Popular Culture is an impossibly large and ever-growing thing. It’s impossible to see everything and as a result, some things fall through the cracks. Maybe a book or movie or game was critically panned, maybe it was a commercial flop, maybe it just didn’t make a lasting connection at the time. Whatever the case, these bits of pop cultural refuse are forgotten and overdue for A Second Glance.
Last Time on A Second Glance: Gotham By Midnight (2015)
Horror maestro Stephen King is the writer of over 65 books (counting short story collections) throughout his 42-year career. King’s bibliography is full of bonafide and cult hits alike. But a career as long as Mr. King’s is bound to have a few works that don’t really get as much attention as they deserve. 1999’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon certainly fits into that category.
Stephen King is known as a writer of horror stories, but his career is filled with works that skirt or even deliberately avoid the genre. Tom Gordon is light horror at best, which likely plays into its less-than-stellar reputation. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is more a survival story and for what it is, it’s a triumph.
The novel concerns Trisha, a 9-year-old girl on a hike with her mother and brother. Trisha hangs back to avoid listening to her traveling companions squabbling about her mother’s recent divorce and she accidently loses the trail. In an attempt to find her way back, Trisha manages to get even more lost. She spends days in the wild surviving on her limited knowledge of the wilderness and limited food and water supplies. To pass the time, Trisha tunes into the radio on her walkman, listening to reports on her disappearance. Trisha also listens to baseball games featuring her favorite player, Tom Gordon of the 1998 Boston Red Sox.
Trisha is a child and thinks like a child, but she’s intelligent and rational and mostly avoids panic. Much of the book is dedicated to random musings as she makes her way. Trisha frequently thinks about her family, constantly hums a familiar advertising jingle, and chides herself for becoming lost. She triumphs and fails, she hopes and loses hope, she’s brave and frightened. Trisha is a very human character and there’s nothing artificial about the way she acts or thinks, even when it’s a mistake.
Is it scary?
The horror element comes into play is when Trisha has been lost for a while. Due to thirst, exhaustion, and malnutrition she begins seeing and hearing things which aren’t real. One of those things is “The God of the Lost”, an enigmatic antagonist that seems dedicated to hindering Trisha’s journey and seeing that she doesn’t make it out alive. Is The God of the Lost a wendigo? Could it be a literal god? Is it simply something Trisha imagined into being? The answer is unclear because Trisha is an unreliable narrator at this point in the narrative, so the villain never becomes fully developed.
Admittedly the horror element is the weakest aspect of the book and it’s easy to understand why this might turn off some readers, particularly King devotees. But Tom Gordon isn’t about Trisha’s battle with a malevolent wood spirit, it’s about her battle with herself. It’s no accident that Trisha’s unwillingness to deal with familial drama is the reason she gets lost in the first place. Trisha’s journey is as much about dealing with her parents’ divorce, her self-doubt, and her other inner demons. Whatever The God of the Lost is, it represents Trisha’s fear and doubt, while Tom Gordon represents her courage and self-confidence.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is a quick read, coming in at only a few over 200 pages. The book feels like a novella, if not a short story, and that aspect is an oft-cited example of why it’s not worthy of the King canon. But the length of the story is appropriate as Tom Gordon is a very personal story about one character and her individual journey. Tom Gordon is a short story and a small story but it’s still a very good story that makes up in character and depth what it lacks in creepy thrills.