For a long time — embarrassingly long, by most standards — I lived in mortal fear of ghosts, haunts, religious icons, gods. When I was seven, a hallway light burnt out in a flash of phosphorescence that instantly terrified me, because I knew it was not a broken filament but the ghost of my recently-dead grandfather. Pale mouthing specters lined the concrete walls of the basement, just beyond the range of the bare hanging bulb.
I got older, but the fears abated only a little. One summer, working as an ESL teacher, I rented a room in a convent in Dorchester with a chapel on the first floor. We’d been warned about cutting through the nearby park at night, but my anxieties were never about the park and always about the chapel, with its red electric candles and the hollow-eyed statue of Jesus with his dripping heart. I got married, I bought a house, and still I wouldn’t look in mirrors after dark. If I had to go to the basement for any reason, I tore down the stairs and back up in hopes of outrunning whatever lurked beneath the risers.
All of that changed, I think when I had kids. The change was thorough, though I didn’t notice it until a year or two on, when — struggling up from the basement with a box fan — I paused suddenly in the cobwebbed darkness and felt: nothing. No fear, no apprehension, no premonition of ghosts in the shadows, only some irritation at the clutter of paint cans and drop cloths accumulating in the back corner, and the realization that I better hustle, the baby was wailing upstairs.
Can you miss your fears? I didn’t think I did, but then I read “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to “The Shining,” on a family vacation, and for three glorious mosquito-bitten nights, I was young again. “Doctor Sleep”—do I even need to summarize it? — follows little Danny from “The Shining” into an adulthood tortured by the traumas of the past; it’s a kind of redemption tale, with Dan using his fading psychic power to help a little girl, Abra, who has abilities greater than his own, against a band of vampires who feed off the “steam”—the supernatural potential—of the children they entrap and murder.
Put that way, it sounds gaudy, but one thing I’ve always loved about Stephen King is how intricately he renders feelings of fear, grounding them so deeply in mundane detail that while the grinning corpse in the bathtub may not be real, the fear of it is as familiar as your own face. Those are the details that pinned me to the pages of “Doctor Sleep”: Not the dead body waiting behind the bathroom door, but the “skeletal” sound of wind “clattering” through the palm trees that Danny hears just before he opens it. Not Rose the Hat hovering outside Abra’s second-story bedroom window, but Abra’s quiet realization that no one can help her with this demon, not even her beloved parents, who are right downstairs talking on the phone. Who doesn’t remember that childhood feeling of terror and isolation—of being so close yet worlds away? While I’m glad that I can now walk past a mirror at night without averting my eyes, too many years of adult competence have dulled the edge of fear—and its accompanying quality, empathy—that used to animate my world. “Doctor Sleep” resurrected it for another day.
Francie Lin is the interim Books editor for the Globe.