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Sunday, April 18, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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King Strikes Terror In Woods

Special To The Seattle Times

------------------------------- "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon" by Stephen King Scribner,$16.95 -------------------------------

Tom "Flash" Gordon is the closer for the Boston Red Sox who saved 44 games in 1998 and didn't blow a save opportunity from May until October (M's fans, who seem to experience a blown save per week, should appreciate how rare this is). He is also the favorite player of Trisha McFarland, a 9-year-old Maine girl who admires him because her father does, and more secretly because she thinks "he's the handsomest man alive."

When she gets lost in the Maine woods, with nothing but a few snacks, some bottled water and a Walkman to keep her company, she develops a fixation on him. At first this seems a matter of semantics - if he "saves" the game she is listening to, then she will be "saved" - but the longer she wanders, and the more dazed she becomes, the more her fixation develops quasi-religious overtones. Is Tom Gordon an angel? Is there a devil in the woods? Does God exist at all? Heady subjects for a 9-year-old.

Heady subjects for Stephen King? Not really. A horror writer, King has always been interested in the metaphysical, and an exploration of whether God exists naturally brings up the underside of the equation. If yes to God, then yes to the devil? Something is stalking Trisha McFarland in the woods, and it isn't until the end of the novel that we find out what that something is. Tying things up, unfortunately, can be disappointing. The unknown is almost always scarier than what's known, and King's metaphysical entity takes on too great a physical reality to be truly scary or wondrous.

And it all seems beside the point. For the greater villain in the novel is Nature. Essentially Trisha leaves the path of civilization and re-enters the food chain. The horrors here are enough - "After a moment or two the first mosquitoes alit on her eyelids and began to feed." Metaphysical horror is nothing compared with this kind of bottom-feeding reality.

Critics have mostly poo-pooed King's remarkably successful career - he's a genre writer, after all, who churns out novels the way McDonald's churns out hamburgers - and some of his characterizations, as in Trisha's family, seem a little too generic to be interesting. Trisha herself is often too knowledgeable for a 9-year-old (would she have heard of minstrel shows?). But King knows how to spin a good yarn, even with only one character on stage.

Ultimately Trisha has to develop a closer's mentality - ice water in the veins - in order to survive her final assault. Good thing she didn't grow up in the Pacific Northwest. "The Girl Who Loved Bobby Ayala" would have been a much shorter book, and a good deal messier.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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