Stephen King’s latest, Doctor Sleep, revisits the fertile terrority of his seminal 1977 novel, The Shining. But will Joey have to put this one in the freezer?
It’s probably the right time of year for a Stephen King book. The master of horror has returned to form of late after a few dodgy years, and almost forty years after his explosive and influential third novel The Shining, he has revisited poor little Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep. And the result is a highly impressive, character-driven tale.
King has described how year after year, people approach him and ask what happened to five-year-old Danny after his father tried to kill him and his mother and became another one of the Overlook Hotel’s spooks. It’s easy to imagine that such an experience might prevent Danny- or Dan, as he prefers to be known- leading a normal life.
And so it goes. He spends the rest of his childhood being haunted (often quite literally) by the Overlook’s ghosts, and his own psychic powers of perception. Dick Hallorann shows him how to block off his ghosts, but by the time Dan hits high school, he begins to drink, mainly because the ‘shining’ (his psychic powers) dims under the influence.
The Shining was written as King battled his own alcoholism and this accounted for much of its visceral power. Doctor Sleep is a lot less intense, as befitting an author reflecting on his mature years and lengthy period of sobriety.
Dan descends into a drifting lifestyle, moving from town to town and job to job until he gets drunk and blows it. On the surface, it looks like he has sunk even lower than his father, but Dan has certain lines he won’t cross. But when he plumbs ever lower, he realises he must change.
Eventually, he ends up in a small New Hampshire town where he becomes friends with Billy (who has a touch of the shining himself) who gets Dan in a job in a hospice. Ably assisted by the hospice’s resident cat, Azzie (short for Azrael) who can always tell when a patient is about to die, Dan earns the nickname Doctor Sleep. He can help a patient cross to the other side and bring them comfort, and he’s finally found his calling in life.
He begins a psychic friendship with the hugely gifted Abra Stone, a local teenage girl who has been demonstrating her ability since babyhood. But there is a problem. A clutch of psychic vampires, called the True Knot, are travelling around America seeking out those with the shining and killing them to live off their energy. If they succeed in capturing Abra, they could be guaranteed food for years.
King’s strength, as always, is creating highly believable characters and sucking readers into the story. Highly engrossing, you are practically cheering Abra and Dan on by the end. Abra’s parents, great-grandmother, Billy and Dan’s AA friends are a strong supporting cast; the True Knot didn’t feel as menacing as they could be.
This may be the cardinal sin for the master of horror but the book did not scare me. Sure, there are some nasty moments early on as Dan battles his demons, and King never stints on the depths of depravity that chronic alcoholics reach, but it’s perfectly safe to read this book late at night. And this is coming from a person who is essentially afraid of her own shadow, and didn’t sleep for days after reading King’s ‘1922‘. Don’t expect the sheer terror of The Shining, but a good tale nonetheless.