Literary cat shout-out: Azreel

Literary cat shout-out: Azreel

©Warner Bros. Pictures

Danny Torrance has been through enough weird stuff in life that a psychic cat doesn’t faze him, even if it is named after the Angel of Death for good reason.

One of the coolest and most mysterious cameo characters in Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, is Azreel the cat (named for the Judeo-Islamic Angel of Death, Azrael, though King spells it with a double-e). He appears in the 2013 novel and the 2019 movie.

Adult Dan Torrance finds himself working as a hospice orderly in New Hampshire, where he uses his “shining” talent to help dying residents cross over when their time comes. And his trusty sidekick comes in the form of the fuzzy and preternaturally wise Azreel, the nursing home’s resident cat who has a knack for predicting when someone is about to die.

©Warner Bros. Pictures

Azzie is described in the novel as a stray that wandered in off the street and got adopted by guests, and he’s said to never have been wrong in his predictions in the six years he’s been around. He wanders the nursing home freely, lounging where he pleases, coming around for his twice-a-day bowl of Friskies, but he’s also regularly found outside of residents’ rooms when it’s their time to go.

When staff see Azzie outside someone’s door, they don’t call a doctor; they call Doctor Sleep, a.k.a. Dan Torrance. Dan follows where Azzie leads, and together they comfort people as they move on to the next plane of existence—Dan with a psychic projection of the person’s fondest memories, Azzie with a steady purr and reassuring weight on their legs.

Dan’s colleagues call Azzie Dan’s assistant and, despite the cat belonging to no one in particular, insist he’s Dan’s cat because of their unique bond.

©Warner Bros. Pictures

You may have heard the real-life story of Oscar the cat, a therapy cat who lives in a Rhode Island nursing home and got his 15 minutes of celeb-purr-ty (good one, me) in 2007 because of his track record predicting the deaths of terminally ill patients. King said in an interview Oscar was the inspiration for Azreel.

In fact, he inspired the whole novel. To quote King from his interview: “I saw this piece on one of those morning news shows about a pet cat at a hospice, and according to this story the cat knew before anybody else when somebody was going to die. I thought to myself: ‘I want to write a story about that.’ And then I made the connection with Danny Torrance as an adult, working in a hospice. I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m gonna write this book.'”

Oscar’s style is similar to Azzie’s, choosing to nap next to people a few hours before they die. The theory is that Oscar can smell biochemicals released by dying cells. His ability his been debated, but I prefer to think like King that he’s just a psychic little Angel of Death.

©Warner Bros. Pictures

Can we just take a second to appreciate how Kubrick-Shining that hallway shot is? Thoughtful touches like this are one of the many reasons I love the Doctor Sleep film. The director Mike Flanagan killed it in the adaptation department. AnYwAy, we’re here to talk about cats, but I highly recommend this movie.

By the end of the book after many years have passed, Azzie is still alive and kicking, albeit with a limp, doing his spooky stuff around the hospice. He’s even in the last few pages, assisting Dan with a special patient. It’s a lovely scene that makes my eyes do this weird watery thing… King is not afraid to write about death, and there’s a lot of comfort to be found in watching his characters cope with it.

And if death includes a warm, purring cat by your side, there are worse ways to go.

When evening gave way to night and the pulse of Rivington House slowed, Azzie became restless, patrolling the corridors like a sentry on the edge of enemy territory. Once the lights dimmed, you might not even see him unless you were looking right at him; his unremarkable mouse-colored fur blended in with the shadows.

He never went into the guest rooms unless one of the guests was dying.

Then he would either slip in (if the door was unlatched) or sit outside with his tail curled around his haunches, waowing in a low, polite voice to be admitted. When he was, he would jump up on the guest’s bed and settle there, purring. If the person so chosen happened to be awake, he or she might stroke the cat. To Dan’s knowledge, no one had ever demanded that Azzie be evicted.

They seemed to know he was there as a friend.

—Stephen King, Doctor Sleep
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I went to a Shining pop-up bar

Happy Halloween!!! 🎃

Bangor, Maine: Where IT’s at

Bangor, Maine: Where IT’s at

Last month, I paid a visit to Stephen King’s house and some other King-related spots in Bangor, and I might as well have been stepping into Derry, Maine and the pages of It. Besides the house, here are all the other cool King things I saw in town.

First stop on the tour was the Paul Bunyan statue that inspired the scene in the novel where the statue comes alive and attacks Richie. (The statue’s also featured for a second in It: Chapter Two, though not this exact one since it was filmed in Canada). This was one of the scariest parts of the book for me—inanimate objects coming to life was always a big fear of mine as a kid—and it was kind of creepy to see in person.

Next up was the sewer grate at Jackson and Union that, according to King lore, served as inspiration for where little Georgie gets murdered by Pennywise. This was just down the street and around the corner from King’s house, and I could imagine him walking around the neighborhood when writing the novel, cooking up wonderfully demented ideas.

I saw two grates at this intersection: According to the internet, the round one is allegedly the One, but the square one looks more like the original cover. Who knows—a demented, supernatural clown luring you into either would be equally bad. In any case, I was the weirdo taking pictures of ordinary-looking sewer grates, though I’m sure that neighborhood is used to King fans being extra.

Speaking of stepping into the pages of It, the other side of the Jackson/Union intersection looked straight out of Derry. This could’ve been Bill and Georgie Denbrough’s quiet, tree-lined street, their white, clapboard-sided house uphill from the sewer grates.

The neighborhood was adorable. It’s the kind of place so quaint and sweet that it might make a horror author on a stroll wonder whether everything is as idyllic as it seems. I kept thinking, Ugh, I want to live in a cute sleepy town with sinister stuff lurking under the surface!

The next and maybe coolest stop on my tour was the Thomas Hill Standpipe. Just down the street from the sewer grates and only a few blocks from King’s house, the standpipe is an iron water tank with a wood frame jacket that controls Bangor’s water pressure and holds 1,750,000 gallons of water. In the novel, it’s where Stan first encounters It/Pennywise and sees horrible visions of the victims who drowned in the tank (there have been no IRL drownings, I checked. For reasons.)

As I rounded the corner in my rental and got past a cluster of trees, I was shocked by how this huge thing just came out of nowhere, located smack in the middle of a quaint little neighborhood. Part of it was the fact that, unlike most water towers, it’s not perched on legs—it’s squatting flush on the ground next to you, hunched at the top of a somewhat steep hill.

That was the other part: I should’ve known that the Thomas Hill Standpipe located on Thomas Hill Road would be situated on a hill, but I thought it was such a weird spot to put a gigantic water tower (if it were to break, I imagined the houses on the hill below it being washed away in half a second), and being sat at the top of a hill added even more to its hulking presence.

The viewing deck up top is only open to visitors a few times a year. While I’m sure the view from the top is spectacular, you pay with the journeys up and down the dark, narrow staircase, one of the places where Stan contends with some creepy shit. Just look at it.

Summit Park across the street slopes downhill from the Standpipe and is allegedly where King wrote a large chunk of It on a park bench. This was a a very small park, and there was only one bench, with FREAK spray-painted across it. This may or may not have been the same bench that King frequented in the eighties, but I could still imagine him sitting there writing, coming up with Stan’s ghosts. The Standpipe looms even larger from the park, since the park is downhill. And I’m not ashamed to admit that when the sun started setting, I thought, Yup, it’s Getting Out of Here o’clock.

In downtown Bangor, I noticed a canal running through the heart of downtown, and again I had a feeling of living in the locale of It, since It works insidiously through Derry’s water/sewer system (like through the sewer grate and the Standpipe) and a canal like this exists in Derry too.

It’s actually called the Kenduskeag Stream and it flows into a nearby river, but you could’ve fooled me. Stumbling across something in town that undoubtedly inspired Derry made me smile every time, and made me want to stay in town for a while and write a creepy novel of my own. (Really, this is not a bad writing exercise, to base a fictional town closely on a real one and just add a dash of spooky. Like Tyra says to make it fashion. Take Champaign, Illinois—but make it creepy.)

King obviously loves Bangor since he set one of his longest and most famous novels in its likeness. And it seems that Bangor loves King back, with tributes around the city like this bench featuring him and his dog—though not too much; someone gave our man a funny ‘stache.

Probably that jokester Richie.

I went to Stephen King’s house for my birthday

I went to Stephen King’s house for my birthday

Well, not exactly—today is my birthday, and I went to Stephen King’s house last week. But I went partially as a birthday gift to myself, since 2020 has quashed all my international traveling dreams for the time being, and King’s house has been on my list for awhile. Why not go to Maine in the fall, (on a sanitized, less-than-half-full plane), social distance in a small town (comparatively—Chicagoan here), and see some sights?

For the record, I wore a mask and so were most people I saw in towns in Maine, though as you can see, I removed it for this little photo shoot.

Everything about this house was cool, from the detailed, wrought iron gate made to look like spiders and a spiderweb, to the bat and three-headed dragon sculptures serving as miniature gargoyles, to its blood-red color (not to mention the red balloons left by someone—or something). I would expect nothing less from the King of horror. And the fall foliage only added to the aesthetic.

It was a rainy day in Bangor, but it cleared up right before I arrived at the house (thanks, goddesses). I got few minutes alone to take photos before others who made the pilgrimage started showing up in staggered groups, ending with about 7-8 people total before I left, though I’m sure people come and go all day. It was nice to see how calm and respectful King fans are, especially considering the driveway was open and anybody could’ve walked onto the property—warned first, of course, by a “24-hour surveillance” sign.

While most fans hope to catch a glimpse of the author himself, I’ve read that King no longer lives here full-time (I’m sure the most prolific horror writer in the U.S. has a multitude of homes). He and his wife Tabitha are in the process of turning the house into an office for King’s estate, a home for his archives, and as a retreat spot for visiting writers.

The wooden sculpture in the front yard was just unveiled in April 2020. King hired Josh Landry, a chainsaw sculptor based in Maine, to transform the dead remnants of a massive ash tree that was partially removed a few years ago into a sculpture featuring animals and books. The longer I looked at this, the more details I noticed, like that the legs of the bookshelf are made to look like human legs and feet, and the dog at the bottom appears to be a Corgi, a nod to King having been the owner of multiple Corgis, including his current familiar, Molly, aka the Thing of Evil.

While in Bangor, I saw a lot of King-related sights, namely because King based the fictional Derry, Maine featured in some of his novels—including arguably his most ubiquitous, the nearly-1,200-page It—on the town. Check out my post on that stuff here!

P. S. If you’re interested in planning your own Stephen King-inspired trip to Bangor, I recommend this travel blog, Oddities & Curiosities. These guys made a custom Google map showing exactly where all the hot spots are, and I found it really useful. I’ve also heard of guided tours in Bangor for all things King, but I didn’t look into them too much in favor of keeping social distance.

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“Watch me punk Stephen King.” -Maya Angelou

Somehow, this sketch gets funnier every time I watch it.

The premise: Maya Angelou has a prank show and she does it in a very … Maya Angelou way.

Juxtaposing Angelou’s gravitas and dignified cadence with a wacky prank show was a genius idea and I want to hug whomever in the SNL writers’ room came up with it.

Also, Bill Hader plays Stephen King in it.