Scribner, 2013, 531 pages
Stephen King returns to the characters and territory of one of his most popular novels ever, The Shining, in this instantly riveting novel about the now middle-aged Dan Torrance (the boy protagonist of The Shining) and the very special 12-year-old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.
On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless - mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and spunky 12-year-old Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the "steam" that children with the "shining" produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father's legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant "shining" power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes "Doctor Sleep."
Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan's own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra's soul and survival. This is an epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted fans of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon.
I was a little skeptical about a sequel to The Shining. As King notes in the author's afterword, The Shining is often held up as one of the scariest books he ever wrote, and it's also a very personal book, being really an extended metaphor for the demon rum, its anti-protagonist Jack Torrance being a raging alcoholic haunted as much by his addiction as by the evil spirits of the Overlook Hotel. And it was written at a time when King himself was a raging alcoholic. All his demons were raw on the page, and as I've often noted, King has improved with age, his writing still far better than those who look down their noses as "popular fiction" will acknowledge, but there was something ghastly and brilliant and bloody and terrible about the books he wrote during his substance-abusing years that got mellowed and smoothed out after he became sober.
This is true in Doctor Sleep, which brings back the demons of Dan Torrance's childhood and depicts the evils of alcoholism as realistically and poignantly as before, but now it's the depiction of someone who's been through it and looking back. There are scary and gory parts in Doctor Sleep, but they are like shadows of what made The Shining terror on the page.
Danny Torrance, the psychic little kid who was chased through the Overlook by his father, has grown up. And become an alcoholic. The irony is not lost on him.
The first few chapters breeze through his adult life - he hits bottom, stumbles into a sleepy little Maine town (where almost all King novels are set), and a kindly recovering alcoholic who knows one when he sees one takes Dan under his wing. Dan cleans up, joins AA (this book is, among other things, a love letter to AA) and carves out a modest, comfortable existence for himself. He still has his "Shining" though it's not as powerful as it once was, and he uses it now at a hospice for the terminally ill, where he helps those on death's door to cross over peacefully.
This would all be a quiet happy ending for Dan except that there are other people out there with the Shining.
In The Shining, Danny's psychic powers were a bizarre, rare, supernatural manifestation. But if you've read a lot of King novels, you know that the expanded King-verse has basically integrated psychic powers as a sort of mutant ability that, while very rare and not really acknowledged publicly, is something that everyone from Joe Sixpack to the government (of course) knows exists.
So in Doctor Sleep, instead of a creepy, haunted hotel preying on the mind of an alcoholic and driving him insane, we have an apocalyptic battle between mutants with psychic powers.
(King never uses the "m" word, of course. What is this, a comic book?)
Doctor Sleep introduces the True Knot, a gang of wandering gypsy psychic vampires who are not quite immortal, but very, very old. They travel around North America in Winnebagos, have vast amounts of money hidden all over the world, and keep themselves alive by finding people (mostly children) with the Shining and torturing them to death.
They're about as evil as a King villain can be, which sets us up to cheer when they're all slaughtered by Dan and his sidekicks.
Dan is actually a sidekick himself. If you've read Carrie or Firestarter, you know that King has a fondness for adolescent girls with planet-busting psychic powers, so he introduces another one here: Abra Stone, sweet, perky, blonde, and twelve, and maybe the most powerful psychic ever. She attracts the attention of the True Knot, who want to literally torture the life out of her. Terrified, Abra contacts Dan psychically, not knowing who he actually is, and everything proceeds from there.
I found the way everyone, even Abra's parents, eventually came to accept that psychic powers were real and that a tween girl has to take on an ancient psychic vampire all by herself to save the world, a little improbable, but King handles all these discussions as if they were real people talking, and all the characters were believable. King's dialog has always been good, his characters the high point of all his books, and the plots, while often full of holes, are still exciting page-turners.
Doctor Sleep doesn't suffer from the typical King Ending (i.e., unsatisfying, confusing, and/or batshit crazy). In a way, it was almost too tidy. But since one of my favorite books of his is The Stand, I am all about grand finales between Good and Evil, and Doctor Sleep delivers that. But it also seemed a little too easy. We already know Abra is the Phoenix of this universe, so her showdown with the True Knot is almost a foregone conclusion. The only reason her fate is in doubt for much of the book is that she's a little girl against a band of ancient vampires, but she's a little girl who can kill you with her mind, and from her first psychic encounter with the True Knot, it's pretty obvious who's stronger. So I never really had any doubts about her surviving. And, without spoiling too much, let's just say that the body count among the good guys in this book is much lower than usual for King. It felt like he's pulling his punches in his old age.
This is not The Shining. While it's got some horrific elements, I wouldn't even call this a horror novel per se. It's The Shining all grown up - not just more mature, but changed, the adult not the same entity as the child, and having gained and lost things along the way. Like King's writing in general.
Recommended for all Constant Readers.
Also by Stephen King: My reviews of Blaze, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Lisey's Story, Cell, The Shining, and Duma Key.
My complete list of book reviews.