I’ve been reading some interesting lit theory essays and whatnot but this one particular text has got me thinking way too much. I just finished Stephen King’s foray into digital serials with his webnovel The Plant. This was my first time actually reading a King novel (I know, bad English major) but from what I’ve seen in his films, the narrative structure is fairly similar to his other works. Take something fairly normal and mundane, start teasing out the problems/conflicts/desires of your characters, add crazy supernatural element that completely redifines the trajectory of the story. What’s even creepier is just how much the story hits close to home. Without the crazy telepathic super plant of course.
The story is simple enough. John Kenton is an editor at Zenith House, a very low quality book publisher. Sales are craptacular so they are trying to find the next big seller before the company goes under. John has an English degree from Brown, loves literature, and hates his life and his job, but his long distance girlfriend Ruth keeps him grounded. His boss is editor in chief Roger Wade, who is strict but ends up being a father figure to John. He believes he found a book with potential in the form of Carlos Detweiller who writes about the occult and other dark stuff he claims is true. Also, he and John are both from Rhode Island (spooky, right?). Carlos’s manuscript and appended photos are weird and scary as Hell so they call the cops on him but they can’t find anything. Carlos then proceeds to threaten John and sends what seems to be an ordinary house plant named Zenith, the common Ivy. John asks that any such package be destroyed immediately but the janitor Riddley Walker decides to keep it. And the things start getting weird.
Over the following chapters we learn that: Carlos is a powerful warlock but he is also very stupid. Ruth breaks up with John after she falls in love with another man while she is doing her PhD on the other side of the country. The Janitor isn’t a stereotypical black guy but actually a graduate from Cornell that is doing research for a book. Sandra, one of the editors, is a bit of a slut. Herb Potter, another editor, is being threatened by crazy WWII commando Major General Anthony “Iron Guts” Hecksler for rejecting his book. Iron Guts escapes an insane asylum, fakes his own death and prepares to take out the entire staff. All the supernatural stuff is real. The tiny plant is telepathic, invisible to everyone but a few chosen people (the editors at Zenith, plus Riddley) and grants inspiration to anyone who smells it. Thanks to the plant, the editors are able to find/make very promising books that can not only help Zenith survive but thrive and make everyone rich. Carlos and the general prepare to kill their respective targets but end up meeting and killing each other. The plant actually eats the latter except for a few undigestibles. The ensemble comes even closer together in their circle of trust as they hide the deaths and the evidence but worry what will happen to them now.
At this point you’d expect things to get even freakier, like the editors going crazy and kill each other or something while the plant is being a master puppeteer or something. But no the story end here. The story takes place in 1981, was published in 2000 in six parts, and has been left unfinished since then.The website itslef actually says that should inspiration ever come back the story might continue, though probably not in the web format. Still, I have to give credit for King’s form of publication. He actually sold the book on an honor system. You could get the PDF for free, and he asked that you give him a buck or two per installment (I’ll send him ten bucks or so once the next part gets made or I finish mydissertation, whichever comes first). I read in Wikipedia that he expected that readership to pay ratios should be at 75% or he’d stop the book entirely. Maybe he took that a bit too seriously, I don’t know but The Plant remains in a sort of narrative limbo. You could believe that the current open ended finale could work as an ok conclusion but more installments were promised so the story feels like it should continue but it has been halted. And thus readers wait to see what happens next or even if there ever will be a next.
One more interesting thing about the novel is that it is written in a weird modern epistolary format. Readers only get get to read the story through interoffice memos, letters, diary entries, and such from various characters. Including the crazy antagonists and a few pages from the plant explaining how things are going when no one is at the office. Thus, the narrative voices are given with hindsight, we know they survive whatever they are talking about and the whole process is a bit meta, which I actually enjoy for the sake of reading and research. Also, only parts 2 and 3 have a synopsis of previous events that actually contains some foreshadowing and clarifies events but do not exist in further installments which are almost double the length of the first ones. Weird huh.