Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The King Has Returned

Courtesy of  nydailynews.com
For a while, it seemed that the king of psychological horror books had stepped down.  Stephen King's books in the last decade have tended to be off-the-wall, weird, difficult to follow, and were just overall disjointed, badly written, and uninteresting.  Fans everywhere continued to buy the books and slouch through them, out of respect for his past works.  And then, in 2013, Doctor Sleep happened. With Doctor Sleep, we saw the return of the Stephen King we grew to love (amazing stories!) and hate (sleepless nights!).  While still reeling from the revelations, thrills, and horrors seen in Doctor Sleep, fans were then hit in June 2014 with King's first hard-boiled crime novel, Mr. Mercedes; it was a success not only with King fans, but also with crime/mystery fans.

It appears that King has finally moved on from his brush with death in 1999, when a distracted driver ran him over with a van.  The accident clearly had a huge impact on King, not only physically, but emotionally as well; he had recurring nightmares about the accident and had great difficulty sitting up for more than forty minutes to write.  Almost all of his books written after the accident had underlying themes of near death, accidents, and theories about time reversal and how it could affect the future.  Several books have characters that were suspiciously similar to King and who dealt with the consequences from near fatal accidents.  It was perhaps due to his emotional and physically painful recovery (as well as maintaining his several decades long sobriety) that King began writing the disjointed and muddled books that marked the 2000s.  There were no great hits from King, no books that would make the reader's blood run cold or keep them up at night.  Fans worried that this was the end of an era; Stephen King was a has-been, an author who had run his course of success. Yet, with these two novels, King has triumphantly returned.  He has returned to his classic form: a suspenseful build-up of a battle between good and evil, with ample interjections of fear spawning not only from objects and surroundings, but also from everyday people.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com
A sequel to 1977's The Shining (admit it, you still can't hear REDRUM without shivering), Doctor Sleep picks up on Danny Torrence's life as an adult.  Battling his demons left over from his eventful stay in the Overlook Hotel, Dan hits rock bottom and needs to reclaim his life.  He still has his Shining; but it has diminished due to years of alcoholism and self-hate.  The reader sees Dan getting his life back together, along with strengthening his Shining.  Interspersed through Dan's recovery, King introduces us to the True Knot, a group of wanderers who maintain their immortality with the lives and souls of children with Shining.  The story becomes a race against time and evil for Dan to save Abra Stone, a girl with immense Shining which makes her a valuable asset to the True Knot. Doctor Sleep is Stephen King at his finest.  There is horror: the True Knot hunts down their victims and dispatches them in a gruesome method in order to get the Shining from them at its strongest.  There is psychological panic at facets of everyday life: you will never look at normal looking people in RVs the same.  There is the classic King style: a battle between good and evil is embedded in everyday life, fought by momentous evil and by people who might have flaws, but are unfaltering good in their core character.  King illustrates the power of self and of normal people's determination to defeat evil.  There are several ancillary characters who rise up to the challenge to help Dan save Abra.  Ancillary characters are often King's greatest creations; they are us, with our flaws, our pettiness, our desires, our overall humanness.  However, these characters play huge parts in King's novels, whether by encouraging the protagonist to continue on no matter the hardships or by actively playing a role in the hardship itself.  The dialogue is clipped, realistic, and powerful; King manages to convey a range of emotions and wishes in his minimalist dialogue, reminiscent of his earlier works.  It is a book that will leave you breathless, satisfied, and very uneasy.

Courtesy goodreads.com
While a departure from King's go-to genre, Mr. Mercedes was yet another reminder that King has not lost the suspense, the terror, and the overall excellent prose style that he became famous for.  The reader is introduced to Bill Hodges, a retired cop who flits with ending his life out of boredom.  We also meet Bradley Hartsfield, a mild man who flits with mass murder out of boredom.  A seemingly gruesome but unsolved crime hangs over Hodges, who becomes unofficially involved in the cold case again when a letter arrives at his house, with the writer claiming to be the perp.  A back and forth between the two culminates in Hodges realizing that he is toying with a psychopath, a person who is intent on killing again.  Mr. Mercedes traces the cat and mouse game between the two men, the climax building to Hodges attempting to stop Hartsfield's biggest spree yet.  Once again, King relies on his ancillary characters to drive the story forward, using them to either block or propel the main characters' actions.  Readers are treated to a different type of crime novel set-up.  Instead of an unknown, in the shadows bad guy, Hartsfield is identified to the reader almost immediately and has his persona and justifications unwrapped throughout his interactions with others and himself.  Crime is a departure from the norm for King. Nonetheless, King manages to include his signature suspense, complex characters, and portrayal of the human psyche into the story, making it feel almost more like one of his older works, despite being very recent and very different from any type of genre he has previously written.  This is the type of book that is not read for the ending or the whodunit; it is read for the story itself, to see how King will lead the reader to the inevitable, yet seemingly elusive conclusion.The novel reads as a battle of the psyches, of who can outwit the other faster and more efficiently.

Can The Stand or Salem's Lot ever be recreated?  No, of course not.  King's earlier books literally launched a genre; he introduced mainstream literature that was not your typical crime or romance novels.  King's novels from the 1970's have earned their spots in literary greatness simply because of their originality and their (at the time) unrivaled content; they will not be outdone by King again.  However, readers can now look forward new, fresh Stephen King books, books that have all the components that made King a legend plus his renewed vigor in storytelling.  There might never be another The Shining, but give these two a chance; you won't regret it.   


1 comment:

  1. I am a die hard King fan. Most certainly his early works. The Dark Tower series leading the pack. Once I get through the last book you recommended, Doctor Sllep will most certainly have it's day in court.