Bring me all the Stephen King novels in the land. Yes, all of them. I know, I know. I'll build a new bookcase. I'll buy a bigger house.
This is not the first time I have enjoyed a King book. You'd think the surprise would wear off. I long ago learned that he writes lucid sentences, tells gripping stories, creates vivid characters ... but much, much longer ago I formed the view that horror fiction is not my thing. The reasons for this prejudice are complex and fundamentally boring; I mention it only so I can tell you that no previous King novel has managed to drive a stake through its heart.
"Hmm," I would mutter, nonplussed to discover I had just had a great time reading The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, or 11.22.63, or Joyland. "That man can really tell a story."
But each of these books has its particular minor weakness, and somehow these always registered as sufficient reason to go back to my long-time policy of King-avoidance.
Paging Doctor Sleep, the miracle cure for anti-King bigots. I would have devoured this book in a day, except for three things: it's so good that I wanted it to last longer. The likelihood of my favourite characters coming to bad ends seemed so high that I wanted to put off finding out. And I needed to go on Twitter to ask the world at large which King books I should read next.
Important to know: this is a sequel to The Shining, but you do not need to have read The Shining to enjoy it (I haven't). You also do not need to have seen the Kubrick film; if you have, be aware that the film departs from the novel's story, and this is a sequel to the novel. (King gives you all the backstory you need to keep up.)
In the opening chapter we meet the survivors of the earlier book's story, and in particular we meet Danny, the little boy haunted by angry ghosts.
Ah, those angry ghosts. Monsters, gore, things jump-ing out from dark corners.
Somewhere deep down this is still what I expect from horror, and also something more basic and unpleasant: an assumption that the universe is terrible and we are powerless against it. King does deal in the limits of human agency, but he is both too subtle and too humane to give his characters no hope at all.
The reason I was frequently very scared, following Danny into adulthood, is that our little boy grows into as convincing a portrait as I've encountered of an alcoholic struggling to stay on the wagon.
Meanwhile, a coven of mind-vampires are roving America, hunting down psychic children and torturing them to death, and a young girl is growing into someone Danny will need to protect. There are plenty of dark corners in this book, and monsters do jump out of them. But the most disturbing moments involve a woman facing her 98-year-old grandmother's death, and an alcoholic waking from a binge: purely human moments, rendered horribly real, and inflicted on characters I cared about.
This is great writing. Bring me all the Stephen King books in the land.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton $39.99)