Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

In 1977 Stephen King gifted the world of horror fiction with a simple, elegant ghost story. The Shining was King’s third published novel and is still considered by many of his fans as one of the best novels he’s written. Among most King fans, there’s a general consensus that the books he wrote in his early days are his best. The rankings change, but most discussions about the “best” of Stephen King start with The Shining, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and Pet Sematary. There’s also strong support for It and The Dark Tower series, but to this reader both of those works suffered from severe cases of bloat.

One of King’s saving graces is that even when his novels are overstuffed they’re so easy to read that the extraneous pages zip by without much effort being required. Of course, this is also a criticism…the pages that are crucial to the story also pass quickly without much effort. For this reason, many of King’s novels are fairly forgettable. Does anyone really have any memory about the plot points of From A Buick 8? Insomnia? Lisey’s Story? Needful Things?

This isn’t true of his earlier novels. King’s early work benefited greatly from being shorter and simpler than most of his recent novels. Carrie, clocking in at under 300 pages, was about a girl with telekinesis. ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. The Shining was a ghost story. Pet Sematary was, in essence, a zombie story. They were brief, intense, and very memorable. Compare these streamlined tales with the sprawling mess of Under The Dome or the alternate world-hopping of the thousands of pages that make up The Dark Tower.

Now King has released his first proper sequel (not counting Black House, his collaborative effort with Peter Straub that was ostensibly a sequel to The Talisman but was more closely affiliated with The Dark Tower). Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance, the little boy with the big shine who barely escaped the swinging roque mallet and possessed countenance of his father at the Overlook Hotel. Dan is now an adult with a serious drinking problem, restlessly moving from one spot to another, looking for any place he can call home. His mother is now deceased, as is Dick Hallorann. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel continued to plague him for years after the boiler blew the place sky-high, but Dan has learned how to lock the ghosts away in his subconscious, a plot point with much potential that never goes anywhere.

The bulk of the novel focuses on a newly sober Dan, in touch with a girl named Abra Stone. Abra has the shining as well, the brightest ever seen, and she is in danger from a group of psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot.

It is this group, semi-immortal beings that feed off the psychic energy of children with the shining by torturing them to death and inhaling their essence, that ultimately undermines a story with a great deal of promise. The brief description of The True Knot is compelling, but the execution falls very far short. They are possibly the least effective villains King has ever created.

To all outward appearances, the True Knot seem to be middle-aged and elderly people who drive all over the country in tricked out RV campers. While their true age can be hundreds of years, they remain susceptible to disease, accident, and any of the other millions of ways mere mortals can die. Fairly early in the novel they kidnap, torture, and inhale the shining of a boy who has the measles. Because they are not immune, the True Knot then begins dying off from the measles. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, in their hundreds of years doing this, they had ever before met a child with a communicable disease. Apparently not.

The group’s leader, an Irish woman named Rose The Hat because of the top hat she wears, believes that if the group can get Abra Stone’s powerful shine into their systems that it will cure them. The problem is that the True Knot is about as competent as the Keystone Kops. Whenever Rose attempts to establish a psychic link with Abra, the young girl swats her aside effortlessly. The attempt to kidnap Abra is successful, but results in the deaths of almost the entire kidnapping party. The kidnapping itself is short-lived. A trap is then set by Dan Torrance, Abra’s father, and Dan’s friends from the local Alcoholics Anonymous. With very little drama, almost the entirety of the True Knot is dispatched, leaving only two survivors of the group. They, too, are easily taken care of.

The set up for the novel works. The True Knot’s base of operations is a campground in Colorado, on the site of the old Overlook Hotel, which brings Dan back to that haunted ground for the first time since the Peanut Farmer was President. It’s easy to see the potential here: Dan Torrance is back at the site of the Overlook; his subconscious is stuffed full of the ghosts that called the Overlook home; he is engaging in a pitched battle with psychic vampires who want to swallow the essence of his shining. All of this time I thought, Here it comes…Dan’s going to release them…the woman from 217, Horace Derwent, Lloyd the bartender…and the full battle will be on between the ghosts and the True Knot with Dan and Abra guiding the action with the shining. Pretty cool, huh?

Yeah, but none of that happens. The ghosts stay in Dan’s subconscious. Abra is thousands of miles away from the action and never in real danger. The True Knot puts up a fight worthy of a bunch of easily tricked, elderly people with the measles. And then it’s over.

The problem that plagues Doctor Sleep is that you never feel like the good guys are in any real danger. They’re constantly one step ahead of the True Knot. There is good in the novel. King’s portrayal of Dan Torrance is terrific, and the interactions between Dan and Abra are real and warm. There are enough connections to The Shining to make it a genuine sequel, even if the connections are never built upon. But Stephen King novels rise or fall on the strength of the villains, and the True Knot are as scary and intimidating as a group of mischievous puppies. That makes Doctor Sleep a huge disappointment. The Shining, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, deserves better.

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Under The Dome: Stephen King’s Ham-Fisted Politics

Reading Stephen King’s latest novel, Under The Dome, is a lot like running a marathon. The experience is enjoyable, you’re glad you finished it, and it’s exhausting. Just holding this 1,072 page doorstop of a book is enough to get your arm muscles nicely toned.

As usual, the setting is small town Maine. His old standbys of Castle Rock and Derry have been replaced with Chester’s Mill, but it’s indistinguishable from any other small town in Stephen King’s Maine. What separates Chester’s Mill from all the other towns is an invisible dome that conforms perfectly to the surveyed margins of the town. This dome descends so suddenly that a small plane is suddenly sliced in two, creating the first casualties. Trucks and cars on the road out of and into town slam into the invisible barrier, people walking suddenly end up with broken noses. Worse, there seems to be some sort of energy field near the barrier that causes electronic devices with batteries to explode if they get too close, as the town’s chief law enforcement officer discovers when the pacemaker in his heart explodes out of his chest, killing him instantly. It is this death that allows much of what happens afterwards to proceed, as there is now a vacuum of leadership at the law enforcement level, a vacuum that is immediately filled by the town’s Second Selectman, the corrupt and murderous Big Jim Rennie.

Stephen King novels succeed or fail largely based on the caliber of the villain. The malevolent spirits in The Shining, the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, the shape-shifting demon Randall Flagg who pops up in several books but most famously in The Stand, Pennywise the Clown in It, and even the rabid St. Barnard in Cujo all made excellent villains and excellent novels. Conversely, the already dead aliens in The Tommyknockers, the pawn shop evil guy in Needful Things, the abusive husband in Dolores Claiborne, and the evil government agents of Firestarter were pretty lame, and the novels were equally bad. Add Big Jim Rennie to the latter category, but make him the exception that proves the rule.

Stephen King has always been a liberal or left-of-center guy, but he was always more interested in scaring you or giving you a good story than he was in beating you over the head with a political message. His one previous overtly political book, the anti-nuclear power novel The Tommyknockers is possibly the worst novel of his career, a novel so spectacularly uninteresting that it was barely readable. True, almost all of his novels have had a few political asides thrown in, and there was little doubt about which side of the political spectrum his heroes inhabited, but the sort of political hectoring that is found in Under The Dome is rare in King’s canon.

Maybe the eight years of the Bush presidency were simply too much for King, because Under The Dome‘s villains are devoutly Republican evangelical Christians who murder, rape, and operate the nation’s largest methamphetamine lab while quoting the Bible and racistly raging against the black man with the terrorist middle name who sits in the Oval Office. In case you don’t get the point, Big Jim Rennie even has a picture of himself with Sarah Palin prominently displayed on his desk. I have almost no doubt that King’s model for Rennie was some leftist cartoon version of Dick Cheney, right down to the heart condition.

For the hero of the novel, King writes the tale of Dale Barbara, a serviceman who is making his way through the world trying to rid himself of the terrible memories of torture and murder he witnessed American servicemen performing on innocent Iraqis in Fallujah. Iraqis who carried pictures of themselves with their wives and children, just to underscore that they were decent family men and not IED-planting bombers…not that it made any difference to those cruel American soliders who wantonly tortured and murdered them. Oh, buh-rother…can I get some cheese to go with that ham?

The other heroes include a minister who no longer believes in God, an older professor whose gray ponytail lets you know that he’s a Sixties type of guy, and the Republican editor of the local newspaper (helpfully called the Democrat). Fear not, though…whenever the editor speaks out for doing the right thing, or speaks against the corruption of Jim Rennie, or disapproves of the brown-shirt tactics of the newly recruited police force Dale tells her that she “doesn’t sound like a Republican.” Because, you know, Republicans are all in favor of murder, staged riots, brown shirt police force tactics, and corrupt politicians. Well, at least in Stephen King’s world.

The problem with Big Jim Rennie is not that he is insufficiently evil. He’s incredibly evil. The problem is that he’s a Left-wing cartoon of a Christian conservative, and he’s about as believable as Roger Rabbit. In fact, the small town of Chester’s Mill is actually a hotbed of sociopathic miscreants. Who could know that in a town of about 2000 people in Maine you would find so many people willing to murder, rape, and commit arson on the command of an overweight selectman with a bad ticker? And not only is Rennie the power behind the local government, he’s also the main operator of one of the largest meth labs in the entire nation, presided over by a strung out tweaker who…wait for it…runs the Christian music radio station where the meth lab is hidden and who also quotes the Bible in between pipe hits.

The Dome itself is almost secondary in the novel. It’s really just a device that allows this parable of how fascism can be generated by a crisis (if you’re thinking about Bush and 9/11 right now, you must have read the book). The resolution of The Dome is oddly perfunctory. The ending seems almost as if King was running out of typing paper and needed to wrap it up quickly. SPOILER: The Dome is generated by a device implanted by alien children who seem to be playing a game with the inhabitants of the town, similar to how young children will turn the sun’s rays against an ant hill with a magnifying glass. After attempts are made to breach the Dome from the outside with bullets, acid, and even a Cruise missile, the editor of the newspaper comes up with a brilliant idea. She simply begs the alien children to stop, and they say okay. The end.

Unfortunately, almost everyone in the town is dead by this point, courtesy of a massive fireball that was set off when the huge propane tanks fueling the meth lab were blown up. The fireball scorches everything in its way and leaves the air under the dome largely unbreathable. Of course, Jim Rennie escapes the fireball but dies choking on bad air and clutching his heart after being visited by the spirits of those people he killed. You can almost see King sitting at his computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, saying, “Yeah! Take that, Cheney!”

King fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism on a conscious level, but on an unconscious level, perhaps even King gets it. Jim Rennie seeks power with an undying thirst, but he explains to one of his henchmen that he seeks power in order to help the people. “Our job, Carter, is to take care of them. We may not like it, we may not always think they’re worth it, but it’s the job God gave us.” Frankly, this is close to the motivation behind every politician who feels that he or she knows better how to spend our money and legislate our lives than it does those who want a smaller, more limited government. Rennie is not speaking of the downtrodden or disenfranchised, he’s speaking of the entire town population. Indeed, his entire mission throughout the book is to immanentize the eschaton, and just like every other totalitarian in history, he seeks his own unique brand of perfection.

Further undermining the novel is the speed with which events take place. Chester’s Mill is a quiet suburban town where the people live their normal lives. Then the Dome comes down and the town devolves into a fascist dictatorship within the span of one week. Rennie’s actions to assume total control begin within hours of the Dome’s arrival, as if he never even considered that the Dome might disappear and he would be held to account for what he does. The townspeople, flush with plenty of food in the store, cell phone service, internet service and even electrical power in homes that have generators (not uncommon in the brutal winters of Maine), become a rioting mob within days. Apparently King’s lack of faith in human nature isn’t limited to Republicans. Far from calamity bringing people together, as 9/11 showed, King seems to believe that we’re one invisible wall and a few hours away from tossing aside hundreds of years of the Rule of Law.

Despite all of these criticisms, Under The Dome is actually a very enjoyable novel. It moves briskly, the plot is interesting, the protagonists are likable, and the villains, while not believable, are at least sufficiently rotten. The politics of the book are ham-fisted and clunky, and the resolution of the plot is lame…over a thousand pages into this thing and they simply ask the aliens to stop? And they do? But it’s a diverting page-turner, and King is a much better writer than most of the people out there plowing the same field.

Just After Sunset, by Stephen King

Fresh from the stellar return-to-form novel, Duma Key, Stephen King is back with his latest collection of short stories, Just After Sunset (not to be confused with Four Past Midnight). It’s an apt title. These are not the standard King horror stories of the darkest nights. These are twilight tales. Horror is present, but it exists on the edges, lurking in the lengthy shadows of sunset.

What you get with Just After Sunset is standard King. All of the conventions of his style are present, and it is (in King’s own words) the "literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." I think King sells himself short with that facile quip. At his best, King has written tales of horror that rank with the very best. The Shining can sit proudly on the bookshelf next to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting Of Hill House, and ‘Salem’s Lot (despite a few "young author" missteps) is a worthy addition to vampire literature. At his worst, King can be terrible (The Tommyknockers, Needful Things).

The stories in Just After Sunset range in between. Only one story, the cryptically titled "N." really rises to the highest standards of King’s earlier short fiction. The story, as King admits in his notes, owes a great debt to Arthur Machen’s "The Great God Pan," but also at least a passing shout out to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu myth. This tale of obsession and the fabric of reality stretched thin is the high-water mark of the book. The rest of the tales fall below that standard.

The oddest story, from a stylistic perspective, is "The Cat From Hell." This is the closest story in the book to the ones you will find in King’s earliest collection, Night Shift. The reason is that this is the oldest story in the book, written when King was an unproven author selling stories to men’s magazines for money to pay the phone bill. As such, the story has a kind of heat and intensity that most of the other tales lack. King may be a better writer today, but he was a far more intense writer back then. To make a musical analogy, Eric Clapton may be a better guitar player than he was in 1965, but the young buck’s recordings with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers have a heat and intensity that the elder statesman is missing.

Most of the other stories are creepy, though none are really scary. "Willa" is a nice, but forgettable, tale of true love in a dive bar; "Ayana" posits a miracle worker who passes her gift on, but with a price; "Mute" is a tale of guilt with a Strangers On A Train-type setup; "The New York Times At Special Bargain Rates" bears a resemblance to a story King wrote many years ago for the television show Tales From the Dark Side; "The Things They Left Behind" is a touching story of trying to come to grips with life in a post-9/11 world. On this last story, King strikes all the right notes.

Perhaps most notable is "A Very Tight Place." The final story in the book is not a great tale but it does give King the one opportunity in the book to really go for the gross-out: in this case a man trapped in a Port-A-John that has been tipped over onto its door. The gross-out here is not one of dismembered bodies or strewn viscera, but more natural bodily functions. There’s nothing supernatural or even horrific in this story (well…the poor guy getting covered in human waste is pretty horrible, but you know what I mean), and the conclusion is pretty limp, but there’s no question that the story is memorable. The problem is that it is memorable for the setup, whereas a story like "N." is memorable because it is a great story written well.

Most of the rest aren’t all that memorable. There’s nothing that compares to Skeleton Crew‘s "The Mist" and "The Raft," or Night Shift‘s "Strawberry Spring" and "I Am The Doorway." But there’s also nothing here that is a complete waste of time, either. The stories are good. Nothing more (except, again, for "N."), nothing less. Here’s hoping his next novel picks up with the same focus on character and story that made Duma Key so surprisingly refreshing, and not where "A Very Tight Place" leaves off.