Stephen King

How Is Fiction Like Telepathy?

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Words are powerful things. They whisper to us in the darkness. They seduce us. They cast a glamour over us, drawing us into their web with promises of beauty and escape. There they ensnare us, hold us captive, take control and have their way with us, until at long last, they’ve made us hear and conceptualize all of what they were summoned to express.  Fiction in particular exercises a singularly unique species of sorcery, one that most of us are powerless to resist.

What is this strange and exotic magic?

Stephen King, in his book On Writing, compares the art of storytelling to telepathy. He says that “all the arts depend on telepathy to some degree, but[…]writing offers the purest distillation.” Though his comparison is primarily tongue and cheek, it nevertheless makes a very compelling point.

Stories are a means by which the thoughts in one man’s mind are transferred to another. If, as an author, I were to write about a chair, the instant those words reached your eyes, you would suddenly share my vision, a vision that previously existed only in my mind and which only I could see.  This is, arguably, the mind’s most magical and mystifying skill of all, to be able to communicate, through mere symbols and sounds, thoughts of all kinds — sensory stimuli, emotions and dialog — as well as to be able to receive, decode and reconstruct perceptions from those same symbols and sounds when sent by someone else.

Of course, words are not alone in their expressive power. We have drawings, paintings, photographs and movies, all of which communicate senses, emotions and ideas just as effectively, though in different ways. However, words are alone in their ability to convey a common message, while at the same time allowing for infinite variation in the way that they’re perceived. Everyone sees the same photograph or the same painting. But the sights and sounds that are conjured by one’s mind in response to the words of another always belong entirely to the receiver.

Returning to our previous example, what does the chair I told you about look like? What color is it? What kind of material is it made of? Everybody sees a chair, but nobody sees the same chair. As the author, I can further refine my description. I can tell you to imagine a red wooden chair. But what shade of red is it? What kind of wood is it made of? I can continue to describe the chair in ever increasing detail, but no matter how many words I use, I will never be able to communicate with any real precision the image in my own head, nor will anybody else share yours. The story is mine, but its incarnation belongs entirely to you. This is something that no other medium can accomplish.

The next time you pull out a book and prepare to lose yourself in its dusty ink-bound secrets, you would do well to stop and reflect on what you’re about to do. Understand that you’re about to link mind to mind with the author, living or dead, that a communication is about to take place. Reflect on the power of those seemingly innocuous symbols that are imperfectly stamped upon the pages you hold in your hands and rejoice that you have been endowed with such a profound gift.

Do so in earnest, each and every time you prepare to read, and I promise that your life will never be the same.

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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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What Are Your Favorite Books?

For my sixth blog, I thought I’d try something a little different. Since I love to read, and I’m assuming that you do too, I’d like to learn more about your favorite books.  What stories are you head-over-heels for and why? I’ll kick off the conversation by telling you about three of mine.

The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King

The Gunslinger Cover Art
Book #1 of The Dark Tower series

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So starts King’s enigmatic work. This lengthy epic revolves around Roland of Gilead’s quest for the Dark Tower, the lynchpin not just of time and space, but of all realities. These are the books that tie together all of King’s other works, his own “literary Dark Tower.”

This series comprises what is, all at once, an epic fantasy and a classic western. Roland of Gilead is the last of the gunslingers, crack shot gun toting cowboys who also happen to be royalty, knights errant, the fabled peacekeepers of old. As a post apocalyptic wasteland where space and time are stretching and running down like a worn out clock, Roland’s world is at once familiar and strange. It feeds on our fear of destruction, not just of the world, but of all existence, for if the Dark Tower fails, all realities will fall into ruin with it.

The Dark Tower explores nothing less than the mysteries of creation and existence. What are space and time? Is there such a thing as fate (known to Roland as “Ka”)? The Dark Tower examines the dual natures of magic and science, and ponders how the two are related.

One thing that stands out is King’s remarkable ability to intertwine other works of literature (not just his own) into the story. In fact, the story itself is based on a Robert Browning poem called Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. The Dark Tower offers alternate accounts of their origins, origins which serve the Tower, blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy.

This epic tale was strongest in the first four books. I was utterly spellbound. Unfortunately, by the fifth installment, the series fell apart and the magic was broken. Too many last minute additions (things like vampires and the Low Men) as King struggled to find a place in The Dark Tower for all of his previous stories, as well as an anti-climactic and existentially unfulfilling conclusion, made the tail end of the series painful to read.

Why am I counting The Dark Tower among my favorites if the series ended so poorly? Because the first four books were four of the best books I’ve ever read. And to be fair, it must’ve been quite difficult for King to live up to not only the great cosmic questions posed by The Dark Tower in the beginning, but also twenty six years of anticipation and hype.

All things considered, The Dark Tower is a formidable work of literature and a worthwhile investment.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Sorcer's Stone Cover
Book #1 of the Harry Potter series

I know. Everyone loves Harry Potter. The thing is, there’s a reason these books are so popular.

In one aspect, Harry Potter is the consummate fairy tale, filled with magic, exposing the bizarre wonders which lie cloaked beneath the thin veneer of a supposedly ordinary world. What really makes this series shine and stand out from the typical fairy tale, however, is not the fantasy setting itself, but the characters.

From the smallest details — their mannerisms, physical descriptions and dialog — to more general themes — their emotions, desires and motivations — the characters in Harry Potter strongly reflect the complexities of real people. Like the world of magic, which lies just beneath the surface world of the muggles, a very deep and meaningful exploration of good versus evil takes place just beneath the fairy tale surface.

But Harry Potter is good versus evil with a twist.

The villains (all but a few, at least) are plainly bad, but  conflicted. Draco Malfoy, for example, does great evil, but his conscience is disturbed. By the end of the last book, he’s left standing on platform nine and three quarters, averting his gaze from Harry and his friends, shamed and embarrassed.

The “good guys” are not perfect but flawed, their deeds marred by less than noble acts. The students who ultimately save the day often do so by lying and breaking the rules. Professor Slughorn is not only a coward, but a man heavily motivated by self-interest and greed. We even discover that Professor Dumbledore himself, the man we all believed could do no wrong, wasn’t as innocent in his young adult years as we once believed. This discovery, which comes as a great shock to Harry and his friends via Rita Skeeter’s eposé of Dumbledore’s life post mortem, forces them to come to terms with the morally ambiguous nature of even the greatest heroes.

The humanity of Rowling’s work is undeniable and profound. For that reason, I hope these books will someday find their place among the classics.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger Cover Art
The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Depending on your translation, you may also know this book as The Outsider.

The story opens with the main character, Meursault, thinking about the recent death of his mother. From the very first paragraph, we realize that something is amiss. Meursault is bewilderingly detached. He doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the passing of his mother, and when the funeral is over, he returns home, undisturbed, to continue living a dull disinterested life.

Through his interactions with others, even as he makes his eventual decent into darkness, we get the sense that Meursault just doesn’t care, that he’s decidedly indifferent about everything, including the evil acts of those he surrounds himself with. Only when the walls begin to close in around him and he realizes that the hollow shell which he calls life is seriously threatened does he begin to consider that he might not want to lose his life after all.

The Stranger is the bitterly ironic tale of a man who doesn’t appreciate his life until it’s in mortal peril, and is, among other things, a sobering reflection on the brevity of life. In pondering Meursault’s fate, we are reminded to always be grateful for what we have while we have it.

How About You?

What books are you obsessed with and why?

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