Mr. Mercedes’ Latest Season Premieres on Peacock on March 4, and It Brings the Feels
by Rebecca Rowland
In the first fifteen minutes of the third season of Mr. Mercedes, Bruce Dern is murdered.
Dern plays a best-selling, reclusive writer, and this revelation is in no way a spoiler: not only is the crime the catalyst for the season’s story arc, but it is also the basis for Stephen King’s Finders Keepers, the second in the horror scribe’s Bill Hodges trilogy. According to King, Dern’s John Rothstein is not an alter ego but a mishmash of J.D. Salinger, John Updike, and Philip Roth, but let’s face it: Robert Frost insisted until the day he died that “The Road Not Taken” was not an allegory of selecting an extraordinary life path but only a plain ol’ poem about walking in the woods. Any high school English teacher would beg to differ.
As a reader of King’s for more than thirty years, I admit to having felt a bit unnerved when Rothstein bit the dust specifically because I equated the fictional author with King himself. Shared grief when a celebrity dies is not a new phenomenon. When the grunge god’s suicide splashed across radio and television, someone spray-painted C-O-B-A-I-N across the interstate exit near my childhood home. When David Bowie, Prince, and Tom Petty were picked off by the Grim Reaper in what seemed like the trifecta of musical rapture just a few years back, I tore their glossy magazine photographs from their media memorials and taped them to my office wall. Watching the first third of season three’s lead episode, I considered what it will be like when King himself takes a final walk down the mile.
I could track my life based on the release dates of King’s books. I was one of those kids who loved to read; my parents had to lock me outside in order to keep me from hunkering down in my room, my nose buried in a book. Because my father was a diehard Stephen King fan in the 1970s, I, of course, became instantly curious about his books, and at the age of ten, I was allowed to read Thinner because my parents had determined that it was the least nightmarish of King’s works up to that point (body image of a tween girl, be damned). I immediately moved on to The Shining and promptly had trouble sleeping, the obvious culprit being the clear view from my bed of a shower curtain in the night-light-lit bathroom. At the age of twelve, I went to the movies with a boy named Jimmy, and after we watched Silver Bullet, he gave me my first kiss. Throughout my teen years, I favored King’s short fiction, and it is because of Night Shift’s “The Boogeyman” that I insisted my college dorm room’s closet door always be shut completely, much to the vexation of my freshman-year roommate (who, incidentally, went on to executively produce not one but three of the CSI series as well as Murder in the First. I’d like to think my closet fixation takes partial credit for her career success with suspense, but it’s probably just a coincidence…).
After focusing my graduate degree in English on feminist theory, I based my thesis on the portrayal of female characters in popular horror fiction using Stephen King’s most recent releases at the time: Insomnia, Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, and Rose Madder. After entering the workforce for the first time as an adult, I read The Green Mile in its original serial form and sobbed uncontrollably on the subway after the initial demise of Mr. Jingles. Many years later, while working as a librarian in Western Massachusetts, I had to laugh when I read “Big Driver” in Full Dark, No Stars: maniacal main character Ramona Norville was a librarian, and the story was set in the town in which I was living at the time.
When I tell people that I write dark fiction—psychological horror, in particular, I am more often than not met with a roll of the eyes or a patronizing tone. Genre fiction, it seems, lacks the street cred inherent with traditional literary fiction. Stephen King is popular, but he’s no Dostoevsky or Dickens, they say. I beg to differ. A professor once told me, a classic is a work of literature with themes and relatability that supersede time and place. There is humanity in horror, at least in well-written horror, that could go toe-to-toe with any stuffy college literature course tome. Although we read horror primarily for the screams, what keeps many of us coming back, no matter at what stage in our lives we are, is the sympathy its characters bring out in us.
And so, I return to the latest television installment of King’s Hodges trilogy. The now defunct Audience Network shuffled the novels of the series, choosing to base its second season on the third book, End of Watch, to mixed reviews. Although there is little to top the show’s first foray, season three captures much of the dread and believability that were often absent from the second ten episodes. Brett Gelman, always a scene stealer in comedy funfests such as The Other Guys and Fleabag, displays dramatic range as attorney Roland Finkelstein and potential love interest for Holly Gibney, but it is Breeda Wool’s portrayal of Lou that is most impactful. Wool inhabits the imprisoned assassin of Brady Hartsfield so strikingly that I’ve added most of her other work to my watch list.
Season three is aglow with plenty of gruesomeness, from a spontaneous hatchet to one unsuspecting character’s head to a pick-axe being inserted and dragged through another’s, but perhaps the most chilling scene occurs in the final episode of the season, one that brings to a head the mysterious dream sequence Bill Hodges has been experiencing. For me, it is this scene in particular that solidified what the third installment of Mr. Mercedes seemed to be proselytizing all along, that the best writers are the ones whose work continues to impact our lives long after they have left this earth. Was it morbid for me to ponder Stephen King’s eventual demise? Perhaps. On the other hand, it’s possible that horror literature’s crown prince will outlive all of us, Mother Abigail-style. Regardless, for horror fans, he will never really disappear.
Rebecca Rowland is the dark fiction author of The Horrors Hiding in Plain Sight and Pieces and curator of the horror anthologies Ghosts, Goblins, Murder, and Madness; Shadowy Natures: Stories of Psychological Horror, The Half That You See, and the upcoming (June 2021) Unburied: A Collection of Queer Dark Fiction. Her work has appeared in venues such as Bloody Disgusting’s Creepy podcast, The Sirens Call, Coffin Bell, Curiouser, and Waxing & Waning and has been anthologized in collections by an assortment of independent presses. For links to her latest publications, social media, or just to surreptitiously stalk her, visit RowlandBooks.com.
I always find it amusing that it is Dickens who is so often held up as the standard to which King can never aspire. Dickens was very much a popular author of his day, early on publishing in chapters written on the fly and serialized as long as the public was interested. Hence, I think, the rather abrupt endings of a few of his early books. Of all the authors whose work has become recognized as being ‘classic’, Dickens is the one who is MOST like King, and for similar reasons – his themes are both of his time, and timeless. His characters are roughly hewn while yet being broadly familiar. King IS the Dickens of his day. I wish I had asked him when I spent some time in his company in 1983 what he thought readers a century out would think of his works. I meant to, but was so awed to be in The Presence that the question slipped my mind. I wish I knew what he would have said then, and even more so, what he would say now to the same question.
I have my own ideas on that. 😉
I could not agree more, Mark: he truly IS the Dickens of our time, although I don’t know if I’ll ever be a fan of the actual Dickens 😀 Thank you so much for reading and commenting on my piece!