This is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at books set in Kensington and Chelsea. But it’s not about Stephen King’s 2013 sequel to the Shining. I don’t know what the authors etiquette for re-using titles is but before Mr King used the title, there was another novel called Doctor Sleep by an American writer called Madison Smartt Bell. He was contemporary with some of those other up and coming American novelists of the 80s and 90s, Brett Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jay McInerney. He wrote a couple of books I liked: Waiting for the end of the world (a title which was also a song by Elvis Costello) and Straight Cut, what you might call an existential thriller set in the world of film editing, which I was very taken with at the time. A few years after in 1991 that he swapped his American settings for London in Doctor Sleep which apart from couple of excursions into Shepherds Bush and docklands is set almost entirely in the Royal Borough. And before William Gibson set the gold standard for Americans writing about London Bell did a pretty convincing job of writing about west London life.
Doctor Sleep is about a few days in the life of a hypnotherapist who suffers from insomnia. His wife leaves him, some former friends come to London and dredge up elements of his former life as a drug addict which he thought he’d left behind and he tries to treat a patient with multiple personality disorder. He wanders around trying all sorts of ways to find sleep, including martial arts and meditating on occult mysteries. And in the background the Notting Hill Carnival is proceeding through the bank holiday weekend, some violent punks are stalking him, a drug baron mistakes him for someone else, a sinister man from the government uses his services in an interrogation and a young girl has been kidnapped, possibly by a serial killer. Adrian Strother never quite gets to grips with any of this because he is looking for the oblivion of sleep.
Strother lives in North Kensington somewhere in or near Powis Square, seen here in photos from the early 1970s.
In the early pages of the book he goes out for some groceries and a live mouse for his pet snake. His journey takes him down Oxford Gardens.
He sees a couple of patients before he begins to suspect his wife has left him again. As he leaves the house the Carnival is beginning to come to life. He heads south and ends up in Brompton Cemetery.
“The cemetery itself was in a phase of dissolution, its crypts caving in, headstones tilting crazily some of them overthrown. Now I remembered: the gods, leaving the earth, will go back to heaven…….I was thinking, not for the first time that the broken crypts suggested the dead had found some way of escape and left their houses vacant”
“The central circle was tall with weeds……at the lintel of the far colonnade there was a flutter of a sparrowhawk landing….the sound of crickets was suddenly loud among the riot of flowering weeds.”
He makes his way down the Fulham Road to a martial arts centre somewhere south of the Chelsea Westminster Hospital. There he achieves a moment of unconsciousness when he is kicked in the head during a private bout with his friend Terence. “I found myself whirling through rings and rings of celestial fire.”
The next morning he is back in North Kensington.
The Carnival is in full swing.
“I felt the shimmer of the sound start a swirling in my blood….I was drunk with light and sound and sensation…….”
At some point he is aware of being followed. He gets into a fight with a couple of punks. He sees them everywhere for a while .
The dancers parade past him, and the revellers follow with the police maintaining a wary presence at the edges of the crowds. Are some of them looking for him?
The punks catch up with him eventually and as he passes through pubs, a police station and a prison (not to mention afternoon tea at Harrods) the swirling elements of his life go faster. He tries to walk himself into exhaustion, There are hallucinations, a stage performance of hypnosis and he sees his wife again. I won’t reveal the ending but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say it does involve sleep.
Doctor Sleep was turned into a film by the BBC starring Goran Visjnic and Shirley Henderson. It has been variously known as Doctor Sleep, Hypnotic, and Close my eyes. When I wanted to see it again for this post I had to get a German DVD version.
The film seems to abandon almost everything about the story including the Kensington and Chelsea setting (apart from one scene set in Battersea where the World’s End Estate is visible in the background). The insomnia is gone too but the hypnotherapy remains.
And in a way the hermetic philosophy which preoccupies Strother in the book comes to the fore in a plot about the child’s kidnapping, a form of reincarnation and a strand about churches across London forming a pentagram which is reminiscent of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat. Somehow all this is stylistically true to the atmosphere of the book if not to to the aimless quality of its protagonist’s circular journeys.
All of which makes it sound like a bit of a mess, but the result is actually pretty good, for me at least. Mr Bell evidently believed in the film enough to appear in it briefly as a patient of the hypnotherapist.
“There is such a marvelous patience in things that the hope of return cannot be exhausted and that is the end of the story of the shaikh. “
So don’t forget the other Doctor Sleep and its place on the roll call of novels set in Kensington and Chelsea.
You can still buy Doctor Sleep from online and other outlets. I enjoyed it just as much when I read it again for this post. Madison Smartt Bell went on to write a few more novels but I never got around to reading them.
Thanks to Sue Snyder for her carnival photos. Other photos are by John Rogers, Bernard Selwyn or anonymous photographers from the HistoryTalk collection.
I’m currently reading Lionel Davidson’s the Chelsea Murders. Now there’s a forgotten novel. I’m also on the lookout for more books set in Kensington and Chelsea of which there are many. I recently came across some Chelsea scenes in Mike Carey’s The Devil you know. Suggestions are welcome, the more obscure the better.
Incidentally, no disrespect to Stephen King intended here. I’ve read and enjoyed many of his books, but his Doctor Sleep seemed a bit long for me at the moment. I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in rapid succession so I’m off long books for a while.
Strictly speaking this post should have been my second annual Whitelands College May Queen post (1st here ) but events overtook me and we’ll have to return to the May Queens in a couple of weeks. Next week I hope to return with some previously unseen photos of a familiar place.
But before then I’d just like to mention an event taking place at Leighton House Museum on May 29th, an evening in the spirit of one of Lord Leighton’s own musical evenings, featuring music by Debussy, Schubert, Arne and Howard Blake. I don’t normally do current events on the blog but my colleagues at Leighton House have provided two images showing the room as it is now and how it was in Leighton’s day which are worth a look:
Further details at: http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/leighton-house-museum-1156202155
Now go back and find the missing girl.