Leave it to Stephen King to bury his audience in novels -- even when the author producing them was supposed to have died more than two decades ago.
Last year, when King released his most recent novel, Lisey's Story, it looked as if even he and his publisher had given up the pulp count. The jacket copy attributed more than 40 novels and 200 short stories to King, a nod to the Sisyphean folly of trying to keep track of his prodigious output.
Whether that tally included Richard Bachman's work remains uncertain. In any case, King's fans are well aware of Bachman, a pen name used by the horror master early in his career. During the 1980s, the secret got out, with a collection of those early novels (The Bachman Books) and another work, the Jenny Craig nightmare Thinner.
The books went on to become best-sellers, fueled by the King brand name and some entertaining stories. Bachman's creator pronounced him dead in 1985, felled by "cancer of the pseudonym."
Like many a King bogeyman, Bachman did not, or would not, go quietly into the night. He first resurfaced in 1996 with The Regulators, a funhouse-mirror, alternate-universe take on King's own Desperation, also published that same year.
Now, 11 years later, another Bachman novel appears, this time at the behest of an assistant who found the manuscript among a collection of King's papers stored at a Maine university. In the introduction, King dispels any notion of the novel representing a contemporary version of Bachman: "It's a revised and updated trunk novel, but that doesn't change the basic fact."
The new-old novel tells the story of Clayton Blaisdell Jr., a hapless, softheaded petty criminal. Known as "Blaze," Clayton Blaisdell has lost his partner in crime, a sneering cynic named George (Bachman goes heavy on the Of Mice and Men reverb).
George lives on in Blaze's head, so much so that Blaze spends much of his time conversing out loud with his dead mentor. Those talks, in turn, lead Blaze to attempt the big job George often spoke of but never pursued: kidnapping a six-month-old baby belonging to one of the wealthiest families in town.
Bachman displays something King himself has been accused of lacking: restraint. This slim, spare novel manages to pile on the tension even as its end seems inevitable. Nary a word appears wasted.
Pairing a main character who has been physically abused as a child (Blaze's father nearly killed him by kicking him down a set of stairs several times in a row one morning) with a cooing infant makes for an irresistible narrative. From the moment Blaze skulks through the mansion to kidnap the baby -- he plans a $1 million ransom -- the small-time crook encounters a dizzying array of emotions and thoughts. It is as if he has suddenly become pregnant. Before he even gets the baby out of the house, terror sets in:
"Now, though, his nerves began to unravel. The baby seemed to gain weight in his arms. Panic nibbled at his will. He could almost glimpse movement in the corners of his eyes -- first one side, then the other. At each step he expected the baby to stir and cry. And once it started, its wails would wake the house."
As Blaze and the baby set off, the novel offers intermittent chapters telling the sad back-story of the kidnapper's tumultuous childhood spent bouncing from orphanage to unwanted family and back again. A brief One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest interlude, with Blaze and an orphanage pal discovering a wallet full of money and escaping to Boston for a decent meal and a trip to Fenway Park, illuminates the constant sorrow and neglect of their lives.
Somehow, King manages to keep the kidnapping plot line from flagging despite the occasional side trip into Three Men and a Baby-style antics. Blaze is mentally slow, abused and clumsy. He fumbles his way through diapers, bottles and all the rest -- and yet also displays convincing tenderness toward the baby he plans to ransom.
Set before the cell-phone-Internet era, the novel offers a few reminders of the not-so-distant past. Hey, kids, remember pay phones?
When Blaze attempts his ransom call from said communications relic, he makes the call collect. The operator asks for a name and Blaze responds with his full name. Yes, his real name, not an alias.
"In his relief at finding he hadn't made this long slog just to come up empty for lack of phone-change," Bachman writes, "Blaze would not realize this tactical error for almost two hours."
Blaze may be dumb, but he's also intuitive and instinctive, which makes for a taut, high-stakes version of hide-and-seek in the Maine winter snow. All of which goes to show that while Bachman may (or may not) be dead, his prose remains dead-on.