Stephen King knew it was risky to poke around in the ashes of the Overlook Hotel. “I like to think I’m still pretty good at what I do,” he writes in the author’s note to his new book, Doctor Sleep, “but nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable.” King assumes that many of his readers will have encountered the new book’s famous 1977 precursor, The Shining, early in life, and he fears that the memory of Danny and Wendy Torrance’s harrowing struggle for survival will have fermented into a brew more intoxicating than any new concoction could ever hope to be.
I didn’t read The Shining as a kid. I just read both books back-to-back, each for the first time. But if my experience is any indication, then King should lay his fears to rest: The Shining and Doctor Sleep are a match made in—well, not heaven, but in whatever fantastically fertile, morally cloudy plane King spies so temptingly close to ours.
To call the two books worthy of each other is not to say that they are haunted by the same preoccupations. King has evolved in the 30-odd years since he first imbued Danny with that general psychic ability (and ghost catnip) known as “the shining”—and his creation has aged, too, though not in the ways we might have hoped. Dan Torrance’s life since the Overlook incident has been a hard one, in no small part because of his abilities. As they were for dear old dad, the bar and bottle have become his refuge. But after a brush with abjection—specifically, stealing from a coked-out woman and her neglected toddler—Dan moves to New Hampshire and finds a measure of clarity in Alcoholics Anonymous. (King is an A.A. adherent as well.) Both that brief taste of “the bottom” and the subsequent minty freshness of A.A. philosophy flavor the rest of the book, occasionally to a cloying degree.
But Doctor Sleep shines (pun intended) once Dan earns the eponymous honorific. While working at a local hospice, he realizes that his special skills can be put to charitable (and penitent) use by helping the home’s elderly patients cross over more peacefully. King’s gorgeous, awestruck writing when Dan performs his “sacrament” will stick with me far longer, I suspect, than the psychic fireworks that come later. Guiding one resident into the “mysterious, fragrant respiration of the night” that lies beyond our final sleep, Dan reverently eavesdrops on an entire life:
“He saw Charlie’s wife pulling down a shade in the bedroom, wearing nothing but a slip of Belgian lace he’d bought her for their first anniversary; saw how her ponytail swung over one shoulder when she turned to look at him, her face lit in a smile that was all yes. He saw a Farmall tractor with a striped umbrella raised over the seat. He smelled bacon and heard Frank Sinatra singing “Come Fly with Me” from a cracked Motorola radio sitting on a worktable littered with tools. He saw a hubcap full of rain reflecting a red barn. He tasted blueberries and gutted a deer and fished in some distant lake whose surface was dappled by steady autumn rain. He was sixty, dancing with his wife in the American Legion hall. He was thirty, splitting wood. He was five, wearing shorts and pulling a red wagon. Then the pictures blurred together … At times like this, Dan knew what he was for.”
Of course, this being a Stephen King novel, Dan is not only “for” such warmly melancholy pursuits; he must also face darker forces. Enter the True Knot, a group of nomadic, RV-driving vampirelike beings who feed, with an addict’s neediness, on the “steam” produced when a child with the shining is tortured and killed. This grotesque diet grants the Trues physical youth; increased libido; and, assuming a continuous harvest, a precarious kind of immortality. In a young girl named Abra Stone, the year’s newest crop looks promising indeed: According to the top-hatted leader of the True Knot tribe—a cunning, bewitching woman named Rose—Abra is the kind of insanely powerful “steamhead” that appears only every century or so, a rare resource better fit for gradual milking than quick killing. Dan, himself once the desired meal of a voracious supernatural beast, naturally becomes Abra’s protector and mentor.
To reveal much of the plot past Dan and Abra’s teaming up is to risk spoiling a highly satisfying and—given the complicated clockwork of long-distance projections, telekinetic exertions, telepathic communiques, and ghostly assists—impressively executed battle royale. Suffice it to say, Doctor Sleep, despite its relaxing title, is a very busy book, full of cross-country driving and temporal galloping and geopolitical referencing and (if I may be an annoyingly pedantic reader for a moment) metaphysical rule-changing. Much as I enjoyed it, I frequently yearned for the quiet, suffocating embrace of the Overlook.
Indeed, the most remarkable difference between this book and The Shining may be just how much King has chosen to expand the narrative universe of Danny Torrance. The horror of Jack Torrance’s descent into parricidal madness came in part from something like claustrophobia; King misses no opportunity in The Shining to remind us that the Torrance family is snowbound and, due to the hotel’s hypnotic machinations, almost completely isolated when Jack destroys the radio and snowmobile. Doctor Sleep, by contrast, is wide open: expansive in its physical setting, noisy with interlopers, and “connected” by modern technologies (not to mention psychic ones) in ways that the Overlook’s “manager” would never have countenanced. Thanks to this capaciousness, the novel does not envelop us in the same cocoon of fevered anxiety we felt when the roque mallet pounded down the hall. Doctor Sleep’s anxiety lies elsewhere, in nondescript American spaces—interstates, campgrounds, rest stops, strip malls, motels. It might be too much to say that I left this desolate landscape with a new agoraphobia, but I’m sure I will never look at an RV park in quite the same way again.
Readers who haven’t yet visited the Overlook—the Kubrick movie doesn’t count, for reasons King himself is perfectly happy to explain—will likely find Doctor Sleep thin in places. It takes place in the ruins of The Shining and uses those old stones freely in the construction of its own edifice. I point this out not to warn the uninitiated away but rather to invite such readers to treat the books, like I did, as a kind of thematic diptych: The stories presented on either side echo each other seductively—watch for “the red death”— but they offer enjoyable contrasts as well. Where The Shining is visceral, Doctor Sleep is thoughtful. Where the nature of Jack Torrance’s evil—how much is innate and how much pumped in?—is uncertain, the True Knot are allowed almost zero humanity. Where the first book is about a family rent asunder, the sequel is about a family expanded and strengthened. To compare the two is to see an artist masterfully complementing his own work.
One final similarity: Both Doctor Sleep and The Shining are largely concerned with the perils of misestimation. Characters struggle and often fail to measure such essential qualities as self-control, power, shame, wisdom, courage, understanding—even the limits of life itself. But as King reminds us at the end of his new book, failures of judgment can also have unanticipated benefits—as when locked-away pain becomes an unexpected ally, or when people who seemed hopelessly lost surprise you with their capacity for redemption. When one thinks of King, it’s easy to imagine a mind darkened by decades spent with the macabre. Doctor Sleep suggests that the most haunted souls can also shine the brightest with hope. Not a thought as indelible as REDRUM, perhaps, but something worth sleeping on.
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