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Unfurling the leaves of Stephen King's unfinished novel, The Plant

I recently reread The Plant by Stephen King. It’s one of his lesser-known works. He published sections of it privately as a kind of King-Christmas card between 1982 and 1985, and then in six instalments as an e-book in 2000. The concept was that the “Constant Readers” would be able to download it, and chip in $1 for the first three instalments. Given King’s following, that’s nice work if you can get it. The thing was that you didn’t pay first and then receive the section. You didn’t have to pay at all. King was interested in the honesty of his readers, would they pay for what they took, or would they just help themselves to a free lunch? From what I remember the honesty rate was around 75% at the start, but started to trail away, and when King increase the price to $2 for the last three instalments (but promising that the entire novel wouldn’t cost more than $13 overall), the number of paying readers dropped to under 50% and the number of downloads dropped as well. The final instalment, in December 2000, wrapped up the first act of the story at 270 pages. King left it there. Readers were obviously disappointed, many of them posting their disappointment (and vitriol) on his website. King said he had other projects to complete, noting that The Plant had survived the eighteen years from 1982 to 2000 and that it would probably survive for “another two or three years” until he went back to it. And that was the last we heard of it. It’s now available on his website as a free download. Twenty-odd years ago I printed my copy and had it comb-bound, and it now sits on my shelf with my other King books. King received over $700k from the downloads. (And I did pay for my downloads!).

The Plant has a lot going for it. It’s written in an epistolary style, make up by collating letters, memos, diary entries, newspaper clippings and the like. Technology is … well, virtually non-existent (King himself noted that fax machines were pretty much fringe technology). This style means you get a variety of voices throughout and, although some of the pieces go on a bit (would someone writing on a manual typewriter really have written such a long diary entry), this form moves the story along very quickly. It’s the story of a failing publishing house, Zenith House, who publish pulp books. One of the editors, John Kenton, shows and interest in a book called True Tales of Demon Infestations by Carlos Detweiller, but is so horrified by some of the photographs that are sent accompanying the typescript that he refers them to the police and, understandably, rejects the submission. The author is more than a little put out over this and vows his revenge on Kenton, using a (deliberately) unconvincing pseudonym to send him what seems an innocuous pot-plant. The plant has magical properties, growing to an enormous size and, initially, seems like a blessing to the publishers, giving them a form of telepathy amongst themselves and suddenly the fortunes of Zenith begin a meteoric rise. At the same time, another of the editors is being stalked by a second disgruntled writer, known as the General, just out of prison and vowing his revenge.

As mentioned above, King wrapped up The Plant after its sixth instalment. It completed the first Act of the novel which King then called "Zenith Rising" and brought this part of the story to a conclusion ... of sorts. What was interesting was (spoiler alert) the two human antagonists, Detweiller and the General, were killed in the final section, so presumably the plant, like the goose that laid the golden egg, would continue dispensing its fortune to the editors, until greed takes one of them too far and the plant changes from Fairy Godmother to the Big, Bad Wolf and few (if any) of the editors get out alive before the plant itself is destroyed.

King himself promised “The Plant is not finished online. It is only on hiatus. I am no more done than the producers of the TV show Survivor are done. I am simply in the process of fulfilling my other commitments.” But now, over 20 years later, even if any more was written, I doubt it would work. For the first instance, although this is the first act of the story, it is setting itself up as a horror novel (and it you look at some of his other early novels such as ‘Salem’s Lot there is almost no supernatural element in the first act, and in the other books he was writing at the time he started on The Plant, Cujo, The Gunslinger and Different Seasons, almost no supernatural element at all). But in 1983, he published both Christine and Pet Sematary, this latter arguably the most horrific of all his stories. But King has moved away from vampire, haunted house and killer clown horror stories, and looks at a very different kind of horror, like being trapped in an abusive relationship, and many of his stories are a variation of one of the elements in Freud’s essay on “The ‘Uncanny’” – being buried alive by mistake (Misery, Gerald’s Game, “Autopsy Room Four”, “In a Tight Place” to name a few off the top of my head). Yes, he has gone out for the out and out gore-fest in novels such as Cell, but this is the exception, rather than the norm. The Plant wouldn’t fit with the work he’s currently producing.

In addition, the book is set in the 1980s and things were very different then, both in terms of publishing and technology. And it was set in the 1980s because it was written in the 1980s. The first letter is dated 4 January 1981. And it’s not that it has to be set in the 1980s (in the same way that part of 11.22.63 had to be set in … well, 1963). That’s just the era in which he was writing. When I worked in an office in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a very clear paper-trail for all the work that was done. These days, it’s all electronic, locked behind passwords and encryption, so the same kind of authenticity wouldn’t be available. And it would be a hell of a lot of work to adapt it and bring it up to date (unlike The Gunslinger, for example, which was shorter, and the adaptations were a form of retcon to incorporate the Dark Tower mythology as it developed).

Another problem was that in 1982 the musical of Little Shop of Horrors was released, so, while King may have drawn inspiration from the 1960s film, or even a short story written in 1932 by John Collier called “Green Thoughts”, these were both from decades before and the reading public would not have drawn such a quick parallel.

The first three episodes (those costing $1 a time) were initially published by King’s own publishing house, Philtrum Press, in 182, 1983 and 1985 (and a matching 3-volume set of these episodes costs around $25k). I believe, the last three instalments were written by King as he continued his experiment were the ones that cost $2. The principal problem, I think, was that King realised that the epistolatory format wasn’t a suitable method of telling his story. In Part 6, King begins with a page from him as “editor” of the collection of writings that make up The Plant and he discusses the document called “Z”, which he notes is a collaboration between the editors (even identifying the different typewriters used to type the document and even describes it being “told in the third-person omniscient style. Information is conveyed by use of a shifting perspective and include many incidents at which none of the narrators – Kenton, Wade, Jackson, Gelb or Walker – were present”. If the story had continued, there might have been an interesting discussion about the reliability of the narrator (as we see in King’s more recent work, Billy Summers, or it could have been that the plant itself provided a form of telepathic link between the various narrators and relays to them the events they could not have witnessed (as the two antagonists break into the publishing house offices and lay in wait for their victims). King concludes “the idea that a telepathic ivy plant turned the typewriters of five previously normal editors into Ouija boards is an outrage to rational thought”, but he concludes “this is how these things happened … and this is how the truth of those days came to be written down”.

The Plant is a product of its time. If it had been completed in 1982, it would probably have had the same impact as Firestarter or Christine, and now thinking of them four decades later, once you’ve read them once, how many years or decades pass before you read them again? And after 1985, King upped the ante on his books publishing works such as Misery, It and the Dark Tower series in terms of length and character development. The Plant remains an interesting experiment, and while there was a certain degree of frustration when King announced it would “furl its leaves” in December 2000, there certainly aren’t people protesting outside his house. And while the three Philtrum Press instalments are listed in King’s complete works on his website, the e-book doesn’t get a mention.


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