‘Thinner’ and the Blame Game

What I Learned from Stephen King by Jason Sechrest

“There are no curses, only mirrors you hold up to the souls of men and women.” – Stephen King, Thinner

A disclaimer before we begin: As is the case with most of these doo-dads, there are spoilers ahead for those who have not read Thinner. More spoilers than usual in fact, as I found it necessary to employ the book’s end in my final analysis. If you, Constant Reader, should wish to check out now, we will hold no grudge, nor lay the blame. For if there is anything to be learned from Thinner (and I believe there is, or I would not have written said doo-dad), it is that blame is like a spinning wheel. Round and round and round she goes…

Stephen King wrote Thinner under the guise of his alter ego Richard Bachman back in 1984. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of one Billy Halleck, a hot shot lawyer who happens to be rather big in the britches—obese, would be the appropriate word. At the novel’s open, it is not one of Halleck’s clients however, but he himself who has been on trial for vehicular manslaughter. Using his many connections at the courthouse, Halleck gets off scot-free. Of course, Halleck is soon to discover that nothing in life is free, least of all running down the old gypsy woman who had been crossing the street on that fateful evening.

Halleck’s wife, Heidi, had chosen that night of all nights to give her husband a handy while he was driving, the likes of which she’d never done before. Halleck in his over-excitement loses focus and runs down the old gypsy woman. As ancient as she may appear, she turns out to be the daughter of the even more elderly head of the gypsy tribe, who looks about 150 years old if he’s a day, complete with rotting nose and missing teeth. Halleck’s got friends in high places though, and the quaint town of Fairview has no love for the gypsies. Halleck is acquitted of all charges. He leaves the courthouse that day feeling pretty good about himself—until, that is, he exits the building. Atop the courthouse steps, Taduz Lemke, head of the gypsy tribe and father of the deceased, brushes a gnarled finger against Billy Halleck’s fat cheek and whispers a lone word, which drifts on the foul stench of his breath: “Thinner.”

Our Billy Halleck begins to lose weight rapidly. At first, his doctors commend him. Whatever diet he’s on sure seems to be working! Within months, however, he’s lost nearly 100 pounds. When he starts confiding in others that he believes the gypsy has cursed him, his wife and doctors begin to devise a plan to get him help, a/k/a put him in the nut hatch. Billy decides he must leave town before they do so. He must seek out Taduz Lemke, apologize to him, and beg the old man to remove the curse.

Wisdom can be found in just about all of Stephen King’s novels, but there’s something about the Bachman books that reminds me of the tales of the Brothers Grimm. They are over-the-top, violent, appeal widely to teens and to the child-like at heart, and there’s almost always a big fat moral to the story. Thinner is no exception. It tells a tale about the vicious cycle of blame; how it works like a curse to wreak havoc upon the mind, body, and soul.

We begin the cycle with Taduz Lemke, who blames Billy Halleck for running down his daughter. Taduz is rightfully angry at the obese arrogant lawyer, but moreso he is angry at all that Halleck represents. Halleck is the “white man from town,” the likes of which Taduz and his family have seen the world over. His kind look down on the gypsies; they use them and their women for entertainment until they are ready to discard them. When it comes to matters of legality, the gypsies are treated by most towns as less than second-class citizens. To towns like Fairview, Taduz and his family are not citizens at all. They’re practically not even there. Just a traveling show of smoke and mirrors, here one day and gone the next, stinking up the place and cheapening it until their wagons roll along. For Taduz, Billy is every “white man from town” who has ever done his tribe wrong—but this time it’s worse. This time it has cost him his own daughter.

The wheel of blame spins as Taduz puts a curse on Billy Halleck, who in turn will blame his wife for having gotten him into this mess. Why would she do something so out of character, and why God, why on that particular night? If only she hadn’t taken a notion to put her hand on his knee and run it along the size of his once-bulbous thigh. The worse Billy Halleck’s condition becomes, the more he finds that he not only blames his wife, he starts to outright hate her. He starts to wonder if he even wants to be married to her at all.

There’s something to be said for the fact that Heidi, along with the doctors, believe Billy’s weight loss might be psychosomatic. Maybe it is! The guilt he feels over taking the life of another human being is surely insurmountable. Perhaps, in a way, Billy also blames himself. Guilt is just another shade of blame’s many sordid colors, one that has a way of eating you alive from the inside out. The stress of proverbially hitting one’s self over the head with a hammer day in and day out is far more than enough to lose weight over; it’s been known to give people mental disorders, health problems, and worse could lead to one’s own death.

You see, to some degree, a curse is always cerebral. Even Taduz Lemke knows this. When Billy at last tracks down their tribe, Taduz warns that if Billy doesn’t leave, he’ll make the curse worse. “Try,” challenges Billy. “But you know, I don’t think you can. Because I helped do it to myself. They were right about that much, anyway. It’s a partnership, isn’t it? The cursed and the one who does the cursing.”

Taduz spits at the ground, refusing to remove the curse. Billy screams out in a last resort to get the old man’s attention, “You ought to know that my own curse will fall on your family. The curse of ‘white men from town.’” This is enough to make Taduz take notice, his own eyes widening in fear. “You think men like me don’t have the power to curse?” Billy continues. “We have the power. We’re good at cursing once we get started, old man. Don’t make me start.”

Taduz is stopped cold because he knows deep down that the foundation of all curses is one thing, and one thing only. That thing is energy.

When we are, God forbid, so angry at someone that we scream aloud, “I wish you were dead!” that person may not fall down and die. Not right then. Not right there. Thoughts carry energy though, and words have power, the negative likes of which are enough to do a good deal of harm to both the individual cursed, and the one who laid it. That’s called karma, boys and girls. It might not be scientifically proven, but for those of us who have lived long enough to tell the tale, we know there are some truths more certain in their profundity than could ever be imagined.

Sometimes it doesn’t take wishing someone dead, or even wishing someone thinner. Sometimes it doesn’t take a curse at all. Sometimes all it takes is pointing our own gnarled finger, and placing a little blame.

During their heated confrontation, Billy Halleck takes notice of the beautiful young Gina, standing next to the old gyspy man. “Is she your granddaughter? Great-granddaughter?” asks Halleck. “Perhaps you’d wait just a minute while I write down my own daughter’s address. She’s not as lovely as your Gina, but we think she’s very pretty. Perhaps they could correspond on the subject of injustice. What do you think, Lemke? Will they be able to talk about that after I’m as dead as your daughter? Who is able to finally sort of where the injustice really lay? Children? Grand-children? Just a minute, I’ll write down the address. It’ll only take a second. If they can’t figure this mess out, maybe they can get together someday and shoot each other and then their kids can give it a try. What do you think, old man… does that make any more sense than this shit?”  

By the story’s end, Taduz agrees to meet with Billy once more, and to lift the curse. The old gypsy brings with him a strawberry pie, and adds blood from a wound in Billy’s hand to it. Taduz explains the curse cannot be destroyed, but it can be passed on. Billy’s weight loss will stop for a short time, and then resume unless another person eats the pie.

Billy knows almost immediately exactly who he will serve this just dessert to: his wife, who he blames as the cause for all of this, and who he believes was all but ready to commit him to the funny farm.

Billy returns home at last, and Heidi embraces him with open arms. In the morning, however, he finds that not only has his wife eaten from the pie, his daughter has as well. The wheel spins once more, landing on Billy, who now only has himself to blame. The novel ends as Billy decides to serve one final slice of pie to himself.

It’s a dark ending, but I suppose that’s the way it goes when you play the blame game. Whether we are pointing the finger at others, or ourselves, we always lose. Carrie Fisher once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Well, I think the same can be said of blame. In fact, I think that’s just what King is trying to tell us here, in his best Bachman voice.

He says it best I think in the letter Billy writes to his wife before leaving town in search of the old gypsy man. He writes:

“It’s so easy to blame, easy to want revenge, but when you look at things closely, you start to see that every event is locked onto every other event; that sometimes things happen just because they happen. None of us like to think that’s so, because then we can never strike out at someone to ease the pain; we have to find another way, and none of the other ways are so simple, or so satisfying.”

Jason Sechrest
Jason Sechrest and his copy of ‘Thinner.’

At its core, Thinner is about the fruitlessness of blame. It’s all the worthlessness of finger pointing, and the hopelessness in fault finding. It reminds us about the benefit of getting up and getting on, of acceptance and of forgiveness, if for no other reason than the bleakness of its alternatives.

If, before we accuse, we could just try to understand, maybe we could stop the wheel from spinning before it’s too late.

“What I Learned from Stephen King” is a Cemetery Dance Online exclusive series of articles about the wisdom, spirituality and life lessons found within the works of Stephen King. Jason Sechrest began his career at 15 years old as a full-time staff writer for Femme Fatales magazine. Sechrest’s official web site, SechrestThings.com, is dedicated to his musings on Stephen King and all things horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. He tweets as @JasonSechrest and posts often on Facebook.

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