Trains of Thought

The subject of this week’s Lore episode has got me thinking: what are the most unnerving trains to appear in the horror genre throughout history? In terms of fiction, these works immediately come to mind: Robert Aickman’s “The Trains,” Robert Bloch’s “That Hellbound Train,” Stephen King’s The Waste Lands and Wizard and Glass (featuring that riddle-loving pain, Blaine the Mono), and Clive Barker’s “The Midnight Meat Train.”  Aside from the film adaptation of that Books of Blood story, there’s also Terror Train and Train to Busan in the cinematic realm. But the most memorable engine of terror might be the locomotive that delivers Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show to Green Town in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The sounds of that funeral train’s whistle are not soon forgotten:

 The wails of a lifetime were gathered in it from other nights in other slumbering years; the howl of moon-dreamed dogs, the seep of river cold winds through January porch screens which stopped the blood, a thousand fire sirens weeping, or worse! the outgone shreds of breath, the protests  of a billion people dead or dying, not wanting to be dead, their groans, their sighs, bursting over the earth!

The carnival’s late-night arrival also forms a signature scene in the 1983 film version:

 

Any great train narratives in the horror genre that I failed to track here? Let me know in the comments section below.

Frightfully Timely

An invisible scourge that originates in Asia before spreading devastation across the U.S….

Civilization brought to an abrupt standstill…

Sheltering at home to limit exposure to the dreaded threat…

Face coverings as a new way of (helping to save one’s) life…

No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rereading Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel Bird Box this weekend (in anticipation of the July 21st release of the sequel, Malorie), I was struck by just how relevant the book feels to the crisis currently gripping the country. Bird Box doesn’t deal with the spread of a terribly infectious disease per se, but Malerman’s clever variation on the post-apocalyptic novel (willful blindfolding becomes the permanent norm after the arrival of mysterious creatures whose merest glimpsing induces madness, homicidal violence and spectacular suicide in people) captures the panic and paranoia (but also the resilience and heroism) that have marked the past three-plus months. It dramatizes the need to adapt, and the struggle to survive in a world that is suddenly drastically different from the one people had grown up in (and accustomed to).

The novel affords the modern reader the opportunity to address fears (for the health and safety of one’s family, for example) that our present reality has made quite prominent. Bird Box forms a testament to the psychological import of horror fiction (make no mistake, the novel has the thoughtful extrapolation of science fiction, and all the suspense of a thriller, but is ultimately a work of horror featuring some unforgettably harrowing set-pieces). It exemplifies Stephen King’s notion (stated in the foreword to Night Shift) that “the horror story is not so different from the Welsh sineater, who was supposed to take upon himself the sins of the dear departed by partaking of the dear departed’s food. The tale of monstrosity and terror is a basket loosely packed with phobias; when the writer passes by, you take one of his imaginary horrors out of the basket and put one of your real ones in–at least for a time.”

Malerman’s forthcoming novel Malorie was completed prior to the outbreak of the ongoing pandemic, but it will still be interesting to see just how much the Bird Box sequel speaks to this uneasy moment that Americans are enduring.

 

Countdown: The Top 10 Stephen King Novellas

In honor of today’s release of Stephen King’s latest novella collection, If It Bleeds, here is my list of the top 10 novellas King has written to date. (Note: works that strain the “novella” label with their page length and really form novels–Apt Pupil, The Langoliers, The Library Policeman, Low Men in Yellow Coats–have been excluded from consideration).

 

10. “Ur” (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams)

King has a unique knack for making the wackiest premise seem plausible, as seen in this 2015 (revised) novella involving an uncanny Kindle that can download books from alternate realities and newspaper reports from the future. A fun, Twilight Zone-like read that is made even more enjoyable by the tie-ins to the Dark Tower series.

 

9. “Hearts in Atlantis” (Hearts in Atlantis)

The titular novella from King’s 1999 linked collection is perhaps longer than it needs to be (and goes into too much detail about the rules of the card game called Hearts). But this slow-burning narrative eventually ignites in a moving climax. King perfectly captures the late 60’s (counter)cultural scene and its uneasy legacy.

 

8. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” (Everything’s Eventual)

This 1998 prequel-style novella came as a real treat for fans in the agonizing interim between Dark Tower novels. The “slow mutants” in the opening scene form daunting–and haunting–antagonists for the gunslinger Roland, but are soon trumped by a group of Gothic, unearthly nuns and a swarm of hungry bugs. “The Little Sisters of Eluria” works as a stand-alone read as well as a piece of the greater Dark Tower narrative puzzle.

 

7. “Big Driver” (Full Dark, No Stars)

King took a risk with this 2010 work by delving into the rape-revenge subgenre, but he handles the horrifying subject matter as tactfully and non-pruriently as possible. The writer-protagonists’s full awareness of genre conventions helps steer the novella clear of the cliched and formulaic. King’s skills regarding characterization and plot development are on full display in this tale of Tessa Jean’s grueling transformation into a new woman.

 

6. “Secret Window, Secret Garden” (Four Past Midnight)

This 1990 novella concerning a pair of authors caught in a deadly rivalry forms a shorter but no less rewarding riff on King’s novel The Dark Half. The sense of dread mounts relentlessly here as King builds to a killer plot twist. I just wish he’d stopped there and hadn’t added an epilogue that takes the narrative out of dark crime territory and opens the door to supernatural explanation.

 

5. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” (Different Seasons)

While it no doubt has been overshadowed by the stellar film adaptation, this 1982 leadoff to Different Seasons is a knockout in its own right. the entire novella (versus select moments of Morgan Freeman voiceover in the film) is presented as the narrative record of the character Red, who suspensefully relates a variation on a locked-room mystery. The perils of prison life prove even more terrifying on the printed page, but King’s message of hope is also all-the-more poignant.

 

4. “N.” (Just After Sunset)

This 2008 novella is at once a fine hommage to classic works (Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”) and a clever and original variation on the tale of cosmic horror. Obsessive-compulsive disorder combines here with the threatening influx of titanic entities from a world lurking just beyond our own (dark gods stunningly depicted by King’s sublime prose). “N.” is an indisputable masterpiece of sinister imminence.

 

3. “1922” (Full Dark, No Stars)

It was a very bad year for the characters in the narrative, but an exquisite thrill for King’s legion of Constant Readers. King updates Edgar Allan Poe’s tales of murder and madness and gives them a thorough American Gothic sensibility (the action here is set on a creepy farm in Hemingford Home, Nebraska). This 2010 novella also features arguably the most horrifying scenes ever written about rats.

 

2. “The Mist” (Skeleton Crew)

Ordinary people thrust together amidst an extraordinary situation: it’s a narrative paradigm that King has employed repeatedly over the years, but this 1980 novella furnishes one of the earliest and best examples. The narrative (in which the main characters are trapped within a supermarket as a meteorological/monstrous apocalypse unfolds outside) channels the claustrophobia of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but also has all the action and grand scale of a 1950’s style Big Bug film. King assembles a varied cast of Lovecraftian nasties destined to star in readers’ nightmares. (For fuller discussion, check out my previous post on “The Mist.”)

 

1. “The Body” (Different Seasons)

This quasi-autobiographical 1982 novella features many of the key themes of King’s work: the formation of childhood bonds (as good friends face off against bad bullies), coming of age, and coming to terms with the mystery of death. More than any other work in the groundbreaking collection Different Seasons, “The Body” provides evidence of the enormity of King’s talent and the diversity of his imagination. The narrative proves that King does not need to rely on bloody horror or supernatural mayhem to engage and entertain his readers. This Castle-Rock-set piece should land on the short list of King’s greatest works, of any length.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand (2)

Last month, I covered a mob scene from early on in Stephen King’s apocalyptic epic, The Stand. Today I would like to return to that novel, which climaxes with a very interesting variation on a mob scene.

Late in chapter 73, Larry Underwood and Ralph Brentner are delivered to the front lawn of the MGM Grand, where they face a gruesome execution (being torn limb from limb by a rigged apparatus). Randall Flagg’s Las Vegas minions have all gathered for the impending bloodletting:

They spread out across the lawn in a rough circle. They were standing in the casino parking lot, on the steps leading up to the lobby doors, in the turnaround drive where incoming guests had once parked while the doorman whistled up a bellhop. They spilled out into the street itself. Some of the younger men had hoisted their girlfriends on their shoulders for a better look at the upcoming festivities. The low murmuring was the sound of the crowd-animal. (1077)

Such set-up has the making for a quintessential mob scene, but the demeanor of the crowd-animal proves surprisingly subdued: “Larry ran his eyes over them, and every eye he met turned away. Every face seemed pallid, distant, marked for death and seeming to know it.” Scattered catcalls and a small cheer when Larry spits on the chains presented to him give him a momentary hope that the crowd might rise up against Flagg, “[b]ut his heart didn’t believe it. Their faces were too pale, too secretive. The defiance from the back was meaningless. […] There was doubt here–he could feel it–and disaffection. But Flagg colored even that. These people would steal away in the dead of night for some of the great empty spaces that the world had become” (1078). For Flagg, these violent public spectacles are less an administration of justice than an exercise in crowd control; he keeps his people in line by keeping them cowed by fear. Even as things start to fall apart in Las Vegas here at novel’s end, Flagg’s terror still creates restraint. When Larry shouts a warning to the crowd that next time it might be their turn to die this way, he can’t quite bring the crowd’s energy to critical mass: “That low murmur again, rising and angry…and the silence” (1079).

Whitney Horgan, one of Flagg’s own underlings, picks up the cause for Larry, decrying the barbarity of the ritual. But Whitney, too, fails to stoke a response: “Dead silence from the crowd. They might all have been turned to gravestones” (1081). When Whitney is dragged forward by Flagg’s black magic (“His sprung and mushy black loafers whispered through the grass and he moved toward the dark man like a ghost”), the witnesses to this evil marvel remain mute: “The crowd had become a slack jaw and a staring eye.” Flagg’s graphic destruction of Whitney with a “blue ball of fire” similarly elicits only quiet amazement: “The crowd released a long, sibilant sound: Aaaahhhh. It was the sound people had made on the Fourth of July when the fireworks display had been particularly good” (1082). Rather than a rabbleroused mob, Flagg’s people have been left utterly agog.

All this, though, is King’s means of setting the stage for a stunning reversal. Suddenly, the crowd does in fact turn unruly: “There was a scream, high, clear, and freezing. Someone broke and ran. Then someone else. And then the crowd, already on an emotional hairtrigger, broke and stampeded” (1083). All hell breaks loose upon the last-minute arrival of the irradiated, warhead-lugging Trashcan Man: “He looked like a man who had driven his electric cart out of the dark and burning subterranean mouth of hell itself” (1084). Dread of nuclear annihilation detonates crowd chaos: “They ran, scattering to all points of the compass, pounding across the lawn of the MGM Grand, across the street, toward the Strip. They had seen the final guest, arrived at last like some grim vision out of a horror tale. They had seen, perhaps, the raddled face of some final awful retribution” (1083). Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” is thus reenacted on a grand scale.

Curiously, Mick Garris’s 1994 miniseries adaptation presents an exact reversal of King’s mob scene. When Larry and Ralph arrive, the crowd is a vibrant throng, barely controllable in its bloodthirstiness. These Las Vegans push and chant and brandish their guns; they cheer Flagg like a rock star when he takes the stage. Then, when Trashcan Man crashes this Times-Square-type party, the crowd just stands immobile, rooted in predominantly mute place.

The climax of King’s horror epic has always been somewhat problematical. The “Hand of God” (1084) that triggers the warhead is too much of a “deus ex machina” plot-resolver (and also appears lame when visualized by the ostensible special fx of the miniseries). But hearkening to the deliberate beats here–as King continually diffuses a mob scene and then allows it to explode at last–does make the ending of The Stand much more appreciable.

 

Work Cited

King, Stephen. The Stand. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Mob Scene: The Stand

Chapter 26 of Stephen King’s 1990 novel The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition might rank as the most horrifying chapter the author ever wrote. It presents a montage of scenes dramatizing the disintegration of American civilization as the “Captain Trips” superflu virus wreaks havoc on the populace and precipitates mass rioting and murderous rampaging across the nation. For instance:

TV newscasters held at gunpoint by army thugs and forced to feed misinformation about the outbreak manage a brief coup (before being “summarily executed on charges of treason” [213]), during which they air footage of a military vehicle dumping bodies onto a barge in Boston Harbor: “women, old men, children, police, nurses; they came in a cartwheeling flood that seemed never to end. At some point during the film-clip it became clear that the soldiers were using pitchforks to get them out” (213-14). In Duluth, Minnesota, a man walking the street wearing a sandwich board bearing such handwritten wisdom as “THE EVIL DAYS ARE AT HAND” learns the hard way the meaning of self-fulfilling prophecy: “Four young men in motorcycle jackets, all of them with bad coughs and runny noses, set upon the man in the khaki shorts and beat him unconscious with his own sandwich board. then they fled, one of them calling back hysterically over his shoulder: ‘Teach you to scare people! Teach you to scare people, you half-baked freak!'” (217)  At Kent State University, thousands of nonviolent protesters are mowed down by machine-gun fire; in the midst of this “turkey shoot” (224), the soldiers turn their weapons on one another. Downtown Des Moines, Iowa, is “gutted” by widespread rioting and looting; “as daylight left this flat green land,” the city “looked like the aftermath of some monster New Year’s Eve party after sodden sleep had claimed the last of the revelers” (228).

Perhaps the most disturbing section of the chapter, though, details an episode of ultraviolent reality TV: “At 9:16 P.M., EST, those still well enough to watch television in the Portland, Maine, area, tuned in WCSH-TV and watched with numbed horror as a huge black man, naked except for a pink leather loincloth and a Marine officer’s cap, obviously, ill, performed a series of sixty-two public executions” (226). This hulking lunatic is the leader of a black “junta” of deserting soldiers that has taken over the set of the “Dialing for Dollars” game show and uses a large glass drum to draw the driver’s licenses of some unlucky winners: “‘Inthenameofthefathersonandholyghost,’ the big black man intoned, grinning, and pulled the trigger. There was a large smear of blood and brains behind the spot where PFC Stern was being forced to kneel, and now he added his own contribution.” Further pandemonium occurs when the regular army breaks into the studio and goes to war with the deserters:

The black man in the loincloth went down almost immediately, cursing, sweating, riddled with bullets, and firing his automatic pistol crazily into the floor. The renegade who had been operating the #2 camera was shot in the belly, and as he leaned forward to catch his spilling guts, his camera pivoted slowly around, giving his audience a leisurely pan shot of hell. The semi-naked guards were returning fire, and the soldiers in the respirators were spraying the entire audience area. The unarmed soldiers in the middle , instead of being rescued, found that their executions had only been speeded up. (227)

Underscoring the blackly comic absurdity of the scene, the bloody orgy is finally “replaced on home screens by a picture of a cartoon man who was staring glumly at a cartoon TV. On the cartoon TV was a sign that said: SORRY, WE’RE HAVING PROBLEMS!” (228).

King punctuates the chapter with a transcript of a State of the Union address that evening, in which the President’s claims about the virulence of this flu strain are belied by his own fits of coughing and sneezing. Likewise, the disingenuity of the President’s attempt to pass off occupying army forces as mere National Guardsmen “called out in some areas to protect the populace against hooligans, vandals, and scare-mongers” (230) is proven by the various preceding scenes of mayhem in the chapter.

Chapter 26 of The Stand is frighteningly plausible; readers in this present time of the coronavirus pan(dem)ic can only hope that it is not also terribly prescient. Let us pray that we can trust more in the truth of King’s recently-tweeted PSA than in the nightmare scenario of his fiction.

 

WORK CITED

King, Stephen. The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

 

Deadly Misstep

The title of Stephen King’s latest short story (published in the March 2020 issue of Harper’s Magaizine) might suggest a scaling of a rotting staircase in a haunted hilltop mansion, but the setting and situation in “The Fifth Step” prove much more mundane. Retiree Harold Jamieson is spending a quiet mid-May morning in Central Park reading the New York Times when a nondescript fortysomething male sits down alongside him and asks a favor. The man admits to being an alcoholic, and needs someone to help him perform the Fifth Step of his AA program (“Admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”). At first wary at being approached, Harold eventually agrees to lend an ear. The stranger proceeds with his confession, and these two figures appear fortuitously met. Of course, this being a King tale, all is not fated to end well.

However expected, the dark turn of the story’s climax manages to surprise with its sharp execution. A second go-through of the brief narrative shows just how deftly King prepared for the final twist, planting subtle clues (including the very name of the alcoholic character) along the way. “The Fifth Step” likely won’t take home a Stoker Award, but this well-crafted conte cruel successfully delivers a nasty little jolt to Constant Readers.

 

Castle Rock Reaction

Some thoughts on the second season of Hulu’s series Castle Rock, which concluded today with episode 10, “Clean”…

The plotting in Season 2 was much stronger than that in the show’s inaugural run, where obtuseness tended to produce lingering confusion. Here in Season 2, the puzzle pieces steadily fit together into a more perfect assembly–no small feat, considering the multiple plotlines unfolding and telling quite disparate stories (psychological vs. supernatural horror).

There are a couple of “holy shit” twists woven into the narrative, starting with the end of the first episode (I don’t think I will ever look at an ice cream scoop the same way again). The reveal at the end of episode 7, which hearkens back to Season 1 and gives viewers a new perspective onto those proceedings, was positively staggering.

Without a doubt, the highlight of Season 2 was the performances by the cast, led by Lizzy Caplan. Playing a younger version of Annie Wilkes, the actress has no trouble filling Kathy Bates’s formidable shoes, and gives a no-less-award-worthy performance. She easily convinces viewers that this is Annie Wilkes, via both nuances of body language/voice inflection and more histrionic outbursts. There are levels of complexity here to the character that aren’t present in the Stephen King novel or the Rob Reiner film, and the season-long interaction with her “daughter” (a terrific Elsie Fisher) was magically dramatic (my one quibble: naming the counterpart to Annie from Misery “Joy” came off as just a bit too cutesy). Thankfully, the show’s producers don’t simply appropriate one of King’s most iconic characters for mere cachet value; Season 2 works to demonstrate what ultimately turned Caplan’s Annie into the deadly fanatic immortalized by Bates on the big screen. Annie’s 10-episode arc on Castle Rock proves supremely satisfying (yet also heartbreakingly tragic).

Alas, the same cannot be said for the show’s other thread involving the reincarnated cultists. The sinister body-snatching of Castle Rock’s citizens makes for some chilling scenes (the group’s use of the Marsten House as the home base for their unholy crusade also forms a fine toward Salem’s Lot), but this plot doesn’t pay off as well as it might have. For starters, the cultists’ expressed goal of global conquest seems too grandiose, in the sense that it reduces the significance of the town of Castle Rock (such apocalyptic stakes seem more associated with other King locales like Derry and Haven). As if not quite sure how to handle this material, Castle Rock resorts to a series of bad action-film clichés. Yes, there’s a lot of noisy gunfire and booming explosions, but what the audience really wants to hear more about is that mysterious moaning of the schisma that began in Season 1. “Clean,” though, abruptly washes its hands of any explanation, leaving Castle Rock in a literal cloud of dust (shifting across the border into Canada for the remainder of the episode). The fact that we aren’t granted any further insight into the enigmatic Kid/Angel yet again makes me want to channel my inner Annie and call the show’s writers a bunch of dirty birds.

Castle Rock can be frustratingly uneven at times, but the series is never less than entertaining. I do hope it returns for a third season, one that finally answers the questions that have been raised over the past two years.

 

Flanagan and Garris Chat

In case you missed it…

Mike Flanagan was the guest on last week’s (#68) episode of Mick Garris’s podcast Post Mortem. The two directors renowned for their respective adaptations of Stephen King works discussed the recently-released Doctor Sleep, the 1997 TV miniseries version of The Shining, the Kubrick film, as well as the source novels. This hour-long interview is a terrific listen, brimming with interesting details. Some of the highlights:

  • Flanagan discusses his plan for navigating the Room 237 vs. Room 237 conundrum, and the reason he made his final choice as to what to put on the hotel room door in the film.
  • Flanagan reveals the aspects of King’s novel that so “desperately” made him want to direct a film version of Doctor Sleep.
  • Garris explains why King nearly pulled the plug on the miniseries just before shooting was set to begin.
  • Flanagan cites his favorite scene from the finished film version of Doctor Sleep–a scene, he says, that convinced King that returning to the Overlook (still standing at the end of the Kubrick film) was a good idea.
  • The directors discuss the salient differences between the novels The Shining and Doctor Sleep, and consider both books in the context of King’s biography.
  • Flangan identifies the specific scene from King’s The Shining that he has been “honoring” throughout his filmmaking career.

 

Roman à Cleft

Like some down-home Hitchcock, Stephen King has made a (second) career out of brief acting appearances in film and TV adaptations of his works. By the time of the publication of his monster opus IT in September 1986, King had already portrayed the gone-to-weed Jordy Verrill in Creepshow and a man rudely insulted by an ATM in the opening of King’s directorial debut (and perhaps thankfully, finale) Maximum Overdrive. These appearances established a pattern of darkly comedic, happily hammy cameos that has continued for decades now, but King took a much grimmer approach when working himself into the pages of one of his own books.

In the “Derry: The Fourth Interlude” section of his novel IT, the author shows up in somewhat thinly-veiled disguise. I refer to the character Eddie King (Edwin is Stephen King’s middle name), who is self-deprecatingly depicted as “a bearded man whose spectacles were almost as fat as his gut.” Eddie King’s sharply abbreviated role in the book consists of playing one of the victims of Claude Heroux’s gruesome axe attack  inside Derry’s Silver Dollar tavern in 1905. Amidst this Pennywise-inspired slaughter, Eddie (whom the labor organizer Heroux targets as part of a group of murderous union-busters) suffers some especially bloody redress:

The axe came down, its head almost disappearing in King’s ample gut. Blood sprayed all the way up to the Dollar’s beamed roof. Eddie began to crawfish on the floor. Claude pulled the axe out of him the way a good woodsman will pull his axe out of a softwood tree, king of rocking it back and forth to loosen the clinging grip of the sappy wood. When it was free he slung it up over his head. He brought it down again and Eddie King stopped screaming. Claude Heroux wasn’t done with him, however; he began to chop King up like kindling-wood.

King would go on to incorporate his real-life near-death experience (his rundown by Bryan Edwin Smith’s van in 1999) into the Dark Tower series, and has also appeared in the (cleaved) flesh in a recent Mr. Mercedes cameo (pictured above), but nothing can beat this scene in IT where the nominal stand-in for the horror author ends up pulped. The interlude sections of the novel serve to trace Derry’s long, dark, and deadly history, and it appears the haunting influence of this fictional locale even extends to the town planner himself.

 

Pleasant Nightmares: A Review of Doctor Sleep

For his latest directorial effort, Mike Flanagan no doubt faced a task as daunting as the prospect of spending a winter snowbound inside the Overlook Hotel. He would be helming a sequel to one of the most revered horror films of all time, and his own endeavor inevitably would be measured against a Shining touchstone. Not only is an adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep no easy task (considering the book’s size and scope) in and of itself, but Flanagan also had to deal with the fact that the author famously hates the Kubrick interpretation of the precursor novel The Shining. That Flanagan manages to overcome these obstacles and create a film both faithful to its source text and aligned with the Kubrick classic is testament to the director’s considerable cinematic skill.

The novel version of Doctor Sleep presents a sprawling narrative, featuring three parallel plotlines that span decades in time and cover countless miles of national ground. Flanagan’s adaptation streamlines matters without sacrificing breadth or complexity; it hearkens to all the major beats from the book. The film takes the time to establish its various characters, and takes off thanks to the brilliant performances turned in by its three leads. Ewan McGregor is terrific as the flawed yet endearing Dan Torrance (a relatable American Everyman in the vein of Christopher Walken’s John Smith in The Dead Zone). Dan’s struggles with alcoholism and anger management throughout his adult life are successfully established without ever becoming cliché or tedious. Just as her character steals gifted kids’ “steam,” Rebecca Ferguson steals scenes here as the simultaneously sexy and sinister leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat. In lesser hands, her character might have been reduced to a (figurative) mustache-twirling, (literal) black-hatted villain, but Ferguson renders Rose a multi-faceted and fascinating figure. Lastly, newcomer Kyliegh Curran sparkles as Abra Stone, the paranormally-talented young teen stalked by the True Knot. This superpowered adolescent (whose shining ability far exceeds Dan’s) could easily have become annoying or cartoonish, but Curran’s impressive work makes Abra a finely nuanced rather than one-note character.

At so many points this adaptation might have skidded off the road, but time and again Flanagan navigates deftly. King’s narrative is rife with telepathic gymnastics that could have proved quite hokey-looking when projected onto the big screen, yet such scenes are not only convincing here; they are marked by sublime cinematography. Likewise, the “cycling” of True Knot members when they get a taste of mortality could have been cause for some cheesy visuals, but the film’s dramatization of these death throes shows off some eye-popping special effects.

I imagine that the ultimate question that a review of Doctor Sleep has to address is: Is it scary? The answer is yes, but with the addendum that moviegoers should expect a different viewing experience than they had with The Shining. That earlier film established much of its atmosphere from a sense of terrifying confinement (as the Torrances are trapped within a quintessential Bad Place), whereas the sequel is more expansive in its horror, typically foraying into the great American outdoors. The ghosts of the Overlook are overwhelmingly haunting in their posthumous habitat, but the supernatural nemeses in Doctor Sleep have a knack for messing with character’s heads form afar. The vampy campers comprising the cult of the True Knot are undeniably creepy, in the flesh and even in broad daylight. Their nocturnal torture (with the headlights of their vehicles beaming eerily on them) of an abducted Iowan child is as chilling as anything Kubrick depicted in the 1980 film.

One significant difference between the book and film versions of The Shining is that the Overlook is not destroyed at the end of the latter, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to note that the still-standing (now abandoned) hotel figures into the proceedings in the film version of Doctor Sleep. Flanagan invokes the iconic scenes, settings, weapons, and revenants of the Overlook, not just as facile callbacks, but as a strategic key to Dan and Abra’s battle with Rose. This climax thus diverts radically from King’s novel, yet satisfies in terms of plot logic and proves wildly entertaining (even in its quieter moments–there’s a conservation between Dan and a ghostly bartender that’s worth the price of admission alone). Fans of Flanagan’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix will revel in the work the director does with the Overlook here.

Personally, I was captivated by Doctor Sleep, and marveled at the delicate balancing act it pulled off. I also understand, though, that there will be plenty of viewers resistant to this movie. Some will criticize it for being nothing like The Shining, while others will treat its borrowings from the earlier film as almost sacrilegious. But like the True Knot in a feeding frenzy, Doctor Sleep is bound to gather steam: I believe appreciation of the achievement will grow steadily over time, and in retrospect the film will be regarded as Flanagan’s magnum opus.