Dispatch From a Stephen King Reading: “‘Doctor Sleep’ Is About Death”

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Owen King introduced himself very simply last night at a fundraising appearance to benefit books in New York schools. He was going to read from Doctor Sleep, he said, then deadpanned, “Which I wrote.” Across the stage, his father Stephen gave him the finger. The crowd of 500 or 600 people, crammed into a theater at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, ate it up.

They were, of course, superfans, already primed for the experience. Of course I didn’t poll all of them, but standing in line, waiting to get in, I heard several talking about how they’d traveled from other parts of the Northeast to come. Even though we were forbidden from taking pictures or recording the event, I watched more than a few take selfies on an empty stage. And it’s a cliché, sure, but it’s so rare these days to be in the presence of people who are just that openly excited about books of any kind that it was infectious.

Admission: I was there, of course, because I’d never seen him in person before and I like King, too — I mean, really like him in the way you deeply, deeply love your formative influences. I could explain why, but since it would involve clichéd digressions about reading IT and The Stand more times than I care to count as a teenager, I’ll spare you more than that. It may come as no surprise that I personally find it fruitless to rehash ye olde “is Stephen King really that literary” debate. It’s not as though, given the mass popularity of the man and his cultural influence, it actually matters what Harold Bloom thinks of him. And in fact Bloom lost the battle on this front a long time ago — pretty much ever since John Leonard wrote in the New York Review of Books that King’s books all possessed “something wonderfully intimate and microbrewed.” The National Book Award gave King a medal and he basically laid waste to his critics in his speech, and since then no one cares if you leaven your DeLillo with a bit of King — and thank god for that.

Because the truth is the man is damned entertaining. Even last night this was in great evidence. I tend to hate readings — most authors aren’t exactly great stage presences, and besides have no sense of comic timing — but both King and his son were pretty great at giving their texts life. It helps that they were reading mostly the blood-and-guts (and in the son’s case, phone sex) portions of their work, but the voice inflection and hand gestures were the work of actually-pretty-good performers, rather than people dragged begrudgingly to the podium by editors and publicists and agents.

It’s not that King seemed to find all the attention he gets welcome. For what he himself dubbed the “bullshit bullshit bullshit” portion of the evening, where the two Kings were to be engaged in a staged conversation. Owen King whipped out a Stephen King trivia book he’d found in a used bookstore. King père groaned about that “evil fucking quiz book,” which he said signaled his career’s end. Then he (rather hilariously) quickly failed a series of three questions about his own work, though a man who has written as many books as he has can no doubt be forgiven for mixing up some details.

The softball and audience questions were rather less insightful; it’s hard to get much on influences in so short a program. The giddiness in the room made up for it anyway. We’ll have more on the book King was talking about — Doctor Sleep — later this week. In the meantime, he gave a pretty excellent, pithy summary of his new sequel to The Shining: if that first book was about “ghosts,” he said, “Doctor Sleep is a book about death.” Mortality seems to be on his mind. But the cult, if last night was any evidence, is doing just fine.