes the plot of King’s earlier story The Shawshank Redemption; more specifically, the antagonist of Finders Keepers, Morris Bellamy, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank, endures his prison sentence with the anticipation and excitement of knowing (or, rather, believing) that a hidden treasure (in this case, the uncollected notebooks of his favorite author) will be waiting for him outside the prison. In order for King to have written this book, he could not have done so without his previous work; without having previously explored the endurance of a prisoner and the power of obsession for “Number One Fans,” Finders Keepers would not be the book that it is. The same is also true of End of Watch. Just as King opens Needful Things with the statement “You’ve been here before,” the Constant Reader has watched timing and coincidence bring about the downfall of evil in King’s work long before Bill Hodges triumphs over Brady Hartsfield because of a single, serendipitous phone call. End of Watch is thus eerily similar to The Dead Zone, in which Johnny Smith attempts to assassinate the diabolical presidential candidate Greg Stillson: although Johnny fails in his assassination attempt, a fortunate and well-timed photograph showing Stillson using a child as a human shield to protect himself from Smith’s bullets serves as the crucial means of ensuring that Stillson will not become president.
The point here is that as King has noticeably “gone back to the well” with his last two novels, this might suggest that King is losing his edge, recycling old story lines and even milking the intertextual references that populate his works. Indeed, the blatant Easter egg of having Brady Hartsfield, the now semi-comatose Mercedes Killer from Mr. Mercedes (the first book of the Bill Hodges trilogy), reside in Room 217 of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic of Kiner Memorial Hospital (a room number that has been familiar for King’s readers for almost 40 years) does not necessarily seem wholly inspired, especially since this reference would hardly have worked if not for King’s immense popularity and the extreme level of familiarity that his Constant Readers have with his prior writings. As such, it sometimes feels like King is becoming a slave to his previous references. Yet being a slave to history is not always a bad thing; to be sure, the Constant Reader has willingly revisited Castle Rock several times throughout King’s oeuvre, and the sense of familiarity offered by End of Watch could be considered comforting to the established reader.
One of the earliest examples of fortuitous timing in the novel occurs when Barbara Robinson endures a near-death experience. As the younger sister of Jerome Robinson, one of the people whom Brady Hartsfield blames for his current condition, Barbara becomes a target of Brady’s revenge when it turns out that Brady is not as brain-dead as everyone thinks. In fact, Brady has developed supernatural mental abilities that allow him to enter into the minds of individuals and influence them to take their own lives. Indeed, timing here is crucial to the development of the plot of End of Watch because Brady cannot reveal that he has recovered from his near-vegetative state — such a revelation would surely ruin his plans for revenge, especially against the individual at the top of his shitlist: Bill Hodges. Brady infiltrates Barbara’s mind while she is walking in the “black” part of town, and the timing of her presence in this location could not be any better for Brady. He begins to speak to her regarding her own identity as “blackish,” implying that she is an impure black woman (since Barbara comes from a stable and somewhat privileged home) and that she should be ashamed of her tainted ethnic identity stemming from her “white” privilege. These lines of persuasion ultimately shame Barbara and convince her to end it all by stepping into traffic — only to be saved by a young man who, coincidentally, found Barbara attractive and had his eyes on her as she walked into the street; moreover, this auspicious magnetism would have never occurred if not for a fire alarm at this heroic gentleman’s school that brought him to the same street where the vulnerable Barbara attempted to kill herself. Again, the critical and providential timing of this scene is a boon for Barbara, but it could be said that this is a burden for the reader since any sense of relief is erased because, arguably, King’s use of coincidence begins to become a bit overwhelming. Certainly, just as King’s story becomes a slave to timing, so too does the reader: such ostensibly predetermined movements appear to eliminate the spontaneity that is often expected and cherished within literature.
Again, there appear to be too many “coincidences” that line up too perfectly throughout the text and wrap the story up rather too neatly in several places. As already noted, Barbara Robinson is saved by a well-timed fire alarm at a school across town; additionally, Bill Hodges dies of pancreatic cancer at the end of the story, but not before he is able to see Brady Hartsfield die (and on Bill’s birthday no less, almost like how Bryan Smith, the man who ran down Stephen King in 1999, likely committed suicide on King’s birthday the following year). Bill’s death, as sad as it is, also possesses a fortuitous timing since he does not leave this world before his friend and business partner, Holly Gibney, almost completely learns to manage her extreme anxiety (which would have undoubtedly crippled her to the point of institutionalization had Bill died any earlier).
Furthermore, as Brady, the “suicide prince” (the original working title of this book), uses his newfound abilities to push people over the edge and commit suicide, he is aware that the timing of his persuasions and influences are critical and that, sometimes, orchestration is the true motor of coincidence. While Brady might, in theory, command the muscles of his potential victims by fully entering into their minds and controlling their bodies (an idea that owes a debt to King’s Dark Tower series, specifically via the characters Susannah Dean and Jake Chambers [and his animal companion, Oy]), Brady finds more pleasure in ultimately corrupting their minds. For him, there is a sickly sweet power in convincing his victims that suicide is their only option; it is an art for Brady — he understands that “[s]mall balloons of paranoia can be inflated until they are as big as floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.”
The entire conclusion of End of Watch also depends on time and timing: an impending snowstorm that is mentioned a good hundred pages prior to the conclusion looms in the background until the flakes eventually begin to fall and provide an obstacle for Bill and Holly in their attempt to end Brady’s life. This storm ultimately gives Brady the upper hand in dealing with his adversaries, until Jerome Robinson, in an extremely well-timed appearance with a beneficial tool at his disposal — a snowplow with a large blade in the front that deflects bullets — proves to be the deciding factor in the showdown between his friends and the suicide prince. Yet none of this could have happened if this final scene did not take place on Bill’s birthday: a loud and well-timed text from his daughter gives Bill and Holly, who had been taken hostage by Brady, enough of a distraction to escape their captor and, eventually, leave with their lives intact. Everything comes together because events and coincidences take place in the right places at the right times.
Even though there is a notable weakness in End of Watch because of these constant and seemingly clunky coincidences, and despite its heavy metatextual dependence upon familiarity with King’s earlier writings, the novel nonetheless stands up as an enjoyable read. As the end of this trilogy, everything is wrapped up neatly, and the Constant Reader will not be spending his or her time burning impatiently for more tales focused on Bill Hodges. The story is done, the good guys win (mostly), and while King may have become enslaved by a fixation on time, one cannot completely consider this work as a contrived and overly manipulated story; it is a narrative that may offer little supernatural magic, but there is something magical about looking back on the events of a life — whether real or fictional — and seeing just how beautifully everything comes together (for better or for worse).
Patrick McAleer is the author of Inside the Dark Tower Series and The Writing Family of Stephen King. He is also the co-editor of two collections of essays on Stephen King: Stephen King’s Modern Macabre (with Michael Perry) and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics (with Phil Simpson).