In my copy of Stephen King’s The Shining there is a small introduction by King himself describing the background to his writing the book, and his personal reasons for writing within a genre, that being horror, that is usually the subject of much derision by more ‘serious’ literary critics. He defends this often dismissed genre by writing:
“I believe these stories exist because we sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives: the parent who punches instead of kissing, the auto accident that takes a loved one, the cancer we one day discover living in our own bodies.”
Widely dismissed as a pulp writer at the time The Shining was published, it is intriguing how today Stephen King has evolved into a writer that is now revered and respected, and yet neither the reasoning behind his work, nor the writing, has changed. Doctor Sleep is The Shining’s much anticipated sequel, and like its predecessor’s theme of domestic abuse underlying the fantastical storyline, Doctor Sleep is equally imbued with the protagonist’s alcohol addiction, an all too real demon.
The protagonist in question is Dan Torrance, the telepathic boy in the original The Shining, grown up after escaping his alcoholic father’s homicidal tendencies in the haunted Overlook Hotel of the first book and now with a drinking problem of his own. He drifts across the United States, his psychic ability deadened by his constant drinking, but not absent enough to stop from him being haunted by some darker decisions he makes during this time, such as stealing money from a single mother and her neglected kid. He eventually settles up in a small town in New Hampshire, joins Alcoholics Anonymous, and starts working at a hospice where one of his key roles is helping patients in their last moments to pass on peacefully with the use of his shining. Everything seems on the up for Dan until he starts receiving telepathic messages from a young girl, Abra Stone, who also has the shining and, he soon discovers, has caught the attention of some rather terrifying group of supernatural beings, the True Knot. These villains are a centuries old, vampire like group who look like everyday Americans travelling on the highways of America in groups of RVs. They search out children with ‘the shining’ who they then murder so they can suck out their ‘steam’ – a sort of essence of their telepathic powers and their sole sustenance. Abra Stone turns out to be a stronger ‘shiner’ than your average telepathic kid and her and Dan join forces to defeat these “empty devils”, as Dan ominously describes them.
What follows is a high energy, highly enjoyable adventure story. For me the monsters were still creepy, even if they are not quite as unnerving as the multitude of ghosts in the original Overlook Hotel, but then how could this book ever beat reading The Shining when you’re young and terrified, until the early hours of the morning? Stephen King knew he could never match those scares that he gave everyone when they were young, which might be why Doctor Sleep has such a different tone to its predecessor; it ends with redemption rather than without hope, as The Shining did. This may have something to do with King’s own redemption from an addiction to alcohol and drugs in the years since he wrote The Shining.
There are a few things that make it not quite perfect. The way in which King’s writing can be addictive, the small town, blue collar America voice that he always writes in, can also become grating and come off as hokey. I also read King’s monolithic book It over the summer, and his descriptions of the prepubescent girl character Beverley in that book is very similar to the how he chooses to describe Abra in Doctor Sleep, i.e very awkward. When Abra and Dan first meet, King desribes her as ‘pretty, but not beautiful’. Really? She’s twelve! Annoyingly superficial descriptions of women are common enough in most books, there’s no need to start on underage girls too.
These objections aside, Doctor Sleep was undeniably gripping from start to finish, and turns out to be one of those rarest of things; a surprisingly necessary sequel.