The afterword of Doctor Sleep reveals that King approached this novel with great trepidation. How do you follow-up what is your most well-known work? The Shining signaled the emergence of one of the most prolific writers in American history. Horror tends to be considered a sub-literary genre yet even the most staunch of literary critics these days tend to regard King amongst the really great ones.
Danny Torrance endured the trauma inflicted by his Father for years prior to going to the Overlook Hotel that fateful winter. The scars of alcoholism and abuse were present before becoming aware of just what his power was. The Shining, as ol' Dick Halloran said, was strong with that boy. That ability to reach out and connect with others, touch minds and see the true denizens of that Colorado hotel produced a truly terrifying work of horror fiction that stands the test of time.
It, like much of his early work, was written in the throes of his own alcoholic struggles. Jack Torrance, little Danny's abusive Father, was a mirror of Steve and the deep demonic residents of the hotel were easily able to feed upon the underlying psyche of abuse and sadness that Daddy dearest suffered from.
King, however, detests the movie adaptation that Stanley Kubrick so famously unleashed into the landscape in 1980. He excised a lot of what made the novel what it was and presented a vision of the Torrance family and the foreboding hotel that many feel is one of the best horror films ever. Personally? I like the movie but I prefer the novel. I could appreciate Kubrick's visual acuity and his auteur sensibilities being applied to a genre that, often, never gets such loving treatment but King's work was so strong that it didn't need much alteration.
I, too, approached the idea of a sequel to The Shining with much fear. Why revisit this book? Thankfully King has only gotten better over the years. He is not the same man that wrote the original but, in fact, far more nuanced and able to deliver a story that is fitting continuation of what scared the bejeesus out of us in The Shining.
That is an important distinction as King, further along in his career, has had very public trials and tribulations with alcohol and the like. If anything one might say this is more of a tale of redemption than it is a terrifying yarn of the macabre. Does it deliver thrills? Yes. Is it scary? Yes and no. The source of terror is far different this time around but no less tittilating.
We pick up where the story left off with young Danny still dealing with the Overlook long after the tremendous ending of the first novel. He deals with the spectres still trying to seize hold of him as best a boy can. Time marches on and we see Dan dealing with a much worse demon, alcoholism. He, much like his Father before him and the others in the Torrance line prior, self-medicate with the best of them.
The taste for the drink has, over the years, dulled that once very strong mental power that the younger once possessed. It has also lead him to lead a life of a revolving set of bar scenes, new women nightly and fights galore. King leads us towards Dan Torrance's absolute bottom. The amount of narrative power and descriptive detail that he employs here is postively spellbinding. These scenes are wrenching and horrible and I was left salivating for more of this book. (One quick note: I, instead of doing my usual King thing and reading through as quick as possible, took my time and listened to the audio book. Will Patton's narration is fantastic.) The bottom is awful but the climb back from the darkness proves to be far more riveting.
Dan finds himself in a small New Hampshire town soon after and contemplating things that only the most hopeless do. Something tells him to stay, though. He has been clean for longer than any other time he could remember in his adult life and this little town of Frazier speaks to him. He gets work at a local hospice and enters AA in some attempt to right the ship after decades of being lost at sea. He still sees those old ghosts of his past from time-to-time but being free of the drink allows him to deal with them. It also allows him to aid those within the hospice on the verge of Death to pass on with as little trauma as possible thus earning him the nickname "Doctor Sleep".
The Shining, once dulled by the booze, allows him to be contacted by a young girl, Abra Stone, who's mental mastery far exceeds any he has encountered before. There are things out in the rolling hills and plains of America that hunt people like them. They travel along the country in RV's and appear to us normal folk as AARP members that wear socks with sandals and are as harmless as can be. They move along like a "silent virus", as King puts it, and are always looking to capture "steam" (the essence of gifte children like Abra). The psychic showdown has been set.
This one is a bit hefty, as is King's wont, at 544 pages but it tends to move briskly along. King's personal struggles with the sauce and subsequent road to recovery color a lot of the narrative structure here. This is as much a hero's redemptive journey as it is a love letter to the power of organizations like AA in aiding those who need it.
It is the matter-of-fact way in which King deals with even the most surreal and hard to grasp psychic exchanges and combative affairs that really grounds this whole story far more than I would have expected. It is the sign of a creator who has truly honed his craft and, by this point, King is really damn good at what he does. Ancillary characters such as the spry Billy Freeman and Abra's grandmother Conchetta really shine amongst the struggles of such mortals against metaphysical evil.
It would have been nice to get a litle more on the history of this cult of psychic soul-sucking vampires that roam the United States in recreational vehicles, though. He alludes to it here and there in letting us know that they are older than near remembering and have accrued wealth beyond compare. Rose the Hat, as far as King antagonists go, is a pretty darn good one. She is equal parts charm, panache and psychopath. That jaunty hat she wears only makes her all the more terrifying.
The failings of the book, few as they are, pale in comparison to what King gets so right. This isn't a sequel that just simply means to give us more of the Overlook and its ghouls but really show us the lingering effects of familial trauma on the psyche and how King understood those now accepted psychological truisms regarding alcoholism and abuse back when he was in the midst of his boozy haze and understands it far more even now. Dan Torrance is the typical flawed hero but damn if we, as the reader, don't root for him all the way through. The struggle to not drink is a constant thread that runs throughout and pushes him to deal with what seems an insurmountable threat.
It is a long game that is played out within the framework of the story between the True Knot and our heroes. It is much like the approach a recovering alcoholic takes to staying off the drink. Many battles are fought, some are won and lost, but ultimately it is a war.
This view of the supernatural that King gives us isn't as overt. It lingers on the edges of our awareness and gives color to the nightmares we have that aren't as fantastic. He manages to find horror and dread among the spaces that span across the most mundane of places. The quiet moments within this book tend to be the absolute best. One such moment involves a resident of the hospice in which Doctor Sleep (Dan) works at. Charlie Hayes has come to his end and Dan is there to ease him on into the next world. It was haunting, beautiful and tear-inducing. I did not expect to feel such a strong emotional punch in the middle act of a story but damn if King didn't sock me right in the jaw. Those moments, the less bombastic and so very vivid, are what makes this novel stand out amongst the tremendous work he's been doing as of late (11/22/63 and Under the Dome are seriously great).
King's explosion onto the American literature scene, The Shining, will always be fondly remembered as a true milestone in horror fiction. Doctor Sleep, however, will help to cement his legacy as one of America's greatest authors.