Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What I Learned From Stephen King

When my twin sister and I were eight or nine years old, we were visiting our grandfather and step-grandmother (also my great-aunt, but that's another story, and not scandalous) in Charleston, South Carolina. We were driving through the Lowcountry when we passed a caravan of red-haired people who looked unusual, almost like circus folk. I asked who they were.

"Those people are tinkers," said my step-grandmother Rita. "You stay away from them. They steal children."

Now I know those people were Travelers, probably going to the beach the same way we were, or maybe heading to some construction job. But as a child the idea of a child-stealing band of tinkers made my blood run cold, and Stephen King's latest book, DOCTOR SLEEP, brought all that back to me.

DOCTOR SLEEP is the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to THE SHINING by Stephen King, and went on sale today. Through the generosity of a friend, I've already read a review copy, but will be buying my own finished copy as soon as my bank account recovers from Bouchercon.

The question to be asked of any sequel is whether it's necessary. THE SHINING leaves little unresolved at its conclusion — an ending, by the way, that differs considerably from the movie's. But Stephen King has said in interviews that people would occasionally ask what happened to Danny Torrance, the mysteriously gifted child at the center of THE SHINING, and one of that book's survivors. He says he wrote DOCTOR SLEEP, in part, because he wondered that himself. The world can be a dangerous place for gifted children, and an extraordinary child's gifts don't necessarily equip them for adulthood. DOCTOR SLEEP is built around these two insights, as well as the central premise of King's classic novel PET SEMATARY: "Sometimes, dead is better."

Danny Torrance, whose gifts were so terrible — but also saved his life and his mother's — grows up to become a wreck of a man, a drunk and a drifter and even a thief, before he arrives in a small New Hampshire town that offers a chance at redemption. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Danny builds a new life for himself as a hospice orderly with another special talent: the ability to ease the dying into their final sleep. But he still shines, and nearby is another child with the same extraordinary gift, perhaps even more powerful. This is Abra, and it's not too long before Danny realizes that Abra's talent has made her the target of some very nasty people indeed.

DOCTOR SLEEP holds its own as a powerful, insightful horror novel, but also reminds me of how much Stephen King has taught me about the way the world works. SALEM'S LOT was my introduction to his works, sometime in seventh grade or maybe the summer after. I had never been so scared by a book, and rushed to read everything else I could find — at the time, only CARRIE, which was terrifying for a whole different set of reasons, and THE SHINING, which I checked out in hardcover from the library on the Naval Amphibious Base. In the years that followed I read every book as it came out, saving up my money for hardcovers (although, like some others, I never committed to The Dark Tower).

I am not exaggerating when I say that Stephen King taught me what to expect from the world: from friends, from family, from employers, from love, from loss. From THE DEAD ZONE, which I reread at least once a year, I learned that true love doesn't always end in marriage, and that sometimes you have to do what's right even if people think you're crazy. From CHRISTINE I learned that lifelong friendships can't always last, and from IT I learned that sometimes they can. From CUJO and PET SEMATARY I learned about the lies parents tell themselves and the lies husbands and wives tell each other. From MISERY I learned — well, I keep those lessons in mind every day as a publicist and author's assistant.

DOCTOR SLEEP continues my education about life. King returns to themes he's explored in earlier novels, but is powerfully insightful about the nitty-gritty of redemption and mercy. This book taught me more about the mechanics of AA than I've ever known, though I have friends who have been in that program for decades. But most of all it taught me about how one comes to terms with the end of a life, and how peaceful and welcome that can be. DOCTOR SLEEP is the work of a man who's thought a lot about the end of his own life — understandable, given his near-death experience in 1999 — and is curious and at peace about whatever comes next.

Let's hope that whatever that is, he doesn't find out first-hand for a long, long time. Thank you, Mr. King, for my education.


Unknown said...

I really love it when authors tell us stories involving characters from their other works. Neil Gaiman does this well (Anansi Boys being a good example). But you can also see this at work in Faulkner's recurring characters like Ab Snopes or in Twain's Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer. Great review. I can't wait to read this one.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Clair. I haven't read everything, but I've read most of them. Ant not the Dark Tower (yet). Hope to see you in Long Beach.

-- John Schramm