The Shining is unequivocally one of the most iconic works of supernatural fiction ever written. In 1977, Stephen King unloaded his subconcious in a shotgun blast that embedded the novel in popular culture – The Overlook Hotel, shining as a euphemism for ESP, elevators that gush rivers of blood, redrum, Delbert Grady’s desire to correct, monstrous possessed hedge animals, and the kindly chef Dick Halloran are all as identifiable as Coca Cola and Mickey Mouse. 36 years later, King brought us Doctor Sleep, ostensibly a sequel to The Shining, and an altogether different beast. In King’s own words, “The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining.”
Doctor Sleep picks up shortly after The Shining ends. Wendy and Danny Torrence, now Floridians, make do with what they have left. Although they escaped from the infernal Overlook and the possessed Jack Torrance, they remain haunted by both the lingering ghosts of the hotel and the worst bits of Jack’s legacy – anger, abuse, and alcoholism. If The Shining was a novel consumed with the fear of an inenscapable downward spiral of alcoholism, Doctor Sleep is a novel of recovery and living with addiction. It’s also about family – there is Danny’s own broken home and there is a damaged family that he damages further still on his way to rock bottom; there is Danny’s A.A. family, and then, there is the twisted family that functions as the villain of the novel: The True Knot. The True Knot are psychic vampires led by a sort-of-steampunky Rose the Hat, so dubbed for her jaunty-angled top hat affectation. The True Knot cruise around in motorhomes as the veritable wolves in sheep’s clothing, pretending to sightsee with the so-called rubes while on the hunt for those who shine. More specifically, children who shine. King here tampers with the Shining history and provides some grounded explanation of psychic powers in a George Lucasian way – the power to shine is manifest by something called steam, psychic midichlorians in King’s universe, and the one thing that The True Knot must consume in order to maintain their unnaturally extended lives.
In The Shining, readers are told that there are at least a few gifted with the shining beyond Danny and Dick Halloran. Doctor Sleep introduces us to another: Abra, a girl even more gifted than Danny and Dick. Between Danny’s struggles to stay sober and The True Knot’s meandering quest to stay inconspicuous and periodically gorged on steam, we learn about Abra’s growing powers. It doesn’t take prescient abilities to know that sooner or later The True Knot will be coming for Abra.
If you come to Doctor Sleep looking for reliably warm King prose and storytelling, it’s certainly here. Danny and Wendy’s isolation and loneliness is written in a believable way as they struggle in a state of mourning in perpetuity. Danny’s descent to the bottom courtesy of the bottle is both heartbreaking and haunting. Unfortunately, the book struggles with Abra – she doesn’t feel particularly three dimensional, nor does her family. The stories of her powers manifesting sometimes border on the silly. Likewise, none of the members of the True Knot are rendered with much personality beyond Rose the Hat – a girl named Snakebite Annie gets a bit of an interesting spotlight near the beginning of the novel, but she essentially disappears for the rest of the book, and Crow Daddy, Rose’s great love, does little more than swagger around now and again. The True Knot is interesting in some ways, as their existence is defined by consumption and addiction. The time between each hit of steam belongs to plans for bigger scores and ways to persist in their pursuits without notice. Despite their despicable, malignant existence, King applies his empathetic pen with success here, as they love and live and die devoted to each other in admirable ways. They also don’t feel like much of a threat, being tricked and manipulated by Danny, Abra, and co. at every turn, often coming across as incompetent, leading up to a fairly anticlimactic, if cathartic, finale.
Doctor Sleep is middle-tier King. It’s certainly not Cell or Dreamcatcher. Nor is it The Shining or It or The Stand. Read it if you feel like catching up with Danny Torrance and don’t mind the scenery shift. Read it if you’re a devoted reader of King and feel it’s time for another helping of his inimitable Americana chills and storytelling warmth. For everyone else, read it if it strikes your fancy, but make sure you read The Shining first. If Doctor Sleep lives in that book’s shadow, that’s not such a bad place to be.