Across many, many novels and short stories, Stephen King has created no shortage of iconic villains and monsters. Annie Wilkes from Misery. Pennywise from IT. Cujo from, uh, Cujo. But even deep into his career, the prolific horror maestro has proven he could craft a baddie that was like nothing you’d experienced before. See: The True Knot, the sleazy band of nomadic psychos and psychics that weave their way through King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, as well as director Mike Flanagan‘s big-screen adaptation. King aficionados are usually pretty split when it comes to the Knot, but I’ve always had a soft spot for them because of how King aims to make them terrifying by painting them as extremely, aggressively not terrifying. Dirty road-hobos with psychic powers and a taste for children’s’ souls? Hard pass.
The True Knot are wanderers, traveling by camper and Winnebego on the back highways and dusty freeways of America, mostly sticking to New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, and—of course—Maine. They’re the aggressively retired that you pass, annoyed, on road trips and in rest stops; King makes a point to write that they’re the kind of people you’d leave a roadside McDonalds to avoid because they’re “always wanting their Quarter Pounders without the pickles.” Where most King monsters are nightmare-worthy, the True Knot is just…unpleasant, the type you wouldn’t even glance at twice. Here’s how the author really nails down their whole vibe:
“You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones.”
But here’s the thing: The True Knot are also semi-immortal vampires who feast on the essence of gifted, psychic children.
In his landmark haunted-house novel, King introduced horror’s original I-see-dead-people icon, Danny Torrance, a pre-teen with precognitive and psychic abilities. It isn’t until he meets the ghost-filled Overlook Hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann, that young Danny learns a name for his gifts: The Shining.
But for millennia, the nomadic monsters who call themselves the True Knot knew it under a different name: “Steam.” Every so often, the True track down a child embued with those strange, unexplainable powers and murder them, releasing the sweet, sweet “steam” that refreshes their unnatural lives for a little longer. Occasionally, a kid bursting with the stuff will be good for a few canisters, which the True Knot saves for rainy days. They also feast on natural disasters, due to the fact that basically everybody has at least a little steam in them; there’s a scene in the novel where the True Knot gather in Hoboken on September 11th, 2001, basking in the countless deaths happening across the river. With this horrific system, the True Knot stays alive for hundreds and hundreds of years, worming their way into every fabric of society, not quite powerful but grotesquely middle-aged and hungry forever.
There are, of course, drawbacks, not even counting the moral dilemmas that come with butchering kids and eating their souls. The True don’t really worry about that. But they do worry about common diseases, as their odd quasi-immortality means they aren’t inoculated to common sicknesses. Their reliance on steam to stay alive also eventually renders them not quite human, but something closer to a shade. Other characters often refer to the True Knot as “empty devils“, and a member who is killed—and they can be killed by conventional methods—disappears slowly and painfully from existence with no trace of body or bone, a process they call “cycling.”
The True Knot are led by Rose the Hat, played by Rebecca Ferguson in the film, a demonically beautiful woman who is rarely seen without her top hat jauntily cocked to the side. That’s never explained. (Nor is the one, grotesque tooth that occasionally juts out of Rose’s mouth like a tusk when she’s desperately yearnin’ for steam.) The rest of the True Knot is an odd assembly of loners, outcasts, and drifters, some of which have unexplainable powers of their own. Snakebite Andi can make people drift off to sleep. Barry the Chink—he’s white but his eyes are vaguely Asian, the True Knot are not a pleasant people—can sense nearby steam-heavy kids. Grandpa Flick doesn’t have a specific power but he’s old even for the True Knot. “He remembers when the people of Europe worshipped trees instead of time-share condos,” Rose says of Flick.
But as grimy and carnival-like as the True Knot is, they’re also the perfect mirrors-image foil for an adult Danny Torrance (played by Ewan McGregor in the film). Danny, now Dan, inherited his father’s addiction and simmering anger, but a tragic incident forces him to try and tamp down his own demons. (Plus, you know, the very real ghosts that still populate his waking moments.) He is, effectively, trying to break the cycle of addiction, while a band of undying monsters roams the country and gleefully kill for their addiction, lest they fall into a “cycle” of their own. Both Dan and the True Knot head down roads that lead them to Abra Stone (Kyleigh Curran) the motherlode of all Shiners. If a normal kid with steam is a snack, Abra is the freaking HomeTown Buffet. The True Knot sees Abra as the ultimate meal. Dan Torrance? He sees Abra as a chance to put the ghosts of his own failings behind him, with the Overlook, for good.