Book Review: Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep by Christina Knowles

Doctor_SleepI finally read Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s eagerly awaited sequel to The Shining, published thirty-six years after the first, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. The Shining is one of my favorite novels, and how could a sequel live up to something revered as one of the all-time best horror novels ever published? I decided it didn’t have to. I would read it and enjoy it on its own merits. So how did it fare, in my humble opinion?

Well, it was wonderful getting to know grown up Danny Torrance, now known as Dan, or to his co-workers at the hospice where he is now employed, as Doctor Sleep because of his uncanny ability to calm dying residents and guide them to the great beyond in a peaceful and pleasant way.

Yes, Dan has some problems, and at first he was a little less than likable. I was, initially, repelled by what Dan had become, an apple fallen a little too close to the family tree, but he soon won my heart with his remorse, selflessness, and compassion.

I also adored the little girl whom Dan befriends, Abra Stone. In fact, I marveled at King’s ability to write from the perspective of a pre-teen girl, but it was superb.

This novel, although strange and fascinating, was not at all scary like The Shining, and it didn’t need to be. It was so much more than that. It was about recovery and redemption, realistically told in an insanely surreal world. It continued the main story in The Shining, the story of alcoholism and facing the worst demon of all, our weakest and unlovely selves. I reconsider. Maybe it was a little scary.

But mostly, it was heartfelt, poignant even. More than once I teared up during this novel. I find that I like this new softer side of King, the King of the post near-death “accident” seems to create characters that feel a little deeper, are more expressive, kinder. Perhaps, it was the experience, or maybe he is mellowing with age, but I’m fine with it. Doctor Sleep delivers on weird with his descriptive immersion into horrifyingly evil minds, at the same time as showing us that there are still really good people out there, even in the midst of evil, and that even when the evil is in us, we can overcome it. Five out of five stars.—Christina Knowles

Read my review of The Shining.

Advertisements

Life-Lessons from The Shawshank Redemption by Christina Knowles

The-Shawshank-Redemption1            In 1982, while still in high school, I first read Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” in a short story collection called Different Seasons and have been hooked on King ever since. Then came the movie version: Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, two of my favorite actors. It has been my favorite movie since the first time I saw it in 1994. If you haven’t seen it, where have you been? A movie about hope, friendship, and the indomitable human spirit, it’s still the highest rated movie of all time according to the IMBD. If you haven’t seen the movie, you need to stop reading and watch it now. Get ready to “get busy living or get busy dying.”

*SPOILER ALERT* If you’ve never seen it, you might want to stop here. Anyway, there are some minor differences between the story and the movie. In the story Red is an Irish guy with graying red hair, there are a few different wardens during Andy’s incarceration, and the last one is forced to retire instead of getting busted and committing suicide. Tommy, who had new evidence of Andy’s innocence, was bribed with minimum-security prison instead of getting shot, and Brooks played a slightly more minor role in the story than in the movie. Also, the story ends with Red getting ready to go meet Andy instead of arriving in Mexico. However, minor differences aside, Darabont held closely to King’s original story and was true to the integrity of the characters. Even many of the lines from the movie are dialogue taken directly from the story. This story is so poignant, so profound, and so universal that I don’t know anyone who sees it without feeling like he just got schooled on life and how to live it. The basic premise is that prison is a metaphor for life and, no matter what life gives us, how we handle it makes all the difference. But there are so many life-lessons in this movie that it’s worth taking a closer look at them.

One of the first things I get from this movie is that life is just not fair. Just get used to it, bad things happen to good people all the time. Not only did Andy’s wife cheat on him, but he is blamed for her murder as well as for her boyfriend’s. He got two consecutive life sentences, and he didn’t do anything. Life’s not fair, but Andy did not let even that ruin his life because not only can suffering be endured, you never know when things will suddenly turn around. Time is going to pass anyway. Will it be good time or bad?

                  Andy went through some serious suffering at the hands of the “sisters” in prison, as well as at the hands of the guards and the warden. But Andy doesn’t let anything in that he doesn’t want in. We see that the body can be broken, but not the spirit. No one can take away what is inside you. The human spirit cannot be contained within the walls of any prison if you don’t let it. We have control over our inner life, and no one can affect us in any significant way unless we let them.

Andy always had hope, which is the main theme of the movie, but not only did he have it, he shared it with everyone around him. Hope is essential to human endurance. A lot of long-term prisoners at Shawshank didn’t have a lot of hope. Red said hope was a dangerous thing, but Andy didn’t see it that way. He thought losing hope was more dangerous. Hope kept him going when he didn’t think he had the strength, and hope led to action. He was willing to take the biggest risks because of hope. Andy also gave hope to Red, who might have ended up like Brooks if not for him.

Brooks had become institutionalized. The thing that struck me about Brooks was how we can so gradually get used to the way things are, even if they’re terrible, that we become immobile from fear of change. When Brooks was released after serving over thirty years in prison, he couldn’t take it on the outside. He lost hope because he let fear paralyze him.

Red didn’t want to become like Brooks. He learned to take risks from Andy. What did he have to lose? When Andy had had enough, when he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, he took a risk, and it paid off. There was no point in playing it safe because time was passing rapidly, and if you just play it safe, you’re just waiting to die. Andy said, “Get busy living or get busy dying,” and taking risks is part of living. Time is going to pass either way, so we may as well spend it living. He successfully taught this lesson to Red because when the time came, Red was willing to take a risk to jump parole and take a bus to join Andy and start living rather than ending up like Brooks.

But before Andy ever took this biggest risk, he planned ahead and used his skills that he already possessed. Before Andy went to prison, he set up an account under a pseudonym with some money in it. He hid a fake passport and ID under a rock in the middle of a field under an old oak tree—just in case. It was there waiting for him when he needed it. When he was in prison, he used his skills with accounting and his knowledge of tax law to become a valued and necessary person in the prison. Eventually his skills led him to successfully escape. He was also educated and intelligent. His cleverness led to his freedom, but along the way he shared his knowledge with others and showed them how important knowledge and ingenuity is to survival. He had self-worth and persistence as well. No one could make Andy feel like he was worthless or take away his belief in himself. He endured, knowing he deserved better, and set about to make it happen. The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as the saying goes, and Andy wrote letters every week to the prison board until they funded his new prison library.

Eventually his persistence led to his freedom too. If you chip away at a problem a little at a time, it will yield big results. Andy picked away at the crumbling concrete walls of his cell for years, hiding his work behind a series of pin-up girl posters, smuggling the powdered remains out into the yard on a daily basis. He took his time (he had plenty) and kept up the pressure. Eventually, he had his path to freedom. He never could have gotten away with it if he tried to do it all at once, or had given up because it was taking too long.

Andy always had purpose. Immediately upon arriving at Shawshank, Andy took up hobbies. He collected rocks, carved figurines, built up a great library within the prison, and got a job doctoring the books for the warden. He even tutored a fellow inmate, helping him pass his GED. Keeping busy, whether in prison or in life, makes the difficult times go faster, gives us purpose, and can even be enjoyable.

            He noticed beauty even in prison, and it made his time go easier. He read books, carved beautiful figurines, appreciated his pin-up girls, and let beautiful music take him away from the prison in transcendent bliss. Beauty would be easy to ignore in a place like Shawshank, but Andy let it help him rise above his surroundings.

Andy made friends and took care of them. He helped Tommy get his GED, he was a loyal confidante to Red, he finagled a deal to get beers for his work crew, he brought culture and beauty to the prison, and he offered his help in financial matters to several people at the prison. As a result, Andy was well-liked, respected, made real friends, and put himself in a position to help himself. But the most important thing he did for everyone was to remind them that the human spirit can never be imprisoned. He genuinely cared for others, rejoiced in their successes, and was loyal and kind to those who earned his friendship. He realized that people need to feel free and have dignity and respect. If we have this, we don’t need much else. When Andy got the guard to buy his work crew beer, and they sat on the roof enjoying the suds on a summer afternoon, it was like all of them had been set free for just a little while.

Andy teaches us that sometimes you just have to take a stand for what you believe in. When Andy found an old record album of beautiful opera, he locked himself in the office and broadcasted the beautiful music over the loudspeakers, so that all the inmates could experience a moment of beauty. He knew he would be punished, but it was worth the cost.

Andy shows us that we might have to be willing to go through some shit to get what we need. Andy knew that freedom meant wading and crawling through 500 yards of sewer to get to the other side, so he bucked up and just did it. The lesson here: Suck it up and do what’s necessary.

Next, we learned that transformation is possible. People can change if they learn how. Andy changed a lot of lives, but he probably had the biggest effect on Red. He changed Red’s outlook, and he taught Red not to be institutionalized and to have hope. Red also was rehabilitated. He was a different person than the brash young man who entered Shawshank.

Being honest is another theme. Red sat in front of the parole board time and time again, giving them the stock answers about how he was rehabilitated, not a threat to society, had learned his lesson, and he was always denied release. When Red didn’t care enough anymore to say what he thought they wanted to hear, he was just honest. He talked about the young man he was when he committed his crime, he talked about what he’d learned through the years, about his regrets, and about how he wished he could go back and talk to his younger self. Recognizing his sincerity and his true rehabilitation, the parole board approved his release.

            Another important lesson from Shawshank is not to be bitter. In the end, Andy claims responsibility for driving his wife away, and even feels bad for putting her in the position she was when she was murdered, even though he spent more than twenty years in prison, paying the penalty for a crime of which he was innocent. He wasn’t bitter. Instead of dwelling on others, and things he could not control, he reflected on himself and how he could learn and change, and be a better person.

And finally, we learn that it’s good to take a rest. Andy headed to Mexico to live a better life. He earned it, he deserved it, so he took it. At the end, we are left with the impression that Andy is going to spend the rest of his days living out the hopes and dreams of his long and unjust incarceration. He isn’t going to punish himself, living in fear or anger. He’s going to “get busy living.”

So, I apologize for going on so long on this topic, but this story is so rich with meaning and deeply insightful that I just couldn’t help myself. This is why it’s my personal favorite when it comes to movies, and why I consider King, who has an intuitive understanding of the human condition even in its most degraded state, the Charles Dickens of our era. So, what will it be? Good time or bad? Will you get busy living or get busy dying?—Christina Knowles

 

Revival: The Death of Hope by Christina Knowles

RevivalRevival by Stephen King Book Review**SERIOUS SPOILERS**

Revival is one of the most original books I have ever read–a strange statement about a book, which King admits was inspired and influenced by some of his favorite horror authors. Among these are Arthur Machen, HP Lovecraft, and Mary Shelley. Still, I’ve read a lot of King, and this one seemed particularly unique. Although unlike his novels, it did seem rather like a return to his earlier writing in a way. But I’ll get to that. First, a synopsis.

Revival (a brilliant and apt title, by the way) opens with a reflection of the “cast” of characters that make up a person’s life and a bleak foreshadowing of the impact of Reverend Charles Daniel Jacobs, the “fifth business” or “change agent” in the fifty-some year span of the life of our protagonist, Jamie Morton. Already I know this book is going to deal with some heavy issues.

The next scene is strangely creepy even though nothing unusual or bad really happens, but that is how King plays this tale—very subtle, at least until the last fifty pages of the book. Anyway, the scene opens with six-year old Jamie playing with his toy soldiers in the dirt when a shadow falls over him in the form of Reverend Charles Jacobs. I remember being tense through this scene, expecting something to happen, but Jacobs is a just a kind and warm person.

From this point on, we get to see Jamie grow up. We experience his childhood problems with siblings, school, we see his first kiss, watch him discover his passion for music, agonize over his descent into drug addiction, and breathe a sigh of relief when he is cured of it. Jacobs, on the other hand, we see only through Jamie’s eyes: a kind and understanding pastor, a friend, a healer, a loving and devoted husband and father—until a tragic and senseless car accident gruesomely takes the lives of his wife and young son. But that’s one of the first themes explored in this novel. Aren’t tragic accidents always senseless? I mean, when do they ever make sense? Reverend Jacobs cannot make sense of it either, and as a result, he loses his faith and takes Jamie’s along with it, then turns full-time to his obsessive hobby of experimenting with electricity.

Without going into too much detail, time goes by and Jamie meets up with the reverend as an adult with a slightly less than positive result. At this point in the story “something happens,” tying Jamie irrevocably to Jacobs. The “something happened” repeated throughout the story was another inexplicably creepy device King brilliantly used.

Later Reverend Jacobs becomes an atypical traveling healer, complete with a revival tent and offering plate, furthering the not-so-subtle but oh-so-apt commentary on organized religion. Jacobs serendipitously meets up with Jamie several times throughout his life, each time having a more negative effect. Our opinion of Jacobs, sadly, spirals downward along with Jamie’s feelings for the pastor until, finally, the friendship deteriorates into complete loathing and disgust, at least on Jamie’s side.

The first three hundred and fifty pages of this novel are fresh, descriptive, and thought-provoking. The characters are realistic and well-developed. I loved Jamie–and Jacobs, which made me feel strangely like I was betrayed by the reverend as much as Jamie was. However, the next fifty pages descends into a parody-like ridiculousness that made me feel like I was watching an old cartoon version of Frankenstein.

Throughout the novel, the allusions to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus were obvious. The object of Jacobs’ last experiment is named Mary Fay, daughter of Franklin Fay and Janice Shelley. She has a son named Victor (as in Victor Frankenstein), he is obsessed with power, particularly electricity and with what happens to us when we die. You don’t have to be a brain donor to predict what’s going to happen next.

Although I certainly appreciate King’s attempt to pay homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein, it was so over-the-top that I could not help picturing one of the old movie versions of it complete with Victor Frankenstein screaming, “It’s alive!” while I read. Still, I knew to expect the classic horror to appear sometime in the book. In fact, I looked forward to it, just to be disappointed in its cartoonish nature—but possibly, that is just a matter of taste. After all, King was a fan of the graphic novel, so maybe this was on purpose. He is such a brilliant writer; it likely was intentional. The contrast between the realistic and effective social and religious criticism and the fantastically surreal ravings of a mad scientist were a little disorienting, but perhaps, that was the point. My real disappointment lay elsewhere.

My only true disappointment in this novel was in the last few pages. I guess I didn’t expect it to end on such a depressing note, but here I am complaining about being surprised when a moment ago I complained of guessing the end. I’ve been lulled into believing that King usually has a hopeful ending to his novels with good winning out over evil, at least for the moment. But this novel is much more like some of his early short stories that end in complete and utter despair. The most horrifying part of this novel is when all hope is dead, and Jamie realizes that there is something much worse than nothing at the end of this life, something inescapable and that salvation does not exist.

I’m not really a happy-ending kind of girl, but the depth of darkness at the end of this novel left me disturbed, and not in a fun horror kind of way, but in a hopeless, bitter kind of way. But maybe that’s the true mark of horror, being forced to face the ultimate fear—that there may be something even worse than the unknown. 4 out of 5 stars.—Christina Knowles

Review: Danse Macabre by Stephen King

11563

I loved reading this book again after so many years. I did not realize how much of his analyses I have stolen for use in my classes I teach. I have learned so much about not only literature from Stephen King, but about writing as well. What I would have given to be sitting in one of those few classes he taught. But that is what this book is-it is sitting in a Stephen King lecture on the horror/science fiction/fantasy genres. It may even be a film class as well. His insight into the socio-political messages in these works, and his relating it to the current social situation of the times add so much more depth to understanding this genre.

I did, however, find myself disappointed that this book had not been updated in more than just the foreword though. It seemed very dated and, of course, did not include analyses of more modern works. I can certainly understand why King only added the foreword, rather than re-writing the whole book. That would have been an undertaking. My only other complaint about this novel, and the reason it did not receive a 5-star rating, is that King is quite repetitive throughout the novel. It seemed like he belabored his points on many occasions. I think this book could have been much shorter, even with King’s tangents and asides (which I love by the way). All in all, it is a grade read and even an education. Four out of five stars.

Review: The Shining by Stephen King

The ShiningI have to re-read this book every so often because I forget how very amazing it is. I, for some disturbing reason, tend to blend the absolutely hideous rendering of Stanley Kubrick’s vision of The Shining and Jack Nicholson’s dreadful, over-the-top, and unsympathetic interpretation of Jack Torrance with the much better TV mini-series version with Stephen Weber as Jack. I think I’ve seen them too many times. However, reading Stephen King’s original novel manages to erase these images, albeit temporarily. His descriptions are that good. I get a completely different picture of Danny, Jack, Wendy, and Hallorann.

This book amazes me so much because, not only is it beautifully written, chocked full of imagery, figurative language, and symbolism, but it is done subtlety, never once trying too hard. The characterization is done with such sleight-of-hand intonation, dialects, and attitudes that I don’t even have to try and imagine them. They are real.

The best thing about this book, however, is King’s ability to parallel the personality changes one experiences in the descent into alcoholism with the slow takeover of the hotel’s malevolent presences. At times, it is not clear which is worse, living with a severe alcoholic or these haunting spirits. King manages to manipulate you into fearing and despising Jack one moment and then into sympathetic compassion the next, something completely lacking in Kubrick’s version, sadly, because this gives the novel its depth and literary value.

This is definitely one of Stephen King’s best! Five out of five stars!–Christina Knowles

Read my review of Doctor Sleep.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: