I think I’ve said a number of times that horror stories simply aren’t my genre of choice, in books or movies, or what have you. I’m just not one of those people who thrills at being scared. But entertainment horror is big in our society, and while I may not embrace it, I don’t want to sidestep it, either. And to be honest, there’s a heckuva lot of great horror writing going on. Since joining the LitStack crew, I’ve been privileged to experience Brady Allen’s macabre and diverse stories in Back Roads and Frontal Lobes, the goosebump inducing narrative of Kealan Patrick Burke’s novella The Tent and Stevan Novak’s blood drenched tale Megan, to name a few, and I’ve been reminded of just how varied and talented these voices are, even if they speak in a way to chill the blood.
So I figured it was time for me to take on Stephen King. I don’t read a lot of Stephen King – not because I don’t recognize him as a master of modern horror, but exactly because he is so. Reading Pet Sematary when I was young came close to traumatizing me (yeah, I admit it, I’m a wimp) – even revisiting it this year for my Halloween recommendation had me skittish for days. The Shining and The Stand imprinted themselves on me deeply, as much as I tried to shake them off. So I’ve pretty much given him a wide berth for years.
But I was intrigued by his newest novel, Doctor Sleep. In this book, he revisits one of his most compelling characters – young Danny Torrance from The Shining: the redrum boy with the imaginary friend Tony, the boy who was touched by a mysterious emotive power – “shining” – that saved him from the forces that broke apart his family. For years after the demise of the Overlook Hotel, with the help of the old cook, Dick Hallorann, who was also manifested with the ability to shine, Danny – now Dan – was able to contain the nightmares that still existed from that time, but he was never able to forget them or repair the damage they had done, nor keep them from continuing to shatter his peace of mind.
Now a middle-aged drifter, Dan has sunk deep into the abyss of alcoholism, drug use and haunting one night stands, running from a pattern of addiction that sabotages every attempt he has made of some sort of settling. That is, until he reaches Frazier, New Hampshire, with the right-as-rain town common, the hospice where he could maybe find employment, and the amazing village replica called Teenytown, complete with a kid-sized train ride that spoke to something deep inside the damaged man.
He stood where he was for a bit, although the sun had gone back in and the day had grown cold enough for him to see his breath. As a kid he’d always wanted an electric train set and had never had one. Yonder in Teenytown was a jumbo version kids of all ages could love.
He shifted his duffle bag to his shoulder and crossed the street. Hearing Tony again – and seeing him – was unsettling, but right now he was glad he’d stopped here. Maybe this really was the place he’d been looking for, the one where he’d finally find a way to right his dangerously tipped life.
While admiring the Teenytown train, Dan meets Billy Freeman, the aging town maintenance man and conductor of the ride, and Dan’s shining flares the strongest it been in years. Billy offers him a job, and introduces him to Casey Kingsley, the municipal works supervisor who is himself a recovering alcoholic. The work is temporary, but a godsend. Not only does it give Dan a foothold in town, where he eventually moves to a position at the Helen Rivington House hospice, but it also gives him the kick he needs to try Alcoholics Anonymous again, with Casey as his sponsor.
But the shining continues to factor into his life. There are nightmares that are more real than imagined. There are hints that evil still lurks around all corners and invades the night. The spirits of the Overlook Hotel still manifest his waking dreams. But there are less dire consequences, as well. At the hospice, Dan has gained the nickname of “Doctor Sleep”, with his ability to ease the passing of patients whose time has come, a welcome release from pain and loneliness.
There is also the mysterious and somewhat impulsive writing that shows up on the whiteboard where he keeps track of the hospice patients; from someone named Abra – a name that he had unthinkingly written in his notebook days earlier. She appears to be reaching out to him, in an artless and unguarded manner. He assumes it is someone with the shining, probably someone young, who knows nothing of the import of what her reaching out portends. He is intrigued, but is unwilling to push back, to upset the tenuous balance that he hopes he has found.
Abra is indeed young; an 11 year old girl living in the nearby town of Anniston. She shines, powerfully so. Living in a well adjusted, well educated and fairly well off family, her “peculiarities” were considered more bafflingly eccentric than dangerous; she was not a haunted child. She understood from a young age that she was different, and those differences upset her parents, so she kept them secret; she only lost control of them when she lost her temper.
But her shining unknowingly attracts another element, a far more sinister one. A centuries old cadre of evil, who feed off the essence of the shining in the very young, have camouflaged themselves as “RV folks”, masquerading as harmless rubes.
You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones.
But they are anything but mild. They suck the shining essence of these children out, piquing it higher through torture and fear. They call this essence “steam”, and it sustains them, gives them eternal life, and power. They call themselves the True Knot, and they consider each other family although they have not been born, they have been turned. Led by bewitching, heady Rose the Hat (so named due to her penchant for wearing a miniature top hat on her raven black hair), they are pure, selfish, powerful evil. And they have caught the scent of Abra. Now they hunt for her.
Stephen King takes all of these compelling elements and weaves them together, loosely at first while he builds his characters, allowing us to befriend – or fear – them before pulling the strings into a tautly ratcheting dynamic. We fear for the climax that is to come, and we have a right to fear, for there is so much at stake, for Dan, for Abra, for Rose and the True Knot, and for us as bystanders. Reading Doctor Sleep, it got so that I was afraid to turn the next page, scared to death for what might happen, but unable to stop, compelled to continue even though I was so afraid of what each new page might hold.
A master of horror, indeed.
I’ve heard that some readers feel that Doctor Sleep is not one of Stephen King’s best; they call it soft, and missing the “wonderfully evil” characters of his earlier work. I wonder if we are reading the same book as I was, for I found the members of the True Knot to be absolutely terrifying, perhaps because they so easily passed as “normal” in our everyday world. The scenes in the book that were gritty were stickily so, the passages that were gruesome did not ease up, in detail or outcome, but they also did not happen often enough to allow me to become numb and impatient with the element of “been there, done that” which seems to permeate lesser works that aim to shock first and build the story as a second thought. For me, the storytelling in Doctor Sleep was exceptionally strong, making the threat of lingering nightmares worth taking.
Once I read the last page of Doctor Sleep, and closed the cover, I did what I always do after reading anything by Stephen King – I gave a quiet prayer of thanks that I live a boring, uneventful, mundane life. And now, thanks to this book, I will never, ever look at a caravan of Winnebagos the same, ever again.