‘Did I approach the book with trepidation?” asks Stephen King in the author’s note to “Doctor Sleep.” “You better believe it.”
Me, too. It’s a brave man who writes a sequel to “The Shining” — which, if not the perfect horror novel, was as good a candidate as any in the past 50 years. Please, please, please, the reader thinks as he opens the book: don’t do a “Star Wars Episode I” on us.
King, happily, starts out in some ways at an advantage: he travels light into the new book. By the end of “The Shining,” its setting, the evil Overlook hotel, had been blown to smithereens; its protagonist, Jack Torrance, the crazy caretaker of the evil Overlook hotel, was dead; and its baddies, the crazy and evil guests of the evil Overlook hotel, who were dead to start with, were that much deader.
“Doctor Sleep” picks up with one of that book’s only three survivors, Jack’s then 5-year-old son, Danny, who escaped the Overlook (just) along with his mother, Wendy, and Dick Hallorann, an elderly chef who shared his “shining,” or psychic abilities. At the novel’s outset, Danny, now a grown man, is struggling with three things he inherited from his father: alcoholism, an explosive temper, and the odd leftover ghost from the Overlook.
To start with, ghosts are the least of his problems. Rootless and self-loathing, he reaches rock bottom when, as he’s leaving the home of a one-night stand, her toddler catches him emptying her purse. His gift tells him the child is being abused. He leaves anyway, and later learns on the psychic wires that mother and child ended up dead. More baggage for his kit bag.
Danny fetches up in a small town and finds his way into AA. He gets sober. He starts to work at a hospice, where he acquires the nickname “Doctor Sleep” (he uses his powers to help some of the inmates across to the other side). “The Shining” was a book by a drinking alcoholic about an alcoholic in the grip of white-knuckle abstinence. “Doctor Sleep” is a book about a recovering alcoholic written by a recovering alcoholic. The mantras of AA run all the way through it. But, this being King, there’s more than one Higher Power knocking about and Danny’s are not the only demons.
The outer demons are the True Knot, a vampire cult who feed on “steam” — the psychic emanations of children with a glimmer of the shining. Steam is best extracted, unfortunately, when said children are tortured to death. The True Knot travel around in mobile homes disguised, for the most part, as harmless old farts in questionable leisurewear; though their leader is Rose the Hat, a super-sexy vampirella with some gravity-defying millinery. Imagine a Neil Gaiman goth with the cast of “Cocoon” in tow.
Long story short, Ms. The Hat gets wind of a young girl called Abra with megawatt levels of the shining, and — running low on steam — conceives a strong desire to eat her. Abra, meanwhile, has become psychic penpals with Danny, and the story winds via a series of rollicking set pieces toward the inevitable showdown.
Dependency — be it to drink or steam — is the master trope. The True Knot presents as a sort of reverse AA, a fellowship in the service of a destructive addiction. King’s strongest move here is to make them at once repugnant and, in flashes, sympathetic. They mourn their dead, and they offer their justifications: “We didn’t choose to be what we are, any more than you did. In our shoes, you’d do the same.” A thin case. What you might call denial.
King is a very remarkable and singular writer. He can catch dialogue, throw away an observation or mint a simile, sometimes, brilliantly. And, at the same time, he often writes as if he’s submitted a first draft without even rereading it. The main impression, especially here, is of pace: of something written fast, loose limbed, benefiting from its casual felicities but not going back to polish them. Storytelling is everything — and by golly does he know how to carry the reader.
The same on-the-hoof quality has always been evident in his world-building. You can’t talk of a King mythos, in the way that you can talk of a mythos in relation to, say, Tolkien, Larry Niven or Iain M. Banks. There’s a geography (Derry, Maine, really does get more than its fair share), but it’s a sort of palimpsest, overlaid with an astonishing number of different spooks and monsters whose weirdnesses aren’t necessarily consistent even within the same novel.
Is what Danny has what Carrie or the dude in “The Dead Zone” had? Sort of, and sort of not. Do the True Knot live in the same universe as the vampires from “Salem’s Lot”? Yes (there’s a winking reference here) and no. Does the giant spider/clown thingy from “It” inhabit the same universe as the ass-burrowing alien shitweasels from “Dreamcatcher”? Could those aliens, plausibly, have pranged their spaceship against that of the “Tommyknockers” en route to gobble up some more ill-starred New Englanders?
Doesn’t matter a hoot. King is a bricoleur. And that is part of what makes his stuff scary: his universes aren’t consistent or predictable. They are as bewildering to adults as the adult universe is to a child. His special gift is to make these worlds recognizable enough — “Doctor Sleep” is full of the noise of the culture; references to “Game of Thrones,” “Sons of Anarchy” and even “Twilight” — that the supernatural stuff seems grounded; that its perils don’t seem merely arbitrary.
The moment a horror writer’s universe becomes consistent — such-and-such a solution of garlic nails the vamps; such-and-such a purity of silver will see off a werewolf — it tends to move into the territory of comedy (cf. “Buffy”) or science fiction (cf. “Blade”). Magic, in Stephen King, isn’t undiscovered science: it’s magic. The baddies are seen off here, as in so many of King’s previous books, with ad hoc solutions, homemade rituals and fetishes. And, of course, you’ve no way of knowing if they’ve been seen off for good.
Even when you slightly see the twist coming, even when the author pokes his nose in with those quotations from “The Waste Land,” even when the ending is a bit rushed and you wonder if he has been keeping count of those canisters, as a reader you still inhale this novel like a great glorious draft of steam. Is it the equal of “The Shining”? Probably not. Does King need to lose sleep over it? Hell, no.