Thirty-six years later, and Stephen King has finally returned to “The Shining.” The sequel — or perhaps “follow-up” would be a more accurate term — entitled “Doctor Sleep” centers on Danny Torrance, the child protagonist of “The Shining,” as an adult.
It picks up right where the 1977 novel left off, with Danny and his mother, Wendy, in the smoking ruins of the monstrous Overlook Hotel, and begins a sort of “Where have they gone?” narrative. King’s cursory initial characterization of Danny and Wendy should catch up anyone who’s read the first book or seen Kubrick’s film adaptation, but newcomers may be a bit lost, as King takes the believability of his characters’ psychic abilities a bit for granted.
There’s a bit of exposition on Danny’s teenager years, and then we leap forward a few decades, where we find him as a middle-aged man now working in a hospice in New Hampshire. Here he uses his natural psychic gift, called “the shining,” to help ease the suffering of the patients, and in the process befriends a young girl named Abra, whose powerful abilities totally dwarf his own. As time passes, Danny finds himself standing between Abra and a group of roving psychic vampires called the True Knot, which is a far less ridiculous concept for a group of villains than you might think. But while the True Knot are vicious, terrifying monsters, the ultimate conflict of the novel is internal, and plays to King’s greatest strength: characterization.
Whereas “The Shining” was about the victims of alcoholism — “Doctor Sleep” is about the alcoholics themselves. While Jack Torrance is little more than a bad memory (spoilers), long dead, Danny has inherited the sins of the father, turning to liquor in an attempt to drown out the painful psychic noise perpetually filtering through his brain. What follows is a bare, visceral examination of the struggles of addiction, charted through Danny’s journey in Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ 12-step-program, highlighting his struggle to find meaning in such a bleak world.
King manages to navigate the perils of addiction well, and he should; he’s been sober since the late 1980s, when, after a powerful intervention from his family, he sought out help to eliminate his drug addiction, and, later, even cut out alcohol entirely. King frequently notes in interviews on the subject that his addiction was so bad that he doesn’t even remember writing the 1981 novel “Cujo.” So, no stranger to the subject, King serves as our narrative guide, charting the reader through questions of personal morality, our responsibility to our fellow man, and, most poignantly, personal identity.
“Why do we drink?” Danny frequently asks himself. “Because we’re drunks.” The main character’s persistent attribution of his alcoholism to something in his makeup confronts the reader with the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture with an inward gaze that can only be described as painful. This leads the reader to sense that it should be painful, and in this way the persistent self-analysis is bright and appropriate instead of heavy-handed.
King has been writing for a long, long time. He’s won numerous awards, several of his stories have been converted to films, and he’s earned himself the infamous title of “America’s Boogeyman,” but since the late 2000s, he’s had a few flops. Then when he announced a sequel to “The Shining” early last year, die-hard fans were understandably dubious. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But King wasn’t done with the characters yet, and thank God he wasn’t. The bottom line is that “Doctor Sleep” was a damn good novel — one of his best in years. You’ll take it with you to read in-between classes and meetings. You’ll stay up far longer than you intended turning the pages, and you won’t regret it, because King plays to his strengths and avoids most of his pitfalls. He’s a writer that doesn’t linger on occasionally bizarre world building, or over-inflating the cast, and, above all, he abides by the number one rule he established in his novella “Secret Window, Secret Garden”:
He provides a killer ending.
RECOMMENDED: Simply put, the “King” of horror fiction is back in top form.