The Plant, Book One: Zenith Rising by Stephen King (2000)
The time is 1981. Zenith is a small, struggling paperback publishing house that publishes books of questionable merit, none of which would ever make it to a bestseller list. Zenith is about as low as you can go in the publishing field without hitting the purely pornographic, Nazi apologist, or terrorist instruction manual demographic. Its offices take up one quarter of the fifth floor of a run-down building. The only employees are the managing editor, four editors (three male and one female) who serve mainly as slush-pile readers, a Stepin Fetchit-talking janitor who also runs the male room, and a part-time receptionist. Zenith stays barely afloat with a blood and guts action series, a poorly written line of bodice-busters, and a series about various insects feasting on humanity.
Even an organization as low as Zenith is, would-be writers -- almost all of questionable merit -- send in their manuscripts with the naive assurance that their works are truly special and important. Some of these wanna-bes are certifiable.
One such writer is Carlos Detweiller, who has submitted a screed titled True Tales of Demon Infestations, a "scary and all true" manuscript which includes recipes for potions (which can be edited out if Zenith feels they are too dangerous). Detweiller is willing to sell rights except movie rights, which he will write himself. Editor John Kenyon makes the mistake of considering the manuscript which turns out to have some very authentic photographs of a human sacrifice. Zenith informs the authorities who, upon investigating, see the so-called victim appearing to be very alive (he isn't) and moving about. Detweiller is incensed and begins to send Kenyon illiterate, rambling threatening letters.
Another editor, Bill Gelb, found himself the target of another would-be writer, Major General Anthony R. Hecksler (ret.), who did not take kindly to having his book Twenty Psychic Garden Flowers rejected by a man he described as the "designated Jew." Hecksler's campaign of threats against Gelb and Zenith eventually got him locked up in an insane asylum.
What with psychotic authors and marginal profits, Zenith also finds itself under the gun from their corporate owners, who are threatening to close the publishing house if it does not soon release a best-seller.
The Kenyon gets a letter and a small gift from a supposed admiring reader. The gift is a small plant. The sender's last name on the letter is Solrac -- Carlos spelled backwards. Kenyon thros the plant into his waste basket, where it is later retrieved by the janitor, who places it in his office. And we're off and running.
The plant starts growing. Its true growth can be seen only by a few people and is invisible to any one else. Each person going near the plant smells something different, something pleasant and meaningful to that person alone, a scent from their childhood, for example. The plant is also psychic and telepathic -- the staff at Zenith soon become a gestalt, a linked family. They begin to perform better at their jobs. They are brimming with positive ideas. The plant appears to be a godsent rather than a Detweiller-send.
Zenith's two wackiest rejected authors begin plotting to kill their hated editors. Each is plotting on his own but have a vague telepathic understanding that the other is out there, somewhere. General Hecksler has escaped from the asylum, murdering several orderlies while doing so. Detweiller has been psychically causing fatal accidents for those who have slighted him. The General breaks into a crematorium, kills two workers, and then supposedly immolates himself in the crematoriums oven, allowing him to stalk the Zenith offices without suspicion. Each acting on their own, Detweiller and the General break into the Zenith offices and hide, waiting for their victims to show up at work. In the meantime the plant is growing ever larger but has not yet tasted blood.
The history of this little-known book by Stephen King is worth mentioning. The Plant began as a series of chapbooks that King wrote and published through his own publishing house Philtrum Press and sent out as gifts to friends instead of Christmas cards in 1982, 1983, and 1983, after which the project was aborted. (King evidently saw The Little Shop of Horrors at that time and felt his serial novel might seem too derivative.) The booklets soon became collector's items, demanding high prices as more and more of his fans learned of them. In 2000, as an experiment in alternative publishing, King began releasing the story on-line, available to anyone and asking each reader to contribute a dollar per episode; if the response was below 75%, King would discontinue the project. (King had already had great success with his first e-Book, Riding the Bullet, and would soon try releasing original stories in audio format.) After six episodes, reader participation fell and King closed the project. Those six episodes, 270 pages, formed this book, which remains available online in a pdf. King may or may not eventually get back to the story.
Because The Plant began as a small, non-commercial project for King, he had a lot of fun with it, planting Easter eggs, Tuckerisms, and inside jokes. The janitor, for example, is named Riddley Walker, the title of a well-known book by Russell Hoban which won the John W. Cambell award in 1980. Not content with that, the full name is Riddley Pearson Walker, a slight misspelling of suspense writer Ridley Pearson. The character comes from the southern town of Blackwater; Blackwater is the name of a series of six books by the late horror writer Michael McDowell, whom King once described as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today." (Interestingly, King's wife Tabitha would later complete an unfinished novel by McDowell.) A list of plane crash victims (the plane was brought down through Detweiller's black arts) included someone named Dallas Mayr; Mayr is a WHA Grand Master and the author of numerous suspense/horror thrillers under the name "Jack Ketchum." These little sly nods are scattered throughout the book and there are probably many that I missed.
While The Plant may be Stephen King at his most playful, it still has all the ingredients that make King so readable: a disparate set of characters finely honed, a sense of otherness that slowly displaces reality, an urgency that grows unrelentingly, a strong sense of time and place, the mix of humor and honesty, and a narrative that hooks you and doesn't let go.
Some day.perhaps, King will get back to this story so we can learn the final fate of Zenith Publishing and its employees. Until then, this book remains a solid, interesting read.
Check it out.