Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

Stephen King has produced a sequel to his 1977 horror novel ‘The Shining’ because he states that the main character, little Danny Torrance, wouldn’t leave him:  he kept wondering how the child would grow into the man, and what kind of man would he be, that loving, sensitive, psychically gifted little boy who faced unspeakable horror at a place in Colorado called the Overlook Hotel when he was five years old.
Now we know.  Dan Torrance has not done well as an adult.  He is an alcoholic (like his father);  he has an explosive temper (like his father);  he still has his psychic ability – called the Shining – but he has suppressed it as much as possible;  it’s a curse rather than a gift,  and by the time he is thirty he has reached the bottom level of his own self-made hell.
Predictably, there is no other way to go but up, and Dan starts by drifting, seemingly at random, into the small town of Frazier New Hampshire where he meets several people who offer him practical and caring assistance to overcome his addiction.  Slowly, miraculously, life starts to regain its appeal;  he has good friends and a job he enjoys at the local Hospice – he can even employ the Shining to ease the passing of the terminally ill, and he is so compassionate and successful in his new role that he gains a nickname:  Doctor Sleep.  Life is good, indeed.
Until he is contacted via the blackboard in his room by Abra Stone, a little girl who has mystified her parents since she was a baby with what seem to be extraordinary powers of deduction and foresight.  She has reached out to Dan without effort, something Dan wouldn’t even attempt, and as he comes to know her better, he compares his abilities to hers: ‘ I’m a flashlight and she’s a lighthouse’.  Abra’s powers increase as she grows but become horrifying when she ‘witnesses’ the murder of a little boy thousands of miles away – he too has the Shining, and his murderers are a group of people who seek out and feed on the essence of children;  she is forced to ‘see’ them torturing and devouring the poor child:  the more pain, the more ‘steam’ the body releases.  With horrid certainty, Abra knows that they will eventually find her, this awful band of ghouls who call themselves the True Knot.  Disguising themselves as elderly mobile home drivers they amble across the country, conducting their evil business under the perfect cover.  They are an implacable enemy and they are coming for her.
And what happens next is why Stephen King is the true master of this genre:  he grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck and won’t let go until the last page is breathlessly read;  there are some great plot twists and the minor characters are a delight, ordinary people facing the unspeakable and incredible.  Dan’s alcoholism is portrayed with searing authenticity – Stephen King has conducted his own battle, so knows whereof he speaks - and as always there is a wonderful and very necessary vein of humour running through the horror.  What a great storyteller he is, and if there is anyone left on the planet who hasn’t read his work, well that’s their loss:  they don’t know what they are missing!

Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Jane Austen’s beloved classic novel ‘Pride and Prejudice must surely be one of the most well-known and exhaustively read stories in western fiction.  There are very few of us who aren’t familiar with the pretty Bennet girls, that bundle of nerves who is their mother, and their long-suffering but lovingly wise and tolerant father.  Miss Austen  is justly renowned for portraying with sparkling wit the differences in the social strata of the time between country gentlefolk and their ‘betters’, rich landowning aristocratic acquaintances;  the desperate attempts to find good matches for five daughters of differing talents;  and dangers to the security of the family property for lack of a male heir.
Now we review the Bennets from a new perspective:  the servants they employ to make their lives run smoothly, those anonymous toilers who silently keep the wheels of everyday life turning efficiently while the Bennets attempt to carve a better niche in society for themselves.
Housemaid Sarah has been with the Bennets since she was six;  she came from the workhouse where she was sent after the rest of her family died of typhus.  She knows she should be grateful to have found secure employment, even though it is hard, unremitting toil – she’s a drudge and she tries not to remind herself of the fact, but oh, there’s a big wide world out there and she longs to see it instead of emptying chamber pots and scrubbing unmentionables seven days a week.
Mrs. Hill the housekeeper is married to the butler;  long ago it was a marriage of convenience;  she was forced to give up a beloved child she gave birth to out of wedlock and Mr Hill offered her respectability even though he could not give her child a home.
And there is the new footman, James – he seems to arrive from nowhere and has a disturbing air of secrecy about him, especially as Mr Bennet hires him without references:  ah, the plot is thickening!
This is a lovely story, a fitting below-stairs counterpoint running successfully parallel to all the events in Miss Austen’s masterwork.  There is lively humour and great warmth in Jo Baker’s recreation of Longbourn’s unsung heroes who make the Bennets’ lives so seamless that they can concentrate on the weighty problems of the day, i.e. sending Sarah to Meryton, a walk of several miles in the pouring rain so that Jane and Lizzie may have new ‘shoe roses’ for the ball to be held that night – and that is only the least of Sarah’s duties:  she is convinced that if Jane and Elizabeth were forced to do their own laundry they would be more careful of where they stepped, instead of trailing their skirts and petticoats so gaily through the mud of country lanes.
Ms Baker illustrates graphically and with great skill the enormous gap between those who employed and those who worked in the early 19th century;  the cruelty, unconscious  or otherwise, of always assuming that one’s servants belonged to the family body and soul - but to accuse such people of slavery would be unthinkable, an outrage:  – nay, they are part of the family!  The Bennets treat their servants most kindly – most of the time.
And Ms Baker presents an interesting side to Mr Bennet, that man of honour:  his humanity is tested and found sorely wanting, and there are more clever little twists to enjoy in this beautifully written tale of hypocrisy and double standards. 
It is possible that Miss Austen would be puzzled that someone would wish to write of a class beneath that which she portrayed so beautifully, but I am certain that notwithstanding she would salute Ms Baker’s great storytelling talent.
What a lovely Christmas gift this would be for all Jane Austen fans – and there are so many!  Highly recommended.


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