(attention: mild spoilers for Big Driver and also some possibly disturbing content)
In Big Driver, one of the novellas featured in Full Dark No Stars, Stephen King once again presents a writer as the main protagonist. Not an unusual thing considering that one of King’s favorite themes has always been the writing process, and for that he has created a number of characters who make a living out of their words. Some deserve special mention, such as Paul Sheldon, the unlucky author of the Misery series who ends up in the hands of his biggest (and craziest) fan; Jack Torrance, who isolates himself in the Overlook Hotel to finish his play and is driven into madness in The Shining; Bill Denbrough, who translated his childhood fears into horror books in It; and Gordon Lachance, the best seller author who tells the story of when he first saw a dead person in his childhood in The Body.
What makes Tessa Jean, the protagonist of Big Driver, a unique one amongst Kings’ work is the kind of book she writes. Tessa (who became Tess Thorne in the made-for-TV adaptation, where she’s played by Maria Bello) is the author of The Willow’s Grove Knitting Society, a series of cozy mysteries starring a group of old ladies who like to knit scarves and solve murders. Like a cozy protagonist, Tessa has her quirks, owning a cat and having conversations with her GPS while driving. It’s also important to notice that she doesn’t seem to have a literary agent, and her publishing house is never mentioned, suggesting the possibility that she might be a self-published author.
Enjoying a moderate success with book sales, Tessa has a second source of income by giving lectures in literary events. While driving back home from the lectures, she takes a shortcut and ends up with a flat tire on a road in the middle of nowhere. A truck driver the size of a mountain stops to help her. It soon becomes clear that the flat tire wasn’t an accident, but an ambush prepared by the Big Driver, who takes Tessa to a cabin and rapes her repeatedly. Believing her dead, the Big Driver drops her in a sewer pipe together with the dead bodies of two of his previous victims.
Tessa manages to get out of there, get home and start dealing with the weight of what just happened to her. While recovering, she decides not to call the police, afraid of being put to shame in public. Being a crime writer, Tessa begins to think back and recall how she ended up in the hands of the rapist and decides to get her revenge by her own means. What follows is a somewhat traditional female vengeance tale, that might seem like any other if it wasn’t by the way it plays with Tessa Jean’s literary life.
If we were to consider the most polarizing kinds of crime fiction, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the cozy mystery is the cleanest and safest one, and the rape and revenge the most brutal. While the cozy focuses on the quirkiness of its characters and brilliant detectives who solve crimes through deduction and logic, the rape and revenge deals with a female protagonist taking justice on her own hands after being sexually assaulted. This revenge is almost always as brutal as the rape itself, but the protagonist most of the time gets away without losing the reader’s sympathy.
By having his protagonist starting on one extreme (the safe and quirky world of the cozy) and ending up in the other one (the despair and brutality of the rape and revenge), King seems to be telling not only a tale of revenge, but also of literary genre transition. This transition doesn’t happen quickly, for even after the rape Tessa continues to think like a cozy detective while planning on how to get back on the Big Driver. In fact, the crucial moment for this transition happens when Tessa invades the home of Ramona Norvell, the owner of the library who hosted her last lecture. Revealing what happens then would be too much of a spoiler, but pay attention to the fact that Ramona is watching The Sound of Music on TV – arguably the most vanilla film of all time – and her level of involvement in the actions of Tessa’s rapist. What Tessa does at this point has much more to do with the heroine of a film such as I Spit on Your Grave than Miss Marple, making this her point of no return.
It’s also important to consider Tessa Jean’s writing career. Being (most likely) a self-published author in the cozy genre, she doesn’t make nearly as much money as most of the writers created by Stephen King. At the very beginning of the novella, it’s stated that Tessa has released twelve books on The Willow’s Grove Knitting Society, and that she’s saving money for when she has to end the series. Many times during the novella she states that she didn’t like violent movies or books, and during her recovery, she goes to the video store and rents several revenge movies, such as The Brave One and Last House on the Left to try to adapt to a world she doesn’t know.
The idea of something as awful as a rape offering a career change is a bit difficult to convey, but even though the novella doesn’t offer a full idea of what kind of how Tessa Jean’s writing evolved after that, the movie makes it clear that she continued the Willow’s Grove series in a different fashion. It’s a delicate subject, and Tessa Jean’s character arc could seem to be of bad taste, except this isn’t just the story of a woman seeking retribution from her rapist, but most of all a story of a writer learning how to do a new genre. The difference is she’s not doing it on the page, but in real life.
Most authors have at some point in their career tried to write in a genre they weren’t familiarized with. Sometimes that’s out of pure curiosity, but most of the time it’s because of money. In his memoir On Writing, King himself reveals to have tried to write erotica in his early career, for they were better paid than the horror ones, but that didn’t go so well. And even though he has tried a bit of everything during his remarkably vast career, King also admits in his memoir that he doesn’t see himself writing a locked room whodunit mystery, the exact kind that Tessa Jean specializes in.
The key thing is that if one doesn’t read a specific genre, chances are one won’t succeed writing it. Tessa Jean doesn’t choose the rape and revenge, she’s forced into it and has to learn its rules if she wants to survive. Again, this could easily become tasteless since we’re talking about the most serious act of violence a woman can suffer, but what’s important to Big Driver is that, by coming into contact with this awful reality, Tessa Jean is able to adapt to it and do what she has to do in that situation.
The casting of Maria Bello in the movie holds some irony, considering that she played the wife of a writer going crazy in a different King adaptation, Secret Window. Her character in Secret Window was cheating her husband with a man played by Timothy Hutton, who played his own writer character in a previous King adaptation, The Dark Half. Bello is perfect in the role, as is Olympia Dukakis as Doreen Marquis, the leader of The Willow’s Grove Knitting Society who appears in Tessa’s mind to guide her through her revenge. The makers did a commendable job considering this is such a hard subject to deal with in a made-for-TV movie, exploring the violence in the story in a subtle yet disturbing way.
Big Driver is by no means one of the best Stephen King’s stories, but it remains memorable for its courage to deal with such a strong subject (the horror of being raped) together with a theme that’s mostly known by writers (trying a new genre). The subtle way he does it is proof that he’s still the most skillful author in the business when it comes to talking about the writing process. And that he always gives everything he has in his work, even a smaller and more personal novella such as this one.