Book Review: Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

cover of Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long-awaited sequel to The Shining.  Doctor Sleep finally tells us the fate of Danny Torrance, who was a little boy in The Shining.  Like his father, Dan battles alcoholism and a temper.  He is also plagued by psychic insights and visions.  During the course of the book, Dan hits bottom, enters recovery, and finds a use for his gift.  He works as an aide in hospice centers, and is able to help people die, not by giving them more fatal drugs but by guiding them into their final sleep.  It is this talent that gives the book its title.

Danny also becomes the mentor and protector of a little girl, Abra, whose psychic gifts are far more powerful than Danny’s.  Then Abra becomes the target of a group of monstrous humans who feed on the souls of psychic children, Danny has to risk his life to save her.

There are tons of reviews of this book on the Internet, so I’m just going to hit on the things that struck me the most.  One, of course, is Stephen King’s gift of making the mundane terrifying.  In this book, scary things happen in bathrooms, and in suburban homes, and in RV parks.  I’ll never look at a Winnebago the same way again.  King has always been good at finding horror in every day things – a car, a dog (and a broken down car), a case of the sniffles.  And this book is never stronger than when it makes the everyday world scary.  It’s that kind of creep factor that makes me unable to sleep with the book in my room.  The book is angry.  It has to sleep elsewhere.

Here’s another thing – like The Shining, this book is about alcoholism.  The Shining was written by Stephen King while he was drinking, and Doctor Sleep was written after years of sobriety.  It shows.  To me, the scary thing about The Shining was the moments when Jack’s son would look at him, or Wendy would look at him, and they would realize that he was simply not there anymore.  I have some experience with that sensation and it’s far more terrifying than dead bodies in bathrooms.

The most riveting moment in Doctor Sleep, the moment that most had me vibrating with anxiety, comes when Dan sits on a bench with a bottle and tries to decide whether or not to drink it.  The most touching moments come from his community of fellow AA members who are constantly trying their best to come through for one another – whether that means pouring a cup of coffee or fighting demonic hordes.  I’m grateful to this review (from The Guardian) for pointing out that the Bad Guys are also addicts, but they refuse to take responsibility for their addiction or their actions.

This book isn’t so much a battle between “Good” and “Evil” as it is between responsibility and carelessness.  The Baddies are careless with the lives of others.  They are totally unrepentant for the suffering they cause, claiming that they HAVE to do these things.  They are BORN that way.  Dan and his ragtag team are deeply flawed people who have hurt many, many people in their lives.  But they are trying to take responsibility.  They acknowledge that alcoholism has a genetic component but they refuse to hide behind that fact.  This whole book is one big amends, in a good way.  And the greatest victory isn’t the one over the supernatural bad guys.  It happens when Dan tells a secret – not a supernatural secret, just a sad, shameful secret about the carelessness he himself took with the lives of others when he was drinking.

Actually, a huge portion of this book is about telling the truth.  Frankly, it’s a bit overdone for the purposes of narrative flow.  Dan has to explain things to himself, to his boss, to a sympathetic doctor, to Abra, to Abra’s parents, to Abra’s grandmother – I’m surprised he doesn’t just stand around with a cardboard sign listing the basic facts of the plot.  But all this explaining shows us that this world is real, and messy, and that people work together more effectively when they know what’s going on.

I’m not sure Doctor Sleep is King’s best book – but it’s a very, very good one.  And, unlike a lot of horror, there’s a point to people’s actions.  The book isn’t nihilistic.  It’s pretty warm and fuzzy, all things considered.  It left me feeling hopeful that people can step up, can create goodness, even against great odds.

Book Club Friday: Let’s Talk About Ligeia

SWT-Book-ClubsIt’s Edgar Allan Poe month here at our Friday Book Club column, and today’s feature could just as easily be entitled, “What the Hell is going on in ‘Ligeia’?  ‘Ligeia’ is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1863.  Poe writes a lot of stories with unreliable narrators and cliffhanger endings, but this may be the king of them all.  If you don’t want to find out what happens in ‘Ligeia’, than stop reading here, for SPOILERS ABOUND.  If you live in the Sacramento area, come visit our in-person book club at Arden Dimick Library, at 2PM on September 22nd, and in the meantime, or if you are out of the area, you can participate by leaving a comment.

Snarky Summary of the Story:

‘Ligeia’ is narrated by a narrator who is so unreliable that he follows almost every observation by pointing out that he was, after all, really stoned at the time (he’s an opium addict).  This narrator starts off by saying that he was madly in love with this woman, Ligeia, and married to her, and she was totally perfect although she’s hard to describe, and he can’t remember when he met her, and he can’t remember anything about her family but he’s sure they’re just great, and he never did learn her last name.

Ligea was incredibly smart (“I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia – it was immense – such as I have never known in a woman”).  And Ligea was perfectly beautiful, but hard to describe.  She had a perfect nose, and perfect skin, and she was tall and thin, and had black hair.  Her most amazing feature was her eyes.  And she loves the narrator passionately:

That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only, was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be so blessed by such confessions? –how had I deserved to be so cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them, But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only, that in Ligeia’s more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognized the principle of her longing with so wildly earnest a desire for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing –it is this eager vehemence of desire for life –but for life –that I have no power to portray –no utterance capable of expressing.

Alas, Ligeia gets sick and dies.  The narrator expects her to face death with stoic courage, but Ligeia is determined to fight it off through sheer force of will.  Her last words are a quote from Joseph Glanville:  “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”

In the mundane world, people deal with grief by staring at huge piles of casseroles.  But this is the gothic genre, so the narrator moves to The Rhine, buys a “castellated abbey”, decorates it in gloomy and macabre furnishings, and remarries.  He marries The Lady Rowena, who is Ligeia’s opposite – she looks opposite, she never speaks a word in the story, and seems extraordinarily passive.  Immediately after the marriage, the narrator, who by this time is an extreme opium addict, detests her.  Rowena pines away in the Abbey of Horror and dies.  Her body is wrapped in shrouds and her face is covered.

But wait!  Rowena’s body shows signs of life – and then sinks back into death.  She stirs again and dies again, and this goes on through the night, until at last she rises and walks.  When the cover that conceals her face falls, the narrator sees that it is not Rowena who has returned from the grave – “Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never –can I never be mistaken –these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes –of my lost love –of the lady –of the LADY LIGEIA.”

Art by MirrorCradle

Art by MirrorCradle

Crack pot theory:

For a full analysis of this story, I recommend  I found ‘Ligeia’ to be baffling – what happened?  Why?  How?  This is a new story to me and I can’t stop thinking about it.  One moment I regard it with horror, the next I think it is strangely hilarious what with the narrator constantly having to explain that he thought it was weird that various things happened but he was really, really high at the time.  Apparently some critics believe that the story is a parody.  Obviously the story is a powerful one – I can tell, because I can’t stop thinking about it.  So, what the heck happens at the end, and how, and why?

We’re really not supposed to know what happens at the end.  Maybe Ligeia has come back to life.  Maybe the narrator is hallucinating the whole thing.  The ending is not only a mystery, but a cliffhanger.  Is Ligeia happy to be back?  Is she angry?  Is she a vampire/zombie/bad thing?  We don’t know.  But I have a crackpot theory.

Many people believe that the ending is a hallucination on the part of the narrator, but I have a theory – what if there is no Ligeia?  What if her existence was dreamed up by the narrator from the start?  This would explain the gaps in her backstory, her unusual appearance, and the fact that she seems too good to be true.  She seems like the perfect woman because that’s what the narrator created her to be.

If Ligeia is the perfect woman, than why would the narrator kill her off by fantasizing her death?  Well, I think the narrator overshot a little bit and created a woman who threatened him.  He clearly has some interesting gender hang-ups (her “unwomanly” displays of affection” are Victorian code for “her interest in sex was tacky”).  My guess is that the narrator longs for a perfect woman, but one that won’t threaten him sexually – he wants the egotistical gratification of Ligeia’s passionate expressions of love, and yet he seems to regard them with some distaste, calling them “immoderate”.

Ligeia is sexual, vibrant, and dominant – she helps him with his homework, she drives the relationship, he is child-like in her presence.  So the narrator, with mixed feelings (and all unconscious ones – he believes all this is real) tries to create a new fantasy woman.  Since Ligeia was too dominant, he will create a woman in his mind who is completely subservient – over whom he can exercise complete power.  This is, of course, Rowena.  He controls her body by keeping her a prisoner in the abbey.  He controls her mind by creating an atmosphere of oppressive horror.  But guess what – passive people are boring.  The narrator wants Ligeia back – and he gets her back by willing her back into existence.  But because he thinks his creations are real, he can’t just wave them away.  Rowena wants to live, and so does Ligeia, and so through the night they battle for supremacy.


The Mighty Power of Ligeia:

So, if the narrator wants Ligeia back, why is he horrified by Ligeia’s appearance?  I think he is ambivalent about what he wants (this helps explain why Rowena lives and dies over and over again, as he tries to make up his mind).  When faced with the reality of passive Rowena, he’s bored, but when faced with the reality of powerful Ligeia, he is terrified.  On some level, he wants to eliminate both women, in an effort to regain his sanity or in an unconcious effort to be free from entanglements.  But Ligeia, although she was created by him, has her own will, and she will not be cowed.  That’s why Ligeia doesn’t just kill Rowena – Rowena becomes Ligeia, the smart, strong-willed vision that refuses to go away.  Earlier I said that the narrator wills Ligeia back into existence, but I think to some extent she wills herself back into existence – he is too ambivalent about what he wants to truly desire her return.

The narrator makes it clear that he both admires and fears the living Ligeia.  I like to think that Ligeia represents the spirit of women who will not be silenced – not by society, not by law, not by abusive husbands or condescending expectations.  I doubt that this was what Poe intended – but he did know a lot of strong-willed women in his life, and he both desired and resented them for taking care of him (he refered to his wife as his “wife-mother”).  So maybe he did intend that message – regardless, I’m Team Ligeia.


Book Review: Sandman Slim

Cover of Sandman SlimI didn’t expect to like Sandman Slim (the first book in the Sandman Slim Series).  I thought it would be way too dark and violent and nihilist for me.  Turns out, it’s dark and violent (very, very graphically violent) – but it’s also incredibly funny and, dare I say it, pretty darn heart-warming.  Considering that it’s about a guy who escapes from Hell to murder the people who murdered his girlfriend, this comes as a surprise.

The main character, Stark, was part of a group of magicians in Los Angeles.  There was a falling out, and the group had him sent to Hell, where he spent eleven years fighting demons as a gladiator.  When he discovers that his girlfriend back on Earth has been murdered by the same people who sent him to Hell, he escapes, bent on vengeance.  Once he’s back on Earth, he gets pulled into all kinds of violent political struggles between various factions of angels and devils and supernatural beings, but he keeps his sights set (more or less literally) on revenge the whole time.

This book is as noir as noir can be.  You can’t beat it for trashy LA atmosphere.  And it’s cynical – but sort of not.  Oh, people in the book say cynical things constantly.  Incredibly cynical things, such as, “If I learned anything Downtown [Hell] it’s this:  the only real difference between an enemy and a friend is the day of the week.”

But at heart, it’s actually not cynical at all.  Stark projects himself as a loner, but within his first week on Earth he is surrounded by friends that he just can’t get rid of, no matter what day of the week it is – a bartender who feeds him, a video store clerk who wants to learn magic, an old friend/father figure, a crazy magical doctor and the doctor’s supernatural assistant.  Stark is ruthless in combat and makes dire threats that he says he’s ready to carry out, but he seems to have an aversion to just outright murdering someone even though that’s all he talks about.  Everyone he kills he kills in mid-combat (although, a lot of the time, he started the combat).  He also claims to be completely self-serving but he sure winds up saving stuff a lot.  I’d say the message of the book isn’t about how everything sucks, but about how to work through grief, and the importance of community, and finding your own path, even if you decide that your own path is that of being a freelance thief/magician/assassin for hire and you offer your services to both Lucifer and the Archangels in a kind of equal opportunity, annoy everyone scheme.

And if you like that dry, wise cracking wit that pervades noir, you’ll love this book.  It’s hard to find a book with a snarky disembodied head, but this book has one, and despite being severed it has the presence of mind to say, “Kiss my ass.  It’s over there across the room, so I’ll have a good view”.  The humor often takes the form of an unexpected parting line, as in this moment when one of Stark’s allies shows up unexpectedly to help him in a fight:

I’ve never seen a jade in full feral mode before.  Candy’s nails have curved into thick claws.  Her eyes are red slit pupils in a sea of black ice.  Her lips and tongue are as black as her eyes.  Her mouth has a slightly different shape…A mouthful of pretty white shark’s teeth.   She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in eleven years.  I want to have monster babies with her right here and now.

Which leads me to my one gripe – the book and women.  This book has a simply terrible case of Women in Refrigerators Syndrome.  The phrase “women in refrigerators” refers to an influential essay by Gail Simone that points out the disproportionate number of times that women in comics are killed or depowered purely to propel the male protagonist’s journey forward.  In Sandman Slim, everything is about, you guessed it, Sandman Slim (Stark’s nickname in Hell).  But a major motivation for him is that he can’t protect the women that he knows.  His enemies play on this.,  The murder of Alice starts the plot.  Allegra, the clerk who wants to learn magic, seems like a potentially exciting character but she is quickly regulated to making potions in a back room and being kidnapped (and sexually menaced by her kidnapper in front of Stark) as a way for the bad guy to get Stark to act.  At one point, the bad guy’s thugs shoot a woman to death that Stark doesn’t even know, just to piss him off.

Now, Stark himself is sexist in exactly the way you’d expect a nineteen year old boy to be (he goes to Hell at nineteen) but he also demonstrates a huge amount of respect and fondness for women who are mentally and/or physically tough (and different kinds of strength are represented in both male and female character, which I liked – some characters are physically powerful, others are brave and smart, some are both).  So for part of the book, I was actually pretty excited about the female characters.  But they are never able to defend themselves effectively and they end up serving as plot devices as victims (although they may have more development in the sequels).  The exception is Candy, who totally kick ass in a fight, but at the end of her one designated battle scene she’s too wounded to go further and by the end of the book she has been neatly regulated to the background again.  To be fair, pretty much everyone ends up in the background, because Stark is the Main Character, and he’s physically and magically superior to everyone because of Plot Twists and Background Story.  But the incessant theme of women not being able to protect themselves got real old, real fast.

Bottom line:  If you like noir, you’ll like this.  If you are squeamish about the following:  violence, sacrilege, or cursing, then you won’t.  I liked it much more than I expected to because of the well-written central character and the humor, but I hope the sequels treat women better, because Jeez that was rough going in some spots.  Whether I’m officially offended or not depends on how much the characters are able to develop in future books – Allegra shows tons of potential to be an interesting, rounded character if they let her, and I’d sure like to see more of Candy, whether she’s kicking ass or serving as a counterpart to Stark in terms of choices about violence.  If those characters get to develop and be more than victims, then I’d have no reservations about recommending the series to fans of noir and horror.  If the rest of the series consists of random women getting shot on the street, or supporting characters being tied up and molested, than yeah – I’m gonna go with offended.