A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Skitter, by Ezekiel Boone****

skitter Skitter is the sequel to Boone’s monstrous horror novel, The Hatching. Mutant spiders are on the rampage, fulfilling the worst nightmares of every arachnophobe, and president Stephanie Pilgrim has to decide how to save the USA—if it isn’t too late. I received my copy free and in advance from Net Galley and Atria Books in exchange for this honest review; copies will be available to the public May 9, 2017. Don’t miss out.

The first portion of the book is dedicated to bringing the reader up to speed so that those that didn’t read the first book can jump right in. The pacing feels a little slow, and I am thumbing my reader impatiently, wanting to find out what happens next. There is a fair amount of time discovering and discussing cold egg sacks versus warm, throbbing, glowing ones, but the emphasis is there for a reason, and it also makes for a more accessible read to a wider audience. At the 34% mark the ground work is done—so to speak—and the story breaks loose and really flies. The scene in Japan is particularly arresting.

So…imagine a bag of nice, warm spider eggs roughly the size of a bus; think of it as a “giant packet of doom in the corner”. It might hatch at any moment, and although the spiders may kill you, there’s a chance they may not. They spare some people to use as incubators for the next generation to come.

Let me just ask: how is your stomach doing right now? Are you feeling okay?

 

“Somebody gets bitten and then, what, five hours later they’re opening up and spilling out spiders like a bag of frozen peas?”

 

After The Hatching came out, I suddenly began noticing the spiders that came into the bedroom at night. It was uncanny how one turned up right after my spouse had fallen asleep, every single night. The spider would start in a far corner of the room—nothing to worry about here, ma’am, just minding my own business—and then gradually either circle to where it was directly overhead, or make its way to a location above the very center of the king sized bed, start a nice web, and commence to rappel doooown. I had never been that aware of them before, but now they seemed ominous. What the hell? Every night? Before he knew it, my spouse, who is nimbler than I, found himself drafted into spider-bombing the attic.

So yes, there is risk in reading this mesmerizing horror tale, but on the other hand, how can you not?

Ultimately, everything that can go wrong on Earth, does. There are mutant spiders from the South Pacific to Scotland, from Asia to Michigan. Quarantine zones fail. Hospitals fail. Other nations have tried everything, including using nuclear weapons on their own soil. And ultimately the president and her advisers wonder whether it is time to break out the Spanish Protocol.

I won’t tell you more than this; you need the book itself, either to take with you on vacation, or to make you feel better about the fact that you can’t go anywhere this year. Afterward, you’ll look at every little spider web in your living space with suspicion, and you’ll know it’s time for spring cleaning…right away!

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon**

IllWillThe good news is that if you’re looking for something dark, then Chaon is your author. I received a copy free and in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book was released today and is available to the public.

The plot centers around a psychologist, recently widowed, who’s coming unstuck. One of his sons has developed an ugly drug habit right under his distracted father’s nose, but his dad just keeps giving him money and doesn’t ask questions. At the same time, the psychologist’s brother, who was sentenced to two life terms for the murders of their parents, aunt, and uncle, is exonerated when DNA analysis is done.  Simultaneously a patient of Dan’s comes to him with questions about a series of drowning of drunken college boys that he says he believes are linked. At first, Dan assumes these are paranoid ramblings, but over the course of time, the patient begins to assume greater and still greater importance in Dan’s life, until the reader begins to wonder which of the characters is the psychologist and which is the patient.

The quality of the prose is surreal and at times, dreamlike.

Every reader has a threshold for the level of violence he or she can sustain before a book ceases to be deliciously creepy and instead becomes a thing we wish we never read. I knew when I hit the term “snuff film” before the twenty percent mark that I might be in trouble, but it was a passing reference and since I had an obligation to the author and publisher, I brushed it off and kept reading.  I read multiple books at a time, usually half a dozen or so, and I found that this book was the one that I just didn’t want to read. With the publication date upon me, I forced myself through to the end, and have been slightly queasy ever since.

I didn’t have any fun here; it was just too disturbing.

I want to be fair, and so I read carefully in order to see whether there are any clever literary nuances that might improve my rating, and the second star is included here because of some interesting and innovative stylistic tools that are employed. I liked the triple narrative that appears to be taking place simultaneously, and am interested in the business employed with sentence endings that begins with the father and ends with someone else.

The story’s ending is both unpleasant and disappointing, in that it doesn’t present any sort of epiphany or surprise. My reaction to the end of this whole unfortunate thing is, “Oh.”

None of this means that you won’t like this story. There’s a lot of buzz right now about the now discredited belief in Satanic rituals that were in the news during the 1980s, and if this is in your wheelhouse, maybe you’ll like the book. If your tastes run way out on the edge of horror, you might find it more appealing than I do. On the other hand, it won’t make the ending any less anticlimactic.

Recommended to those interested in extreme horror stories and with a bottomless wallet, or that can read it free or cheaply.

The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson****

themercyofthe The Mercy of the Tide is Keith Rosson’s debut novel, and it’s a strong one. Set in a tiny, depressed town on the Oregon Coast during the Reagan Administration, things start out dark, and they’re about to get a whole lot darker. Thank you, Net Galley and Meerkat Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge for this honest review. This book will be for sale February 21, 2017, and those that love good fiction with a working class perspective will want a copy.

The tiny town of Riptide, Oregon is knee deep in grief. A recent head-on collision claimed the lives of Melissa Finster, mother of Sam and Trina, and June Dobbs, the town’s beloved librarian and wife of Sheriff Dave Dobbs. The blow has left everyone reeling and on edge.

Someone else is missing Melissa too, though he can’t say so. Deputy Nick Hayslip–a Vietnam veteran who has no patience for the madness associated with that category, a vet who figures that you go home when the war is over, you put on your clothes and go to work and therapy is for losers–is coming unstuck. Nobody knows about his past with Melissa, and he finds terrible ways to keep her memory alive.

The teaser for this novel tells us that the story centers around Sam and Trina, and since the author generally writes the teaser, that must be his intention. However, I found Trina to be the weakest element here, and it was the other characters that made this story work for me. Part of this is just pure fickle bad luck for the author; I actually taught deaf kids of the same age as Trina, as well as gifted kids that age; and in one instance, a gifted deaf kid that age. It’s true that the gifts of highly capable children vary widely in scope and range, and that every child is unique, but the vocabulary and abstract concepts Rosson bestows on this kid are just not within the realm of the possible, and so Trina isn’t real to me until later in the book, when things other than her obsession with nuclear holocaust are used in the development of her character.

The most interesting character and unlikely hero here is Hayslip. Also beautifully developed are Sheriff Dodds and Sam’s closest friend, Todd, known familiarly as “Toad”. Alternating points of view from the third person omniscient give us ready access to their thoughts, impulses, and feelings.

An interesting side character is zealous Christian wingnut Joe Lyley, who says in a somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, “These are unlovely times.” I also liked Leon Davies, whose role I will let the reader discover, because it’s such a fun surprise.

The setting is almost an anti-tourist brochure. The Oregon Coast is well known for its wild, rugged beauty, but Rosson chooses to introduce the other reality, that of the many local denizens that endure a hardscrabble working class existence in small, chilly, damp coastal communities that rarely see the sun. The moldering smell of rotting wood, porches and floors with a sponge-like give under foot are dead accurate, although the town of Riptide is fictitious; the recession of the 80’s plunged small beach towns into a depression from which there has never been a moment’s relief.

This is a strong story with a tight, tense climax and a powerful resolution. This darkly delicious novel shows that Rosson is a force to be reckoned with; I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter***

littleheavenLittle Heaven is pure hellfire and horror, the sort of novel that makes a person check the closet at bedtime and leave a light burning in the hallway. I received my copy in advance from Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. The title is available for purchase now.

This story is set in the present, alternating with events from the past that help us understand what’s happening now. In this sense the story is a bit like All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda, in that part of it takes place in the past and moves its way toward the present. The method is a powerful way to build suspense, but it’s not the only tool in Cutter’s tool chest by a long shot.

Our premise is that Petty, child of Micah and Ellen, has been kidnapped by the Long Walker. Micah has foreseen this event and dreaded it, but he’s been unable to prevent it:

 

“And he’d felt it coming, hadn’t he? Something gathering toward his family—a feeling not unlike the thunder of hooves as a stampede of horses approaches. He might as well have tried to outrun his own skin. You cannot outfox the devil. You may be able to stay his approach if you’re lucky and a little crazy, but in the end, his black eye will ferret you out.”

 

He calls upon two other gun slingers, Ebenezer and Minerva, both of whom shared the same horrific past event as Micah. Each owes him a favor, and he’s calling it in. He wants his daughter back.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plotting of this story, and you’ll need to bring your full attention to keep track of it.  Ultimately the three find themselves at a cult in the mountains of New Mexico named Little Heaven.

I have never been so conflicted about a book so far into the narrative. On the plus side we have some outstanding word smithery, interesting characters, and some of the best monsters I’ve read in any horror novel. The narrative is fresh, confident and at times jaunty, dropping moments of drollery into unexpected places to help lighten an otherwise dark, dark, dark story. For these factors, I wanted this to be a five star read.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying that there are problems here. There are plot details that are too obvious, to me at least, to just read past, and when these occur, it’s like Toto pulling the curtain away from the wizard’s booth; the Great and Powerful Oz is just human, and at such moments, this is just another book. Examples that occur fairly early on include a character with a full load of morphine successfully racing out of town on the back of a horse; soon after this, another character who’s bleeding profusely decides to tell her life’s story.

Then there’s what is fast becoming a disturbing issue not limited to this author, but which I find unacceptable wherever I find it, and that’s when a character’s bad nature is demonstrated by the writer using ugly racist, sexist, anti-gay, and xenophobic language. When it happens once or twice in a novel, I grimace and move on, but this author finds such a variety of anti-Black slurs to fling at the Afro-British character named Eb and distributes them through so much of the text that an overall sour taste is left behind, and it’s not the sort that comes of reading good fiction. Cutter is skilled enough to use other methods to demonstrate the presence of evil, and he should do so.

Likewise, we don’t need sexist terms or a rape to show us that a character is sexist or that a woman has a traumatic past. Here I point, as I’ve done before, to director Jodie Foster, who said in an interview that she is dumbfounded by the way that so many male directors, when searching for a female character’s motivation, come over and over to the same conclusion: well, she was raped, and that’s why she behaves this way. It was rape, it was rape; she must have been raped! To Cutter and to others I say, stop it.  It’s trite, it’s ugly, and it’s obnoxious. For the same reason that most horror and suspense writers don’t deliver us into a warehouse full of kiddy snuff films and describe them in fine detail, authors should find other ways than hate speech and sexual assault to develop a character or display his or her malevolence.  Let’s not wear this one out any worse than has been done.

In other regards the story shines. The plot overall is complex and woven in a way that neatly brings us back to the problem at hand at the end.  Teenagers that enjoy horror as a genre may especially like this book, given its plethora of gore and the host of skittering critters. In fact, I found myself wondering whether there could be a Little Heaven video game. I’ve never wondered this about a book before, but the monsters are splendid, and so I could see it.

This book was released January 10 and is for sale now. Recommended with the caveats mentioned above.

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.

 

Interior Darkness, by Peter Straub****

interiordarknessPeter Straub is a legendary writer of horror, and has been publishing novels and short stories for decades. Those that have followed him everywhere and sought every new thing he has written won’t find much joy here. This new collection draws on earlier collections. So for fans of Stephen King looking to add a second horror writer to their favorites list, this book is a winner, and it is for this new generation of horror readers that I mark this collection 4 stars. For die-hard Straub fans like me that are looking for stories that haven’t been published before, it may be a disappointment. I read my copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.

The first story, Blue Rose, is one of the most chilling, most terribly great stories Straub has ever written. This is probably why once I was partway into it, I suddenly remembered the middle and ending exactly after all these years, with over a thousand works of fiction read between then and now. I also suspect this story may have been featured in multiple collections, although I don’t know it for a fact. Likewise, the stories featured from his Houses Without Doors collection were all stories I remembered having read more recently.

However, I found three stories that had been published earlier in Magic Terror that had somehow slipped my attention. In particular, “Porkpie Hat” and “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” are  well done. I became a Straub fan before I finished college, and also before I was a literature teacher. It is great fun to go back and look at all the miraculous ways he uses imagery and other devices in these two stories to build dread in the reader and connect us in a nearly-visceral way to his protagonists. There is only one story in this collection that pushes my ick button—that part of my gut that turns over when something goes from being sick in an entertaining way to being sick in a way that makes me really feel sick and regretful at what I’d read; this is “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine”, originally published as a novella.

One sad thing in coming back to Straub’s work with more depth of knowledge than I had when I first read it is that I see a problem I didn’t notice before. Straub cannot develop female characters, and falls prey to every stereotype imaginable. There is one story in the “Noir” section where he deliberately uses stereotypes tongue in cheek, but this apparently hasn’t caused him to notice that he practices many of the same habits in the rest of his prose. It is this failure that denies him the fifth star in my rating.

Horror writers love to use kiddies, and Straub is no exception. If you cannot bear to read stories in which fictional children are subjected to cruelties in order to move the story forward, don’t read this book. In fact, if that’s the case for you, this may not even be your genre. Sometimes Straub rescues the kid at the end of the story, but then again, sometimes he doesn’t. And sometimes, it’s gruesome. I would not have cared to read these tales when I was pregnant or raising young children; I was way too close to his fictional characters at that time in my life. I mention this in case it’s true for you right now.

Conservative Christians won’t like this book.

Most of these stories were written for the book buying public of the late twentieth century, the majority of which was Caucasian and perhaps more clueless than most white folks are today. I could not help but notice that none of his scary characters had blue eyes. However, there’s one nicely done story involving allegory as well as wry humor titled “Little Red’s Tango”. In this story a Japanese book buyer turns up and stays awhile; Straub avoided every stereotype and the character was both believable and respectfully drawn. I appreciated it.

Between what I have said here and the table of contents that you can find online, you should know now whether this collection is in your wheelhouse and whether it’s something you want to pursue. It is available for purchase now.

The Children’s Home, by Charles Lambert*****

thechildrenshomeLambert is a brilliant writer, and his absorbing new novel, The Children’s Home, is the best literary fiction I have read in some time. Thank you to Scribner and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for an honest review.

We start with Morgan, a bitter recluse rattling around in his immense family mansion, afraid to leave its walls for fear someone will see his face and ridicule him. His sister Rebecca runs the family business, and she hires Engel to serve as housekeeper and cook to him. Moira and David are two children that magically appear at his estate. Unlike normal children, they don’t leave messes lying around, whine, or need to be cleaned up; Morgan notices that whenever he wants to concentrate or not have the children around, they seem to vanish, appearing again when wanted.

Motherhood should be so sweet.

But back to the manse. Soon more children come, first in ones and twos, then in waves. Eventually Morgan can’t tell how many children are on his estate. Investigators show up eager to find that he’s breaking the law; they sniff around and leave without seeing anything. And to the burgeoning household a doctor is added. Morgan wants someone discreet and trustworthy to deal with his medical issues, and soon Dr. Crane is not only making house calls, but has a room of his own. And subtly, the power dynamics start to shift. A seismic change is in the wind.

Morgan doesn’t dare leave the estate. At first, the reader believes it is because he is afraid his appearance will be ridiculed, but then others also mention fear for his safety should he leave the walls of his property. And eventually we see the flipside of all this bitter privilege, the big house with the on call servants and medical care. Because someone has to pay in the end; there’s not enough wealth to go around when the few get so much of it, and we learn what is taking place outside those walls. That said, this is not a simple nod to social justice, but a juicy tale full of surprises.

I won’t take you any farther than that, but I must say that Lambert is a writer of undeniable talent. The Children’s Home is brilliant literary fiction. The allegory is a mite on the heavy handed side, but it doesn’t matter when the spell woven is as magical as it is here. I was expecting something along the lines of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but this is so much more than that.

Parents may want to be aware that there’s a great deal of violence inherent here. For some adolescents, it will be all the more delicious for it, but it is written for an adult audience, and some parents may want to read it themselves before passing it on to younger folk.

When you come down to it, you want to read it anyway. It comes up for sale January 5, 2016, but you can order it now, and you know you want to!

Revival, by Stephen King *****

revivalI was reading along; King was his usual irreverent self, cracking wise and bopping to the oldies. I experienced Jamie Morton’s childhood, his family, and the tragedy that befell their pastor, whom he adored. And then…something happened.

Mother, something happened.

As the landscape grows darker, I found Jamie again, older and much changed. The narrative filled me in on the years that were missed, and why things have gone so badly for him. Things are going to get better…and yet, so much worse. So very much worse.

Not too far in, Jamie has a repeating dream that I have had too. I was shocked! I wonder whether it is a textbook example of a grief dream? My repeating dream has been gone for over 20 years, but I had that hummer off and on for over ten before them, and was quite surprised to find them nestled into a horror story. I may try a search on it and see what pops up, not unlike Jamie’s joker in the deck of cards. You never know.

Is it just me, or has King been discussing, under cover of his standard things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, issues involving aging and death? Of course, in a horror novel, people die, and so there are grieving people in a lot of his books anyway. But in Dr. Sleep, the baddest of the bad guys prolonged their own lives at the expense of those who are young and have not had a fair turn on life’s merry-go-round yet. And although Revival doesn’t discuss these things as obviously, underneath it all lies a strong current, that we should leave when our turn is over, not tamper with nature, and accept that when it’s over, it’s really over.

If that wasn’t his intention, it’s not a bad message anyway, particularly for the Boomers whose music he incorporates into nearly every story. We want to stay, but when our turn is over, we just have to go, and make way for those that are being born.

If the reader doesn’t care to reflect on mortality in general, it is still one helluva great story!

Dr. Sleep, by Stephen King *****

Dr.SleepFirst of all, let’s give credit to a writer well past the age of official retirement, who not only writes a bad-ass, award-winning sequel to The Shining, but calls it #2 in the series and is obviously planning at least one more volume. I am not the first to salute Stephen King for his outstanding writing and his unstoppable imagination, but I do so anyway.

Next, let me get this off my chest: I’ve heard more than one person inquire whether they “have to” read The Shining in order to read Dr. Sleep. My admittedly caustic reply here is that if you are willing to read 600 pages of a complex novel and not entirely understand the multiple references he makes to the original novel, then go right on ahead. If it weren’t a series, he would not name it #2. Get it? Go. Read. The Shining. First. Or fuggeddaboudit.

One thing that always strikes me when I read King’s horror novels is that though they deal with seriously spooky material, at their foundation is a bedrock sense of decency. In fact, maybe they work better that way, because they remind us that there is something really excellent in the human spirit that is worth defending.

In this case, we have a group of oldsters that look like senior citizens, to the casual human observer, but who are actually over a hundred years old, and who live off the “steam” emitted by the death of young people that have The Shine. It’s much better if the young folks die slowly and painfully; there’s more steam to breathe in. They call themselves The True Knot. They travel in motor homes, roaming the country much of the year in search of…uh…sustenance.

Abra is thirteen years old, and her family has known for a long time, in an uneasy, back-of-the-mind way, that she has special abilities. It all started when she was an infant, and it freaked them out, but they loved their little daughter, and her uncanny abilities included reading the responses of others. And so, as she grew toward adolescence, she let them think she had outgrown The Shining, because they wanted it to be true.

But things have changed. Abra’s Shine is so powerful that Rose, the leader of the True, can sense her far, far away. Rose wants Abra’s steam, and she intends to have it.

But it cuts both ways, because Abra knows that Rose and her evil cadre have killed children, and she wants them to see justice. Not cop justice; you can’t take something like this to criminal court, even if cops will believe your story. No, she wants, if you’ll pardon the pun, True justice. But to get it, she’s going to need help, and Tony–the “ghostie” boy who once helped young Danny Torrence through a very rough spell at The Overlook Hotel in Colorado–can hook her up with the man he assisted, now a middle-aged hospice worker in New England. Dan helps those who have to pass to the other side. He eases their suffering, and he lets them go. But now it is more urgent that he help Abra, to defend her from the True, and avenge the deaths of the children they have murdered.

And within this tale we have the ultimate question about mortality. If I were going to guess, I would say King has made his peace, at least to some degree, with death, and maybe he even used his own writing to work through it. Because most of us that aren’t convinced that Jesus  or some other supernatural deity is there to provide us with a whole second, even better life have a somewhat panicky response to the notion of our own death. It’s so damn final.

But in an oblique way, King reminds us that when we leave, we make room for someone else to be born. If science could unlock a cure for death, find a way for the Boomer generation (or another) to stick around forever, the population of the Earth would grow too large for the newbies to thrive.

I don’t mean to frighten King’s readers–and those considering reading him who have not yet done so–into thinking this novel is some hectoring lecture. It isn’t. It is a tautly paced thriller with supernatural components. Nobody receives this many awards as a fix or a fluke. He earned them all.

Yet for those of us on the downhill slope of middle age and beyond, the underlying message resonates: at some point, we have to get off the merry-go-round and give someone else a turn.

Once in awhile people ask me to name my favorite Stephen King novel. It has been impossible for a long time, and just got even harder! All I can say to you is that if you have read The Shining, you just can’t miss this one. I found mine in a used bookstore, and it was still a bit pricey for me, but as a source of recreation, I knew it would be a great investment…and I was correct.

Brilliant!