It’s a double bill weekend for me. I started and finished reading Doctor Sleep by Stephen King yesterday — an easy task because the story just zips along and King is in familiar territory — and started today on Night Film, Marisha Pessl’s sophomore outing after her well-publicized debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
Night Film centers on the twin investigation of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath into the mysterious death of Ashley Cordova, a young musical prodigy and daughter of the mysterious Stanislas Cordova, who is described as one of cinema’s most enigmatic and mysterious horror-film directors and whose movies have inspired a cult following. From the way Cordova is described, I’d imagine him to be a cross between reclusive Stanley Kubrick and horror schlockmeister Dario Argento. I’m only in the first few chapters, but already there are hints of dark dealings and forays into dark magic. Cordova is well-known for his weird working practices, affairs and sexual (mis)adventures and the terrifying nature of his movies, on which the film community and the public are divided. One side wants his films banned and burned while the other side has developed a cultish devotion to his works, with fans holding midnight screenings of his work in undisclosed locations. Most of his films are only available on bootleg. The story opens with the death of Ashley, the reclusive director’s “intense” daughter, an apparent suicide. “Apparent” because Scott McGrath, disgraced veteran journalist (disgraced because he once proclaimed on national TV that Cordova is a sociopath and “needs to be exterminated with extreme prejudice,” based on an anonymous phone call by someone named “John” who said he was Cordova’s driver), thinks there is more to the story and decides to investigate.
I’m only in the first few chapters of the book and while it shows promise, I have a feeling that Pessl bit off more than she could handle with this novel. It’s one thing to actually tell your readers that dark, mysterious and forboding things are afoot, it’s another to actually make good on the promise. Unlike Special Topics, which was infused with the charm and obnoxious intelligence of its teenage protagonist, Blue, Night Film is a bit sluggish and dreary. It’s too soon to say if the pace picks up and Pessl actually delivers on her premise, so I am reserving judgement on this until I finish the novel.
Pretty much delivering on its promise is Doctor Sleep, King’s follow up to the cultish The Shining, which has often been lauded in listicles as one of the scariest King novels of all time. I was in college when I read The Shining and while it wasn’t scary for me (IT would be my scariest King novel), it did manage to expose some deep-seated anxieties in readers. After all, hotels, because of their function as homes away from home for travelers, therefore strangers, going from points A to B, are perfect venues for horror plot points. Who hasn’t after all been creeped out about empty hotel corridors or wondered about the previous occupants about the room one is staying? Add to this Stanley Kubrick’s film based on the novel, and a cult is born.
Doctor Sleep takes up decades after the events in The Shining. Young Danny Torrance, who was five when the Overlook burned down, is now a recovering alcoholic in his 30s. His gift — the “shining” — is still there, but it’s been tamped down, blunted by years of abuse. Then he meets young Abra Stone, who is an even more powerful telepath than he was. Abra is being hunted by the mysterious True Knot, psychic vampires who torture and kill kids with the shine to drink in their powers, which they call “steam.” What ensues is a story, that while it echoes the first book, is very much its own creature. While The Shining was claustrophobic and dark, Doctor Sleep goes about at a fast clip with plot point upon exciting plot point added up to the inevitable showdown with the baddies.
In the novel, Danny or Dan, as he is now known, is struggling with three things: Alcoholism, a violent temper and revenants from the Overlook. Stands to reason: Anyone who’s ever experienced what he did, and given his abilities, will have psychic and emotional scars he wants to forget. And there is solace in the bottom of a liquor bottle.
The Shining was about an alcoholic writer written by an alcoholic and drug addict. Doctor Sleep is about a recovering alcoholic written by a recovering alcoholic. It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallelisms. Of course, Stephen King being what he is, there are more than one Higher (or maybe other?) Power in the book and Dan’s inner demons are but a few of them. What’s great about the baddies here, is while they may be scary and repulsive, they are also sympathetic. We see that they have a sense of family, know how to love and have moments of tenderness. As one of the baddies said, “We didn’t choose who we are.” There’s a scene where, as some of the True Knot are being killed, two embrace and say “I love you” before they die. Affecting.
It’s a conceit in King’s universe that magic and the supernatural are rarely explained, which is what makes his stories scary. The vampire may or may not be vanquished by garlic and silver could have no effect on a werewolf. You’re not even sure the bad things are dead by the end of the book (as evidenced by the appearance of deadly ghosties from The Shining appearing here). In the King canon, magic is just is, which would be infuriating in a lesser writer, but with King’s storytelling abilities, we accept it. His greatest strength as a writer is to make even the most outlandish stories believable or at the very least, relatable and recognisable. The supernatural juju is grounded, more often than not by cultural ephemera. In his earlier novels it was all about rock and roll and music. This time, he references Game of Thrones, Sons of Anarchy and even Twilight. So bottomline: Doctor Sleep is the perfect weekend book for King fans. Non-King fans will also find it an easy read. Maybe easier than The Shining, actually.