Friday , September 18 2020
Checkin' out the health care options in Stephen King's Maine. . .

Kingdom Hospital

A lotta folks seem to’ve grown bored with Stephen King, and I really can’t blame ’em. The guy’s been a trademark name for years, and his prolix productivity has resulted in a bibliography that’s definitely seen its highs and lows. I have three remaindered King hardbacks (Black House, Dreamcatcher and From A Buick 8) on the shelves myself that I haven’t read yet – see what too much teevee time’ll lead to, kids? – so I’m not the one to go to for a take on the man’s more recent prose. But I continue to believe that at his best (last A-grade King book for me: Bag of Bones), the man is a great pulpster.
So I was intrigued by the new weekly ABC mini-series, Kingdom Hospital, which has been adapted and New Englandized by King from a teleseries by Danish filmster Lars von Trier. Could the Yankee horrormeister mesh with the Euro art sensitivities of the director who gave us Bjork as a tragic factory girl? Early word on the series has been that King has infused his style all over the work, but after viewing the first three hours, the primary elements that hit me are those places King departs from his well-established tics.
To be sure, the writer’s openly invited the charges of King-sizing by inserting his own familiar lifestory into the plotline. He even sets the series in his familiar Maineland (Castle Rock, we learn, is nearby – and one of the hospital nurses is named Bannerman). After a prologue describing a 19th century mine fire that led to the death of 200 men & women (“good Yankees all,” the narrator tells us), we flash to the present where the title hospital has been erected over the ashes. Cut to Porter Rickman (Jack Coleman), a successful artist who gets struck by a van while jogging and listening to Fountains of Wayne’s “Red Dragon Tattoo” on his Discman. (Wouldn’t “Hat And Feet” have been a better choice?) Rickman, who sees a giant talking anteater/bearlike creature while he lies paralyzed along the road, gets carted off to Kingdom Hospital and spends the next three episodes drifting in and out of a coma-like state.
But once we get inside the building, things grow quirkier. The staff turns out to be comically odd or incompetent (Ed Begley’s feckless hospital admin, a bug-eyed security man, two retarded kitchen workers who appear to be attuned to the supernatural goings on), incompetent (Bruce Davison’s inappropriately arrogant neurologist) or Andrew McCarthy (yikes!) The hospital’s maintenance man, the improbably named Johnny B. Goode, appears to be on permanent vacation, replaced by a different weirdly knowing figure (Charles Martin Smith in the second episode) daily. And then, of course, there’s all the supernatural happenings.
In addition to that chatty anteater, which also appears bedside to chat with the demi-conscious Rickman and to mess with Dave Hooman (the low-life transdermal patch junkie who was driving the van and who winds up in ICU next to the painter by ep three), Kingdom Hospital is haunted by the wraithlike figure of a little girl. (One of the first times we see her, it’s in the reflection of the ER door window, just above a posted copy of the Patient’s Bill of Rights – a neat touch.) A good number of pre-Child Labor Law children perished in that mine fire, but why the ghostly apparition has started appearing in the hospital halls and weeping in the elevators now is one of the series’ central mysteries. For hypochondriacal psychic Eleanor Druse (Diane Lane), the auditory visitations are the “sound of a child coming from Swedenborgian space.” The line – which prompts a whaa? from Andrew McCarthy’s goodguy Dr. Hook – is meant to both cement and deflate the supernatural proceedings. It deliberately prompts a chuckle even as it provides grounding for the events to come.
Throughout the series, there’s an intentional goofiness that’s kind of refreshing in King’s hands. In place of his long established use of brand names and pop culture refs to pull in more concrete minded readers, for instance, we get a series of comically fictitious trademarks (e.g., Nozz-A-La Soda, which prompts one of the paramedics to ask his friend to “Get me a Nozzie!”) or a teevee gameshow that looks like it’s being broadcast out of the sardonic world of Robocop. Our mysterious anteater isn’t the only creature to let us know its thoughts either. When Hooman does a gainer off the roof of his house, we suddenly hear his rotweiller disgustedly thinking into the camera, “Way to go, Slick . . . who’s gonna feed me now?” We’re also privy to the thoughts of a German shepherd who is seemingly allowed the run of the hospital by security guard Ed. Clearly, King isn’t excessively concerned with ratcheting up the verisimilitude too strongly.
Of course, there are hints of darker doings down the road. When demi-comatose Rickman is shown walking through a cobwebby and decaying version of the hospital (that Fountains of Wayne song still blasting over the intercom), we get glimpses of a fanged vampirish figure. Among the background info that we’ve received to date, is news about the capture of another of the area’s psycho killers (why would anyone wanna live near Castle Rock?) that’ll likely pay off in the weeks ahead. And on a more mundane level, King & director Craig Baxley never let us forget for long how distressing Rickman’s coma is to his distraught wife. Even when he’s being playful, King can’t stray too far from the grimly horrific.
Who, among his many (non-bored) fans, would want him to?

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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