Posted in Books

Doctor Sleep

Doctor_SleepStephen King’s “The Shining” is the scariest novel I’ve read to date. I can remember enjoying it one bright Saturday afternoon, feet up on the coffee table—that is, until young Danny Torrence disobeyed Dick Hallorann’s instructions to avoid Room 217 in the Overlook Hotel. After I put my eyeballs back in their sockets, I slowly put the book down, shakily got to my feet, put on my coat and left my apartment for the rest of the day. I needed a brain-wipe, pronto.

After fielding so many reader inquiries over the years as to young Danny’s fate (a question which also popped into his own head periodically), King has responded with “Doctor Sleep.” But if you’ve picked up a copy with the thought that it’s going to be “The Shining, Part Two,” you’ll be incredibly disappointed. It’s not really of that genre, nor I suspect did the author intend it to be. What we have here is a continuation, not a sequel, that spans about 20 years in the life of Danny (now Dan) Torrence, post-Overlook Hotel.

In “Doctor Sleep” the real horror is not supernatural but earthbound. The adult Dan is an alcoholic, and I’m sure King drew on his own experiences as a former substance abuser to produce the kind of hell he depicts for his hero. Nevertheless Dan still shines—his ability to read thoughts near and far has if anything increased over the years. He becomes a health care worker with the welcome talent of mentally soothing terminal hospice patients into eternal sleep. But he still drinks and because of it leads a somewhat rootless existence. After finally hitting rock bottom, he lands in a small New Hampshire town where some very astute individuals steer him to AA. When another person who shines—the infant girl Abra Stone—reaches out for him telepathically, the focus of his life changes drastically.

There’s a sense of other-worldliness in “Doctor Sleep” which makes it quite different from the white-knuckled ride of “The Shining.” Yes, there are some very bad creatures here—a clan called the True Knot, the members of which live on “steam,” the tortured breaths of children with a talent to shine whom they torment and kill (King displays his characteristic sneaky wit by disguising the Knot as redneck retirees who travel the country in an armada of RVs). However, the grue is kept to a minimum—we only see one such crime, most of which takes place off-stage, so to speak (and believe me, the little King tells us is quite enough). Abra, with her extraordinary abilities, is the object of their desire since her steam could provide them with eternal energy. When she and Dan join forces to combat Rose, leader of the True Knot, the tension becomes unbearable.

But what makes “Doctor Sleep” so memorable is Abra’s awe-inspiring power which she begins to display as a toddler. As Dan says at one point, she’s a veritable light-house—he’s only a flashlight by comparison. King’s gift for characterization makes her incredibly winning; she fairly leaps off the page. Her relationship with Dan is the engine that drives the novel, and their unorthodox method of communication evokes a sense of wonderment.

In its depiction of the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil, “Doctor Sleep” is ultimately a fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen variety. And it’s definitely worth the read to see Stephen King flex this type of muscle.

Posted in Books, Movie Reviews, Television

Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)

Given the stresses of our times, are we surprised that “end of the world” scenarios exercise such a strong pull on the imagination? No matter the method—mass death by unleashed viruses, unstoppable zombies or murderous invaders from space—the story always forces us to think “What would I do?” Because my movie-going started with Saturday matinees during the 1950’s—an era dominated by The Bomb—I cultivated an early appreciation of the threatened mass wipe-out. I’m not talking about morality tales like “On the Beach” or “The World, the Flesh and the Devil,” as absorbing as they may be. I’m talking “It’s our last chance to save the Earth!” My not-so-guilty pleasure.

“Deep Impact”: Heroes All

Premium cable is currently showing a better than average example of the genre, 1998’s “Deep Impact,” featuring a massive comet on a collision course with Earth. Now, I should warn you: this is a slightly cheesy movie. High quality cheese to be sure, what with Morgan Freeman, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Duvall and Maximilian Schell gracing the cast. Unfortunately, though, there’s also an incredibly wooden Téa Leoni as the MSNBC reporter who uncovers the true threat the comet poses to the world. Her facial expressions change not one whit during the entire course of the film, though her drunken scene with her father and his new young bride after learning that humanity is pretty much doomed is a nice bit of black humor. Fortunately the supporting cast makes up the difference.

Reviewing all the plots in “Deep Impact” is basically a waste of time, since you’ve seen nearly all of them in other sci-fi movies anyway. Let’s just say the highlights are Morgan Freeman as one terrific U.S. President, Charles Martin Smith in a quintessential Charles Martin Smith role as the astronomer who confirms the existence of the deadly comet, Vanessa Redgrave just for being Vanessa Redgrave, and best of all, the crew of the spaceship Messiah launched to plant nukes within the comet to blow it off course. There’s a great subplot involving Robert Duvall as the veteran astronaut, at least 25 years older than his crewmates, who’s treated as virtual surplusage by the team. That is, until disaster strikes and his savvy makes all the difference to their mission. Prepare to blubber as you watch the crew’s good-byes to their loved ones, and hear the brief, gallant exchange between Co-Pilot Mary McCormack and Commander Duvall: “May I say it was a pleasure serving with you, Captain?” “The pleasure was all mine, Andy, the pleasure was all mine.” Sob.

There’s another collision course in Ben H. Winters’ “The Last Policeman,” the first volume of a projected trilogy. Though nominally a mystery, the book’s backdrop is the impending strike of a massive asteroid which may wipe out the planet. Our hero, a cop in southern New Hampshire, is coping with the disappearances of people headed off to fulfill their Bucket List fantasies and the suicides of those who see no point in waiting for the end.  Winters is an excellent writer, and while the central mystery of the novel is somewhat of a no-brainer, the characterizations and dialogue are spot-on. Best of all, that looming asteroid and the human reaction to its doomsday effect keep you turning the pages. The second volume of the trilogy, “Countdown City,” has just been published, and the disaster clock is still ticking.

UnderTheDomeI’m also enjoying “Under the Dome,” the CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. While the author doesn’t threaten total doomsday, the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, cut off from the world, are now coping with shortages that may see their end. The town is populated by folk totally familiar to anyone who’s read more than one King novel—the psycho kid, the slut, the upstanding cop, the crooked politician, the studly guy with a mysterious past (Throw in a goodly dose of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and you’re all set).

But this one’s got some interesting wrinkles. The upstanding police chief is dead, and the law in town is a young Hispanic female officer who unfortunately has just deputized the village psycho. The hippest kid under the dome is teen-aged Norrie, who was caught in town along with her two moms when disaster struck. She and young Joe McAllister are prone to some type of contagious seizure caused by the dome. When afflicted, these two chant something about pink stars falling. In a recent experiment they deliberately induced this state while a smart phone recorded their seizures. And the playback showed one of the creepiest things I’ve seen in a very long time—Joe sitting up, while still in an altered state, to look squarely into the camera and gesture “shhhh.” Hoo-boy. Good times ahead.

NOTE: The title of this post comes from that Guy Lombardo evergreen, which is still played by bands everywhere on New Year’s Eve. Take heed.

Posted in Books

Of Time, Stephen King and Jack Finney

I once counted myself a Stephen King fan—not a major one, though I thought “The Shining,” “The Stand” and “Dolores Claiborne” were excellent reads. But over the years I began to lose patience as his novels grew longer. My last attempt was “Duma Key,” which I tossed aside after the first hundred pages. Yet when the New York Times included “11/22/63” on its Notable Books list last December, I went “hmmmmm.” I’ve always loved time travel fiction, and was intrigued that King had written a novel in that genre. Although it took me another ten months, I finally picked it up, gobbling the last quarter of the book as quickly as I did my Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a spellbinder.

“11/22/63” is not without flaw. Its premise, a travel back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination, is, ironically, the least interesting part of the novel. Lee Harvey Oswald, his Russian wife, his overbearing mother and the people around him pale in comparison to the fictional characters who populate time traveller Jake Epping’s world during his journey from 1958 through 1963. Most memorably these include the folks our hero meets in Jodie, Texas, where he settles as a high school teacher two years before the assassination and falls in love with the unforgettable Sadie Dunhill, the school librarian.

There are some problems in the narrative. I would have liked a more detailed (and earlier) explanation of the mysterious Yellow Card Man who seemingly ushers Jake into and out of the past. I don’t buy the altered universe King spins as the aftermath of changed history, though I have to say it’s eerie to see how accurately he captures the rhythm of JFK’s speech in a telephone conversation between Jake and the President. Ultimately what makes “11/22/63” such a great read is the detailed journey King takes us on through the landscape of the late 50’s to the early 60’s. The author has created a remarkable world that should have been the subject of its own novel, instead of taking a back seat to the Kennedy assassination. The end of the story is the most poignant conclusion I’ve read in years.

King long ago revealed his admiration for Jack Finney, a writer whom he again praises in the “Afterword” of “11/22/63.” Best known as the author of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Finney is the generally acknowledged master of the time travel story (And before anyone sends me a nasty email, yes, I’ve read Richard Matheson’s “Bid Time Return” aka “Somewhere in Time.” A great book, but Finney did more with the genre). His best short fiction—“Second Chance,” “Where the Cluetts Are” and “The Love Letter”—is unsurpassed and unforgettable. Finney’s preoccupation with escaping into the past culminated in “Time and Again,” his 1971 “illustrated novel” about Simon Morley’s visit to 1880’s New York. The book is a gem. In addition to the excellent mystery that serves as its core, the novel features a host of wonderful photographs from that era, along with Si’s drawings—he’s a commercial artist—vintage advertisements and other ephemera.

I became a Finney fan in high school after reading several collections of his short stories. When “Time and Again” appeared, I grabbed it from my college library and read it through every class I had until I finished it. After many years it’s again being developed as a film, but this is one book I had always hoped would never reach the screen. Its magic lies in those lovely black and white photographs of old New York, the wonderful details of life in that era that Finney so lovingly shares and Si’s “think it and you’ll be there” method of time transport. Occasionally you come across something that simply can not be improved upon, and “Time and Again” is a perfect example.

So if you need a quick vacation (albeit to the 1880’s), just settle in with Jack Finney. The journey should not be missed.