Stephen King: the master of horror, still shining after all these years
I’ve read Stephen King since primary school, 50 books at the last count, drifted away a bit but now, as an ageing 45-year-old, am back on the same page as I read his sequel to ‘The Shining’
King relented and remains as prolific as ever, but his recent works – Lisey’s Story, Duma Key and now Doctor Sleep – are filled with images of pain and mortality. “I think of this more and more as I approach my seventies,” he says. “I never expected to live so long and – like anyone – I hope the exit, when it comes, won’t be too protracted or undignified.”
Which brings us to Doctor Sleep itself. What is perhaps surprising about the book is that it is not particularly frightening – or, perhaps more correctly, its real terrors are not the semi-vampiric clan known as the True Knot, who are hunting a girl named Abra Stone, gifted with extraordinary telepathic powers, and protected by Danny Torrance, now a middle-aged man and an alcoholic.
No, the visceral horrors here are the indignities of old age, the slow betrayal of the body as it succumbs to injury and disease, and the inevitability of one’s own death. Yet the book remains hopeful and hugely humane. The True Knot are vile not merely because they kill but also because they thrive on the sufferings of others.
They are without empathy or compassion, and that is what Danny Torrance, a hospice orderly, offers to those under his care: a hand to hold when the end comes, a voice saying that all will be well, that you are not dying alone.
It is also a book about being an alcoholic. King, a recovered alcoholic himself following an intervention by his family in 1987, describes the novel as “a mental return to what it’s like to be an active alcoholic. You know for yourself that writing is often a kind of hypnotic regression.”
With that return to the past seems to have re-emerged something of King the young writer. The book contains echoes, conscious or otherwise, of Salem’s Lot, Firestarter and Carrie, among others. Doctor Sleep has a tightness, an economy, after some of the lengthier novels of recent years, but also a lightness of touch. It reads less like a horror novel than a thriller and ends on a scene of intimate and intense human contact, a gift of consolation at the moment of death.
So what next for King? Doctor Sleep is his second novel this year, after the excellent coming-of-age story Joyland, written for the Hard Case series of retro-jacketed crime novels. His affection for genre remains undimmed, he says, “although as a writer I haven’t thought in terms of genre since I was 30 or so. I just write what it occurs to me to write (I realise I’m absurdly fortunate to be able to do that).
“I’m learning to write another kind of fiction – detective fiction. Joyland was part of my self-tutorial. Next year, Mr Mercedes is that sort of book. It forces you to hew the line, plotwise, and there are no supernatural short cuts. It doesn’t entrance me the way a good horror story does, but it’s interesting. So it’s Mr Mercedes, and then a horror novel that references one of my idols, Arthur Machen.”
Next year is also the 40th anniversary of the publication of Carrie, the novel that introduced the world to King’s work. Some remain unconvinced of his merits – in 1993, the American critic Harold Bloom, in a spectacular fit of literary snobbery, greeted the decision of the National Book Foundation to give King a distinguished contribution award as “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life” – but King has provided his critics with a big target at which to aim by being popular, prolific and successful in a genre that has long been regarded as literature’s poor mad relative.
Yes, sometimes the books are a little long, and very occasionally the endings don’t quite match the build-up to them, but the latter is an inherent flaw in the genre, which has always been better suited to short fiction. Few living fiction writers – perhaps only JK Rowling excepted – will be as missed by generations of readers when they’re gone.
Long may King continue to write, and may someone be there to take his hand when the end finally comes.
Doctor Sleep is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £19.99
John Connolly is a bestselling Irish crime writer best known for his series of novels featuring the private detective Charlie Parker. His latest novel is The Creeps.