In high school, I gave up his books. I quit right in the middle of The Dead Zone. I was binging: Carrie, Night Shift, The Shining, The Stand, and then half of The Dead Zone – one after another, all at once. I was having dreams. Not exactly bad dreams, but unsettling ones.
So I took a break – a thirty-year break from Stephen King. Well to be truthful, I read the Bachman Books and The Talisman when I got out of college. Also, The Green Mile when it was assembled into one book. I couldn’t put that one down.
But thirty years is a long time for four books. Especially since I’ve always considered myself a fan. I’ve seen the movies too, not Cujo and Christine – those seemed too stupid – but all the rest. Although I bailed in the middle of Pet Sematary, it creeped me out. Something about having to go to my basement in the middle of the movie to collect the laundry. I’m a wuss.
Well written books mess with my brain. I take on the angst of whatever story I’m reading. Right now it’s Jonathan Franklin’s 438 Days – fisherman Salvador Alvarenga fourteen month drift across the Pacific Ocean in a small, open fishing boat. Deep into the book, for a couple of chapters, page after page, Alvarenga edges closer and closer to death. The other night I foundered into this section of the story. And then I couldn’t go to bed. I was hungry, my head throbbed, my joints ached. Feeling starved, dehydrated and wracked with scurvy, I scarfed down a huge bowl of cereal and then tossed and turned in bed for the next hour or so.
I love post-apocalyptic science fiction. I’ve read a ton of it. I’ve read the best of it. Octavia Butler, George Stewart, Larry Niven, Kim Stanley Robinson, and of course Stephen King. I’ve read so much, I can’t even remember the titles.
And true to form, my steady diet of PA left me prepping for the apocalypse. I stored food in my basement. I bought surgical masks to escape the inevitable flu. I formed a plan to stock-pile dollar coins and booze as currency when things went sour. I even contemplated buying a shotgun. But gun ownership is a line I won’t cross, so I stopped reading post-apocalyptic, too.
Adrift with nothing to read, I combed the library weekly, hoping to stumble onto a new book or author. I’ve matured out of many of my old standbys – Hiaasen’s too silly; his stories are all the same. T.C. Boyle lost his mojo years ago. Tom Robbins seems dated, misogynistic. Vonnegut, I’ve read it all, twice. My shelf-browsing has brought me to some fine authors – Roland Merullo and Christopher Moore come to mind – but too often, I strike-out.
I needed a fallback. Koontz? His books are so unmemorable, more than once I’ve found myself in the middle of a story when I realized I’d read it before. For the past couple of years, my standard fall-back has been Stephen King.
Some of these books have been nice distractions. Fun, quirky stories to occupy my time: Cell, Joyland, Blaze. A few went a bit deeper, they made me think. 11/22/63, Hearts in Atlantis, a reread of Rage and The Long Walk. And two of his books proved to be life-altering, Duma Key and Dr. Sleep.
Wait, what? Really? These are not great books. Duma Key might even be a bad book.
It’s part of the Stephen King genre where he cherishes his every word, refuses to edit out any redundancies and crams in as many side stories as he can invent. Even the plot is dopey. Guy paints Satan inspired masterpieces with the phantom arm he lost in a construction accident.
Dr. Sleep at least has something. It’s the sequel to The Shining, but it has a story of its own. It’s an interesting book, reasonably concise (for Stephen King), it has a great back story that we already know. Plus, it has a serious subplot. Dr. Sleep is at least twice as good as Duma Key, but it’s only half as good as The Shining.
When someone tells me about a life-changing influence, lingering at a crossroads, when a seemingly coincidental encounter sets life’s destiny in motion – the English teacher who instills a love of literature and spawns the next John Steinbeck; the military thriller that turns a juvenile delinquent into a Naval officer; the rock concert that launches an unlikely but brilliant music career – I think: Pfft! Things don’t work like that. There’s no divine providence, no predestination. To borrow a phrase, there’s no fate but what we make.
But there I sat, lurking at my own intersection, wondering which way to go. I’d been writing for two years. Agitated, introspective stuff, free-form self-analysis. Things I’d never told anyone, even things I never told myself.
And week after week, I stumbled into shocking epiphanies. I have social anxiety. I have OCD, I’m an alcoholic. I’m a writer! I labored daily at my keyboard, surprising myself. Not just with the content, the prose, but also with the style. It was seemingly inspired… by something. Amazed that what I was writing was good. Good and getting better. The whole time I was left wondering when it would end. When would I use up my supply of material, exhaust my secrets, lose my mojo. When would I have nothing left to say?
Obsessing over these discoveries, my writing, and my predicted, unavoidable writer’s block, these two books helped me frame my thoughts. They gave me perspective, the external point of view of a man who seems to share many of the same fears as me.
Duma Key took a long time to finish. Truly, it isn’t a good book, and it’s over 600 pages long. But as I slogged through it, I related so strongly to the story, that I didn’t give up. I felt like I was reading about myself.
The story: Edgar Freemantle, a successful business owner, and a happy family man wrecks himself in an accident. He ruins his brain and loses an arm. He moves to Duma Key to quietly recover and hide from the world.
He’s sold his business, lost his wife, and has no reason to live except his new found desire to paint. And what he paints is astounding. Dark, disturbing, confusing, but astounding. Like me, the art he creates is beyond his abilities. And like me, he doesn’t know where it’s coming from or when it will end. Painting is an urge, an itch he needs to scratch. So he scratches while the scratching is good.
Edgar’s art ultimately rekindles his relationship with his wife and also with his life. He leaves Duma Key and rejoins the world he’s left behind – accepting the disabilities he’s sustained. He continues to paint, but the itch is gone. He has settled his demons.
In Dr. Sleep, Danny, the lovable protagonist from The Shining has grown up. And now he’s a fuck-up. An alcoholic, a drug user, and sometimes homeless. He still has the “shining” – that ability to communicate with others, with other realms, using his mind. But he numbs it into submission with drugs and alcohol. In this episode of Danny’s life, he attracts the attention of a group of ghouls who feed on the type of energy Danny exudes.
For me, the book’s subplot was the hook – Danny’s struggles with sobriety. This is a topic Stephen King knows well. King, once addicted to a variety of drugs and alcohol, is now sober. Almost thirty years ago, he straightened himself out after an intervention by his family and close friends.
Danny has no intervention. He has no friends, no family. He just has his list of bad experiences and a threat of losing yet another job if he doesn’t get his act together.
Danny’s a bottom dweller. He hit bottom years earlier and stayed there. It’s clear that Danny’s sobriety can’t hold on, too much bad stuff has happened to him, the draw to escape from life is just too strong. I found myself rooting for him, identifying with him. I realized if Danny could quit drinking, if Stephen King could straighten out, well I could too. Even though I read the entire book with a glass of wine in my hand.
I never had an intervention either. I don’t need one now, but I needed one in the past, badly. My feelings are actually a little hurt that no one intervened. Although once, my brother, possibly the least confrontational person in the world, said to me “it isn’t a contest, you don’t need to be the drunkest person in the room.”
And he nailed it. I was unquestionably a drunk. But I never experienced the Danny-esque crash landing at the bottom.
I had things going for me. I was good at my job, and I took it seriously. I was fearful of getting a DUI, so I took taxis. I lived alone, so no one had to listen to me stumble in drunk on Friday night, throw up for hours on Saturday morning, and then watch me gear-up for another round on Saturday night.
Duma Key and Dr. Sleep lingered in my thoughts long after each book was finished. I began reading about Stephen King’s life. Trying to better understand how we intersect. Dr. Sleep is clearly autobiographical, and I suspect Duma Key is as well. Edgar’s train-wreck life and amputation, allegorical for Stephen King’s alcoholism and his ultimate acceptance of sobriety.
Like Edgar, for the past year or more, I’ve been waiting for my reservoir to run dry. Waiting to fire up my computer and find… nothing. No story to tell, no inspiration to follow, no self left to analyze. I definitely have days, even weeks like this, but then the itch returns, my mojo is back. I’m spilling out my soul, and I’m still surprising myself with what comes pouring out.
Like Danny, I’ve quit drinking… some. For the last ten years, intoxication wasn’t a problem. I haven’t gotten drunk since I moved to Gettysburg in 2005. But the draw to drink daily was uncontrollable. I would find myself thinking about my first nightly drink by noon. If family plans disrupted my ability to settle in for my needed glasses of wine, I would try to find a way to escape those plans. Other times I would just stay up well into the night so I wouldn’t miss out on my dose of alcohol.
After I finished Dr. Sleep, after a month or two of reflection, I decided to address my need to drink head-on. Sunday through Thursday became alcohol-free, an attempt to break my habit of nightly drinking. An attempt to gain some power over alcohol. Dr. Sleep is still poking at me. More and more I want to quit drinking altogether.
Each of these mediocre books left an immeasurable mark on my life. Certainly, other books have done this as well. Prepare for Armageddon. Give up eating beef. Investigate a new religion. Grow a beard.
But in those cases, the influence faded in time. My Stephen King epiphanies have stayed with me well over a year. They’re still at the forefront of my thinking. They are still guiding my life, helping me become the person I hope to be.
Originally published on The Other Stuff
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