The Short Version: In 1977, The Overlook Hotel burned to the ground. The caretaker, Jack Torrance, died but his wife and son managed to escape the blaze – although whether they ever truly escaped what happened there is up for debate. Young Danny, now Dan, has turned to drinking to dull his shine – but right around the time he decides to get clean, a young girl named Abra is born. Abra’s shine is infinitely more powerful than Dan’s and before long, she’s attracted the attention of some awful folk known as the True Knot – once human, they live off the ‘steam’ that comes from a dying person with the shine. And they’re gunning for young Abra, with only Dan Torrance and a few faithful friends standing in their way.
The Review: There’s something of a rite around any new Stephen King release. There are so few authors these days – even ones I adore – whose books pretty much demand to be purchased and read as soon as humanly possible. But Uncle Stevie has this pull, one I’d liken to the way readers (supposedly) used to clamor for new installments of novels by Dickens. I have read most of King’s post-accident ouvre and a smattering of the great novels from before – and I don’t have any problem saying (now and as I have said previously, I believe) that he is America’s greatest living author. He is our modern-day Dickens – not in terms of his content, although I’m sure an enterprising undergrad could argue otherwise, but in terms of his storytelling abilities.
This is not to say that the content isn’t there on some level. Indeed, this book nearly capsizes early on because of the content: alcoholism. The first chunk of the book is dedicated to catching us up with Danny Torrance and seeing just how low he’s sunk. Jack Torrance, as we all remember (in one form or another), was a mighty drunk – and King himself has talked of how drug and drink both cloud the memories of some early novels, almost to the point of obscurity. So then why not take the survivor of arguably his most famous creation and pull him forward to the present – giving him, along the way, a struggle that might in some ways match King’s own. See, this story feels intensely personal for King and in a way that, without even dealing with the content/form of the rest of the novel, justifies the telling. There are things here that I think we, his faithful readers, might not fully understand – and that we might not need to, but that are here nonetheless and that’ve done our faithful author’s imagination a solid just by being told.
Of course, I might just be reading into things. He might just want to tell a good old fashioned horror story – and in that pursuit, he does pretty much succeed. Oh, this book won’t scare the daylights out of you like some of the classic novels – The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, It, even The Stand had greater scares than this – but you’ll be looking askance at Winnebagos when they pass you on the highway for a while, that’s for damn sure. And Rose the Hat ranks up there with some of King’s great evil creatures: completely inhuman and yet so very fundamentally human as well – and sexy to boot. The Knot, in general, are strong in execution – even as they remain a little hazy in the mind’s eye.
The biggest issue going into this book, of course, is the ‘necessity’ of it. Why write a sequel to The Shining? How could it possibly measure up? But the thing is, even while this book returns us (both literally and metaphorically) to the terrain of that seminal novel, it never feels like it is trying to measure up. Through some magic of magicks, King manages to write a sequel without showing any signs of it necessarily being a sequel. Sure there are references that you might not get if you’re unfamiliar (and, for those who’ve only seen the movie… you are unfamiliar) but King also does a pretty decent job of keeping the novel somewhat contained. This is about a man who nearly lost himself to a disease and the young girl who might just be his savior, in a way – and the creatures out to get them both. And it’s here that King succeeds, as he always does.
Critics who slag off King’s writing – for whatever reason; being genre, being simple, being colloquial, etc – miss a very fundamental aspect of the man’s work: he writes like ordinary people. If the most ‘exciting’ thing (in terms of basic plot) about The Hobbit (as an example) was an ordinary person caught up in an extraordinary adventure, King’s work is about the extraordinary that can be found all around us even in the midst of the ordinary. It’s just that his extraordinary takes on a slightly more… strange glimmer. He’s the heir to Bradbury too, you realize – writing an America that feels so perfectly nostalgic while also seeming completely of-our-moment is an incredible gift. Summers in King’s world are bright and warm and the sunsets last forever, fall is full of color and leaves, winter crisp and cold and fresh, and spring bursts with life. It’s all how you remember your childhood, only with the addition of some terrifying creatures – and terrifying people. One of the scariest things about the True Knot is the fact that they are, deep down, people – or they were, anyway. In an early scene, when Rose turns a new member of the Knot, it seems both horrifying and completely understandable – from the single perspective of being human. And while King’s recent work has “shown his humanity” and “maturity” and blah blah blah… this book might be the most human yet, in a way far different from any of the other books. It took bringing back a character who’s never had a single moment to just be himself in order to show us a mirror of who we can all be, when stripped down to just that: our selves.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. Not only is this book better than it has any right to be (I mean, come on, a sequel to The Shining should never have worked out) but it’s such a terrific distillation of everything that makes King’s work great. If you have problems with his work, then sure, you’ll find all of those problems here. But last night I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to bed until I’d read the last 150 pages of this book – and goddamn, but that was a good decision. Uncle Stevie wishes us long days and pleasant nights at the end – and I say right back “may you have twice the number”, Uncle Stevie. How can I even describe how good your work continues to be?
A Faithful Reader
PS: for fans of the King family and the King Unified World, keep your eyes peeled for two little NOS4A2 references that’ll make you smile.