Afraid of the Dark

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Mom tells me not to be afraid of the dark. But I know better.

“There’s nothing that can hurt you,” she says with a smile before kissing me on the forehead and closing the door behind her. That’s when I pull the covers over my head like a burial cloth and lie awake with my eyes open until I see the light again.

Once, I took her at her word and slept with the covers off. I trusted her then, was sure that if she said something it must be true. I’d begun to drift, to straddle the world of dreams in freedom and peace.

That was when I heard a voice.

“Christian,” it said, sounding like the rustling of dry leaves.

My eyes popped open.

“Christian, come to me. We’ll have fun together, you and I.”

I threw the blanket over myself like a ward, praying it would be enough to protect me.

“Christian,” it said again, a low susurrus whisper. “I’m here in the dark, waiting for you. Won’t you come? You’ll never have to sleep again. We can play, you and I. We’ll have so much fun.”

That was when I learned the truth, that there are things in the dark that can hurt you, that mothers and fathers don’t always know everything.

I didn’t sleep that night, and I don’t know if I’ll ever sleep again.

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Innocent Blood

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The boy strolls through my alley alone, and I bare my gums behind the shadows.

I was like him once. Over a thousand years ago, I would lay beneath the stars and dream of far off places. I was a bundle of youthful optimism and endless possibilities.

That was before I changed.

I’d strayed from our clan’s caravan and was playing in the woods when I stumbled on an old woman, sitting atop a pile of gray stones. She was crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she only answered that people were selfish, that there was no such thing as love. In my childish idealism, I proclaimed that she was wrong. She sneered, insisted I was a foolish boy, said that I knew nothing of the world and its ways.

I stood firm in my convictions.

She asked about my family, asked if they would still love me if I were different. I nodded vigorously, echoed what I had been taught by my mother and father, that blood and clan were everything.

“All right,” she said, “let’s see.”

She stood, gnarled and ancient. She was hunched at the back, yet she managed to tower over me. She held out her hands, closed her eyes, and in a language I did not know, she began to speak.

A breeze stirred, a rustling of dirt and leaves that seemed to rise up from the earth. It cut through me, spoke to the different parts of myself, commanding them to change. Skin became fur. Teeth became fangs. I fell to all fours in disbelief.

“See if your family will take you back now,” she said, and she laughed, a wild cackle that made my chest grow cold.

I loped back to my village, stumbling as I learned to control foreign limbs. I found my family’s tent among the caravan and called out to them. When they came outside, I tried to tell them what had happened. But only animal sounds escaped my muzzled throat, and at the sight of me they roused the clan and fetched their weapons. I was forced to flee into the night with stones and arrows at my back.

I had lost everything. My mother and father, my brothers and sisters. I kept trying to return, but every time they chased me away. I stalked the woods, searched for the old woman so she could change me back.

I never saw her again.

The years that followed hardened my heart. I prayed for death to take me, to put me out of my misery, but in her cruelty the old woman had made it so I couldn’t die. Instead I wandered the world, and all the while the world changed.

Now, I prey on innocent blood because I’m jealous of what can no longer be mine. I tear their throats out with powerful canine jaws, and I delight in their blood as it drains from their faces to spatter the ground beneath my paws.

The boy stops beside me and I grin, open my maw and prepare to pounce.

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Mischief Maker

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Not long now, he thinks, before the world unravels again. His mouth blossoms in a jack-o-lantern grin.

It was just by chance that he happened upon the Earth. Wandering the cosmos in search of mischief, he’d stumbled on it by accident, and he was already moving on when he caught sight of a curious thing.

They called themselves Man. They gazed up from their tiny little rock at the dawn of their existence like ants upon a mound of sand. They beheld the depth and breadth of the mysteries beyond, and in their arrogance proclaimed themselves to be the center of the universe.

He’s dwelled among them since. He works in the shadows, just beyond the range of human perception. A master puppeteer, he tugs on their emotional strings, takes advantage of their ape-like brains, rouses them toward anger, hatred and war.

He waits until they’ve nearly destroyed themselves, then watches as they rebuild, as new civilizations rise from the ashes of the old. Then, just before they’ve tasted true and lasting peace, he lays his fetid hands upon the Earth and gets them to burn everything to the ground again.

Each time he allows them to carry something into the next age, knowledge that enables them to build bigger and better weapons. Now, they have nuclear and biological armaments. He grins like a spoiled child with candy, and he watches, wondering if this time they’ll break the world for good.

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The Writer

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Jared’s eyes popped open at 3:17 in the morning. His head was pounding. His brain was a jumbled kaleidoscope of broken thoughts and disjointed memories, and at first he couldn’t tell where he was.

Then the pressure in his head increased. Jared moaned. He tossed the blanket aside, fumbled in the dark for the light switch, then walked briskly to his desk and picked up a pen. He groped the hardwood surface for his notebook, and when he found it he pulled it open to where he’d left off that afternoon.

Jared began to write.

Images of a life not his own funneled slowly from his mind, through his hand and onto the paper beneath him. It was dizzying, looking through two pairs of eyes at the same time. He was Jared, the writer who lived alone in a one-bedroom apartment. He was Arthur, a balding art mogul in his mid-forties, gulping for air as his studio partner plunged a six-inch serrated knife into his back.

As he scribbled furiously, trying to relieve the pressure, he wondered if he was writing the story or if the story was writing him.

He’d never asked for this. One day in high school, he’d been sitting in his sixth period English class when a story had come plummeting out of nowhere. It seized control of his senses, then raped him repeatedly as he sat there helpless in front of his teacher and his peers. All he could do was write it down, scribbling in his three-ring binder so fast that he nearly tore several pages, hoping and praying that somehow he could get it out of his head without anybody noticing that he was no longer paying attention.

Since then, his life had been a never-ending series of unpredictable encounters.

After a time, the well-spring ran dry. His viewfinder into Arthur’s soul vanished, and he was left gasping for air with his head in his hands. After taking a few minutes to catch his breath, he turned out the light. He returned to the covers, drenched in sweat, and he prayed. He asked God (if there was a God) to take this from him, though all the while he knew his prayer was in vain.

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Grace

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Grace clutches a ragged teddy bear to her chest. It reminds her of her parents. The memories are bittersweet.

She gazes up, squints when her eyes reach the bright lines of yellow light that penetrate the wooden slats a hundred feet above. She blinks away tears.

She sidles to the right, her long dress brushing the dirt beneath her legs, and she feels the tug of iron chains binding her to the stone wall. She expects it, though it continues to fill her with despair. She returns to her previous position and the chains slacken. She closes her eyes and dozes.

She never meant them harm. She came after her parents died and left her orphaned in the woods outside their village. They took her in, fed her, clothed her. They took her to church. Taught her to pray. Then they discovered she was different.

They called her a demon. Spat on her. Beat her. Dug a prison beneath the earth, clapped her in chains and left her there to rot.

For the first few days she’d cried out in disbelief. Trembling and wailing, she begged them between racking sobs to take her back. She promised to be good, but nobody listened. She was an uncomfortable truth that was better off buried and forgotten.

She heard their whispers, knew they expected her to die. Yet years passed without food or water and she survived. They said it was unnatural, that she was the spawn of Satan. Every now and then, one of them would gaze down through the wooden slats, peer into her tear-streaked eyes and look away.

A generation passed. The children grew up and ventured out in search of a better life, and one by one the remaining inhabitants grew old and died. The last of them to peer down into her prison had white wispy hair and a thin grey beard. He cocked his head at her, hesitated, moved closer as if wondering what to do. Then he gritted his teeth, clutched his chest, closed his eyes and collapsed.

The first years of her life had been filled with love and light. She’d danced beneath the trees, sustained by the sun, the wind, the earth and the sky, a child of wild nature-born magic. But bound beneath the earth in isolation, her good nature soured. Her heart grew hard, and spite consumed her until her only wish was to set the world on fire, to look on with delight as the skin of those who imprisoned her crackled, blistered and popped.

She knows that one day she’ll be free. Perhaps her chains will rust through completely and she’ll dig herself out. Or perhaps someone will wander by unknowing and rescue her. It’s only a matter of time.

Grace dons a wicked smile.

The villagers could have bred a saint. Instead, they bred a monster.

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The Tunnel

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There is a tunnel buried beneath the layers of the world, outside time, outside creation. It is dank and musty, pregnant with rot and decay. The walls are smeared with the stale blood of creatures extinct billions of years before the Big Bang.

It is a prison, erected to contain a race of pestilence and destruction that had once spanned the breadth of creation. They spread like cancer, defiling everything in their path with a cosmological blight that nearly brought all of reality to its knees. Entire universes fell in the attempt to take them down, and only when the Immortals came were they finally forced to yield.

If death could have stopped them, the Immortals never would have built it. But they would only have assumed another form, and their evil would have continued to dominate. The only way to protect the cosmos was to quarantine them: to lock them away forever in a tomb of stone, fortified with wards and seals to prevent their escape. The Immortals gave their very life essence to strengthen and uphold it, to keep the walls solid and substantial against their feral, outraged cries.

But now the place lies in ruins, corrupted and forgotten—those who built it having moved on. When the prisoners were abandoned, they wondered if their captors even remembered they were there.

The seals weaken with the passing of the ages. In some places, they are stretched so thin that the prisoners can once more sense the outside. They scratch at the walls with insubstantial claws, and the structure gives, ever so slightly, in tiny, imperceptible increments.

Time has made them hungry. The Immortals thought starvation would break them, make them weak and vulnerable. But it only strengthened their resolve to ravage the cosmos once more.

Now they sense a breach, a rip in the fabric of their prison, and they rush at it with teeth bared, picking and tearing, prying and pulling. They work with grim anticipation.

They know the walls are about to come down.

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What Are You Reading?

If you’re like me, you probably have a shelf (or a Kindle, or a Nook) piled to the brim with books waiting to be read. The whole point is, of course, to actually read them. In the spirit of furthering that goal, here are three titles I’m currently reading in a frantic (though ultimately futile) effort to complete my own ever-expanding to-read list.

Snowblind, by Christopher Golden

SnowblindSynopsis from Goodreads:

The small New England town of Coventry had weathered a thousand blizzards…but never one like this. Icy figures danced in the wind and gazed through children’s windows with soul-chilling eyes. People wandered into the whiteout and were never seen again. Families were torn apart, and the town would never be the same.

Now, as a new storm approaches twelve years later, the folks of Coventry are haunted by the memories of that dreadful blizzard and those who were lost in the snow. Photographer Jake Schapiro mourns his little brother, Isaac, even as—tonight—another little boy is missing. Mechanic and part-time thief Doug Manning’s life has been forever scarred by the mysterious death of his wife, Cherie, and now he’s starting over with another woman and more ambitious crimes. Police detective Joe Keenan has never been the same since that night, when he failed to save the life of a young boy . . . and the boy’s father vanished in the storm only feet away. And all the way on the other side of the country, Miri Ristani receives a phone call . . . from a man who died twelve years ago.

As old ghosts trickle back, this new storm will prove to be even more terrifying than the last.

My thoughts so far:

I’ve been making a concerted effort to experience new authors. I stumbled on this one in another blog (sorry, I forgot to keep track of where) and decided to give it a spin. I’m about a third of the way through, and so far it’s gorgeously written. Christopher Golden has a fine-tuned mastery of the English language. The characters are well developed; in fact, I would say that the plot is, in large part, driven by them. The story is pretty intense, and so far has kept me engaged and wanting to know more.

Certain scenes are infused with more sexually explicit detail than I would think necessary to further the character development or the plot. But on the positive side, I have to say that Golden seems to understand human sexuality well. It’s more than just the mindless gratuitous sex that sells books; it’s underscored with depth and meaning. In the case of two individuals in particular, the connection between physical and emotional intimacy is well established, as well as the powerful bond that cements the relationship between man and wife in an otherwise tumultuous relationship.

I’ve seen other reviews criticize the pace of this book right around where I’ve left off, asserting that it’s too slow. We’ll see what I think when I’m finished. But as it stands now, I love this one and can’t wait to get to the end!

Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Aging, self-absorbed rock star Judas Coyne has a thing for the macabre — his collection includes sketches from infamous serial killer John Wayne Gacy, a trepanned skull from the 16th century, a used hangman’s noose, Aleister Crowley’s childhood chessboard, etc. — so when his assistant tells him about a ghost for sale on an online auction site, he immediately puts in a bid and purchases it.

The black, heart-shaped box that Coyne receives in the mail not only contains the suit of a dead man but also his vengeance-obsessed spirit. The ghost, it turns out, is the stepfather of a young groupie who committed suicide after the 54-year-old Coyne callously used her up and threw her away. Now, determined to kill Coyne and anyone who aids him, the merciless ghost of Craddock McDermott begins his assault on the rocker’s sanity.

My thoughts so far:

I wrote about this in a blog detailing five new books I planned to read in the new year.

It’s a little rough around the edges, and I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a literary masterpiece. But my overall impression is that it’s a solidly constructed book, and there are moments where Joe Hill (actually Stephen King’s son, Joseph Hillstrom King) really shines as an author.

In particular, Hill’s description of Craddock’s ghost is both terrifying and original. The scribbled out eyes, the stop-motion movement and the way in which he bends Jude toward his will make for an engaging read. Jude is a complex man. He’s done some pretty terrible things, but he’s conflicted about them. He’s used women in the past, and to a certain extent is using his current girlfriend Georgia (nicknamed after the state from which she came), but he also cares for her and strives to protect her.

At the half-way point, I’m going to say the investment has been worth it. Each new chapter refreshes and deepens the faith I have that this story will end well (“well”, of course, does not imply “happy”…) When I’m finished, I’ll write a review to let you know if that faith was warranted.

The Stolen Child, by Keith Donohue

Synopsis from Goodreads:

Inspired by the W.B. Yeats poem that tempts a child from home to the waters and the wild, The Stolen Child is a modern fairy tale narrated by the child Henry Day and his double.

On a summer night, Henry Day runs away from home and hides in a hollow tree. There he is taken by the changelings—an unaging tribe of wild children who live in darkness and in secret. They spirit him away, name him Aniday, and make him one of their own. Stuck forever as a child, Aniday grows in spirit, struggling to remember the life and family he left behind. He also seeks to understand and fit in this shadow land, as modern life encroaches upon both myth and nature.

In his place, the changelings leave a double, a boy who steals Henry’s life in the world. This new Henry Day must adjust to a modern culture while hiding his true identity from the Day family. But he can’t hide his extraordinary talent for the piano (a skill the true Henry never displayed), and his dazzling performances prompt his father to suspect that the son he has raised is an imposter. As he ages the new Henry Day becomes haunted by vague but persistent memories of life in another time and place, of a German piano teacher and his prodigy. Of a time when he, too, had been a stolen child. Both Henry and Aniday obsessively search for who they once were before they changed places in the world.

The Stolen Child is a classic tale of leaving childhood and the search for identity. With just the right mix of fantasy and realism, Keith Donohue has created a bedtime story for adults and a literary fable of remarkable depth and strange delights.

My thoughts so far:

Like Snowblind, I discovered this one in a blog. Again, I forget where (I’ll try to be better about recording these things for future reference.) I don’t have many thoughts yet, as I’ve only completed part of the first chapter.

As of now, I’m intrigued by the premise. The notion of a fey plot to replace a human child is something I’ve encountered before in  Tithe, by Holly Black. The chapter I’m reading at the moment is written in the first person, from the point of view of the changeling who took Henry Day’s place. The language is in the flowing flowery style of a fairy tale, a deviation from many of the other books I’ve read. Though I enjoy the gritty realism of authors like Stephen King, a well-written storybook fantasy is an enjoyable and welcome change of pace.

What about you?

What’s on your to-read list? And what are you reading right now? I’d love to hear more about your current literary exploits in the comments below.

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Book Review: Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep”

Doctor Sleep BookcoverSynopsis

Doctor Sleep begins when eight year old Danny Torrance is visited by Mrs. Massey, who hails from the haunted Overlook hotel, which burned to the ground in a boiler accident. Frightened (though not entirely surprised) to discover that the Overlook’s ghosts have followed him to his new home, Danny becomes withdrawn and refuses to speak until his mother Wendy calls Dick Halloran, Danny’s friend and rescuer from The Shining, a man who shares Danny’s psychic abilities.

Halloran teaches the boy how to lock these spirits away in the back of his mind, so that they can never bother him again.

Fast forward. Danny is now Dan, a man who’s made some bad decisions. Like his father, Dan is an alcoholic with a raging temper. It isn’t until he hits rock bottom, lands in Frazier, New Hampshire, and scores a much needed job at the Teenytown Railway that he begins to piece his life back together. He admits to his boss Kingsley that he has a problem, begins attending AA meetings and vows to give up drinking.

One day, Dan’s old childhood friend Tony appears and leads him to a hospice, where he’s able to use his abilities to provide comfort to the dying. It’s here that he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

The years following are good to Dan. Though he’s haunted by past sins, he now has a roof over his head and a purpose for his life. It’s during this time that Dan begins to receive telepathic messages on a blackboard in his room from a little girl named Abra Stone, who, unbeknownst to him, has befriended Tony. Like Dan, she has the shining. For a while, the messages are light-hearted in nature, and Dan contents himself by making the occasional reply.

One day, a thirteen year old Abra suddenly has a vision in which a boy with a baseball glove is tortured and murdered. She sends a frantic message to Dan, saying, “they’re killing the baseball boy!” A while later, a flyer for missing children comes in the mail with his picture. She places her hand on the image, closes her eyes and casts her mind out to where the murder took place, hoping that perhaps she can somehow send information to the boy’s family to help them find closure.

While looking, Abra inadvertently enters the mind of Rose the Hat, leader of the “True Knot.” The True feed on “steam,” the psychic energy possessed by children like Abra. Trading places, Rose finds herself abruptly shunted into the girl’s body. Shocked by her power, Rose decides that she must be hunted down soon, both for her steam and because she knows too much. Realizing the trouble she’s in, a frantic Abra reaches out to Dan for help.

After meeting with her in secret and talking about the shining as well as the murder, Dan enlists the aid of Billy, an old friend and ex co-worker of the Teenytown Railway, and John, Abra’s pediatrician as well as a fellow member of AA. Together, they concoct a plan to deal with the True before they can deal with Abra.

Plot

Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining leaves off, creating a seamless transition from the latter to the former. Doctor Sleep stands on its own and doesn’t rely on The Shining to tell a complete story, but the two share a profound connection such that both books find their fulfillment in each other.

For a while, it seems as if the details about Danny’s childhood following his experience at the Overlook are disjoint from the rest of the story, and that they serve solely as a bridge into his adult years as Dan Torrance. But these early events, most notably the creation of mental lock boxes into which Danny traps the ghosts from his past, come back to play a major role in the novel’s conclusion, making it an integral part of the whole.

Doctor Sleep unfolds in a world that is far more advanced than the 1970’s in which The Shining takes place. When Abra and Dan begin communicating, they not only use the shining, but ordinary email, making for a perfect blend of technology and magic, a theme that King has explored before.

In the final chapters, we come full circle, to the land where the Overlook once stood. It’s now owned by the True, and it’s here that Dan and Abra fight for their lives. The conclusion is unexpected, and is (not unpleasantly) atypical of many of King’s books.

There are three surprises, each more shocking than the last. The first comes about three quarters of the way through the book, and concerns both Dan and Lucy, Abra’s mother. The second is a ghost from the past, and is related to the lock boxes we encountered in the first few chapters. The third and final revelation comes at the very end. It’s another ghost from the past, one that ultimately plays a critical and unexpected role in Dan’s and Abra’s final showdown with the True.

There were a couple of problems.

First, the True’s infection with the measles, which came from the baseball boy’s steam, was a little far-fetched. Measles is a physical ailment transmitted by an airborne virus; I fail to see how such a disease could be transmitted through a spiritual medium.

Second, there were a few anachronisms in King’s description of the internet that, as a technical person, I found a little annoying. In particular, he used the terms “IMing” and “screen names,” both of which are relics of the nineties and early two thousands and are rarely used today.

Characters

In the first few chapters, Danny, though he’s only eight, seems much older, in both the language he uses and the way he thinks. I suppose this is understandable, given his ability to read minds from a very early age as well as his traumatic experience at the Overlook, both of which forced him to grow up very quickly.

Unfortunately, like Jack, Danny inherits a propensity for drinking as well as a temper, and wastes most of his young adult life in a drunken stupor. When interviewing for his job at the Teenytown Railway, Dan wonders if his experience is like his father’s, when he interviewed at the hotel after losing his teaching job due to out-of-control anger. He even uses the words “officious prick” during his initial encounter with Kingsley. Like father, like son.

Yet, we have hope for a good ending, because unlike Jack Torrance, Dan has not only the will to overcome, but also additional help from his AA meetings. Despite Dan’s initial impression of Kingsley, he goes on to befriend the man, who is himself an alcoholic and who becomes Dan’s AA sponsor. Dan’s care for his patients, and later his love for Abra and his desire to protect her, both give us hope that his own story will turn out better than Jack’s.

The revelation that Halloran was forced to endure sexual abuse as a child at the hands of his uncle was heartbreaking, paling in comparison only to the childhood experiences of Andrea Steiner (nicknamed Andi Snakebite), a member of the True Knot who, before her Turning, was repeatedly raped by her own father.

What’s fascinating about both cases are the different ways in which Halloran and Andi reacted to a similar upbringing.  While Halloran purged the demons from his life and went on to do good, Andi allowed herself to be consumed by hatred for her father, and by extension hatred for all men. Though tragic, it’s no surprise that Andi would eventually be inducted into the True Knot and become one of the bad guys.

Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the transformation of Abra from a sweet innocent girl to a teenager who has witnessed torture and death, who has seen what no child should ever have to see. She is forever tainted by a desire for revenge. It’s one of many scars, both physical and psychological, inflicted by Rose the Hat.

Style

The writing in Doctor Sleep is just as lucid and dreamlike as that in The Shining, yet more structured and tightly controlled, especially in flashbacks and dream sequences. You can see that King’s writing, like Danny himself, has grown and evolved over the past thirty six years.

King writes from an omniscient point of view. It’s difficult for a narrator to wield so much power without crushing the unique points of view of each character, resulting in a read that falls flat and dry. But King is a master of the craft and pulls it off remarkably well. He manages to delve into the thoughts and perceptions of each character, despite the mostly detached nature of the narrator’s voice. An omniscient narrator also has the power to jump backward and forward through time, yet King only ever steps beyond the strict bounds of the present to foreshadow or add depth to the story, which only adds suspense.

While King has mastered the omniscient point of view, I will level against him one small criticism. The narrator necessarily keeps his opinions mostly to himself, and serves primarily as our eyes and ears, our window into the thoughts and actions of the characters. But on occasion, this transparent voice rises up to express its own unique political opinions in the same detached style, as if they were well established and objective facts. We read sarcastic comments about Bush’s “spectacular war in Iraq” and Ronald Reagan’s “distrustful smile.” These would be fine if they were the thoughts and feelings of the characters themselves, but are inappropriate when expressed as the opinions of an otherwise objective omniscient narrator. With the power of omniscience comes the responsibility to remain a neutral observer.

Other Thoughts

Like many of his books, King makes connections to other stories. While driving out to retrieve the baseball glove that belonged to the boy who’s murder Abra telepathically witnessed, Dan begins to explain the shining to John:

“[…]If you think the shining begins and ends with paltry shit like telepathy, you’re way short.” He paused. “There are other worlds than these.” (Page 300)

Of course, “there are other worlds than these” are the famous last words uttered by Jake Chambers in the first book of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, shortly before plunging to his death in an abandoned mine.

The consumption of steam by the True is reminiscent of the demon Tak from The Regulators, who feeds on the life essence of those he kills.

There’s a scene where Dan helps a dying patient named Charlie cross over. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if it was just the beauty of King’s words, the fact that I also share some of Charlie’s fears about death or both.

Conclusion

Stephen King is a remarkable writer. The lucidity of his vision and the prosaic nature of his writing has me head over heels every time I read one of his books. I was ecstatic when I discovered that King had written a sequel to The Shining after thirty six years, though I was also trepidatious, fearing that the second book would be incapable of doing justice to the first. I am pleased to report that Doctor Sleep is a worthy successor.

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