Teresa and I are always reassuring nervous people that Stephen King isn’t such a bad guy. You can read him, we tell you, our eyes alight, even if you hate murderous clowns and gore and sleeping with the lights on! He writes wonderful fantasy and post-apocalyptic novels and even children’s books! And all of that is perfectly true.
But that is not true about The Shining.
The Shining is an extremely scary book. There an evil in the Outlook Hotel where the little Torrance family is staying, and that would be frightening enough, with the topiary animals in the garden that move when you’re not looking, and the elevator that runs itself, and the terrible not-quite-dead things in Room 217. But worse is that the evil gradually takes hold of little Danny’s father, Jack, whose love for his family isn’t quite strong enough to overcome the combination of his alcoholism, his writer’s block, and the Outlook Hotel.
Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining. At the beginning of the novel, we see what Jack Torrance and the Outlook between them wrought: Danny is a blackout alcoholic, drifting from low-paid job to job, trying to blunt the pain and nightmares that the shining bring him. Drinking is all that will do it, but the drinking will eventually kill him. What choice does he have?
None, until he drifts into a New Hampshire town where, between an AA group that helps him off the booze and a job at a nursing home where he can use his shining to comfort the dying in their last moments, Danny is healed. And just in time. Because he must protect Abra Stone, a girl whose shining is brighter than Danny’s ever was, from a deadly group called the True Knot.
Doctor Sleep is not nearly as frightening a book as The Shining. It’s got its moments, and it’s a clean and fast-paced thriller, but the sheer force of terror isn’t there. Part of that is because the True Knot is not as mysterious, as frightening, or as impersonal an enemy as whatever haunted the halls of the Outlook Hotel. These are people — or they were, once — and they are now nearly immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the shining breathe out when they are slowly tortured to death. They travel around the country, disguising themselves as elderly RV-campers. It’s clear from the beginning that this group is strong and old and magical, but also that they have been preying on unsuspecting children for so long that they will be unprepared for any real resistance. This takes away some of the tension and gutting fear that some King books have. (King has no problem killing off main characters in many of his books.)
That’s not to say that this is a boring book, however. Stephen King is an outstanding author for characters major and minor, for world building — from the nursing home to the little campgrounds where the True Knot spends their days — and for dialogue. Abra, only twelve years old, is a wonderful character: the way King weaves her anger at being attacked in with the larger ethical questions of revenge, joy in killing, and joy at using a strange power she has not been allowed to use before is delicate.
Some time after I finished the novel, I asked myself why it didn’t seem to trouble me that this was another King book with a child in peril. I actually gave up on Peter Straub’s work in part because he wrote about just about nothing except children in peril. I started thinking of one example after another of King’s children: Firestarter, Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot, Cujo, It, the Gunslinger novels, and of course The Shining are only some of the most obvious. So I did a little very rough research. I looked at a list of all King’s novels. Without taking too much trouble about it (that is to say, without looking up the plot of the ones I haven’t read or don’t remember well), the number of his novels that do feature children in peril and that do not feature them are almost exactly equal. (I didn’t count adolescents, so Carrie and Christine went in the No column. That might skew results.) Given that children abused, kidnapped, tortured, killed and molested are one of the very most frightening things we can think of, I’ll give him a pass for equal numbers.
One of the best things about this book is King’s mature portrait of alcoholism. When he wrote Jack Torrance in The Shining, King was struggling with alcoholism himself. Years sober now, he shows us how far down it really goes: farther even than the horrors of the Outlook. And he shows us how long it takes to come back up, too. It’s a longer journey than Jack’s, and a more satisfying one, in my view.
This was really a most enjoyable book, an extremely solid, medium-high entry in the King oeuvre. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you’ve read The Shining, and preferably recently, but it could also stand on its own. King makes it clear that this is definitely a sequel to the book, not the Kubrick film, so the movie doesn’t count! Enjoy — and let me know what you think when you next pass a line of RVs on the road…