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Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, RRP£19.99, 500 pages
The Shining, published in 1977, is one of Stephen King’s most celebrated novels. Many years and millions of published words have passed since then and, as King says in the afterword to this sequel, “the man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining”. In Doctor Sleep, King has produced a more than worthy successor. It is also one of the best things he’s written for quite some time.
Alcoholism is at the core of Doctor Sleep, much as it was in The Shining. In the earlier novel, disgraced English teacher and aspiring playwright Jack Torrance is an abusive husband and father with a drink problem.
His own inner demons are as much a threat to him and his family as the ghosts that haunt the Overlook Hotel, where Jack takes a caretaking job and where, snowbound, he gradually goes insane. His son Danny and wife Wendy bear the brunt of his mania. Both are saved when the hotel’s boiler explodes and the building burns down with Jack in it. (Those who know of The Shining only through the Stanley Kubrick film should note that the movie differs in some aspects, and climaxes in a more downbeat way than the book. This sequel cleaves solely to the action of the novel, which King maintains is “the True History of the Torrance Family”.)
Doctor Sleep picks up Danny’s story not long after these events and for its first hundred-odd pages follows his life as he grows up and develops a crippling drink habit. In part, his addiction-prone personality is inherited, a genetic legacy. But he also drinks to dampen his psychic powers, dubbed his “shining” by the Overlook’s chef Dick Hallorann, who has these same abilities. Danny – now Dan – is cursed with precognition and acute telepathic sensitivity. He is also harassed by some of the horrifying spectres he encountered at the Overlook, who pursue him until, with Hallorann’s help, he devises a way to neutralise them. Alcohol, though, remains his preferred coping strategy: “The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser.”
At rock-bottom, he stumbles into a New Hampshire town called Frazier and falls under the benign influence of Casey Kingsley, who offers Dan a job and becomes his sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous.
As Dan struggles to beat his addiction, he finds work at a hospice called Helen Rivington House – and here he discovers a use for his shining; a purpose in life. Whenever a resident is close to death, Dan comforts them. With his powers, he shows them that there is nothing to fear. Soon the nursing staff have dubbed him, with kindly euphemism, Doctor Sleep.
Meanwhile a sinister group of addicts roams America in a convoy of camper vans. They are the True Knot, and they are vampires of a sort. They feed off the shining of children, which takes the form of a silvery mist they call “steam”. Inhaling this rejuvenates them and grants them immortality. The victims die in great pain.
The True Knot have piratical, gangsterish names: Crow Daddy, Barry the Chink, Snakebite Andi and Jimmy Numbers. They are a makeshift but close-knit family whom King portrays not as purely evil, but rather as desperate, needy monsters with human failings – “more than people, worse than people”. Deprived of regular doses of “steam”, they age, degenerate and eventually flicker into non-existence.
Their leader, the beautiful but terrifying matriarch Rose the Hat, becomes aware of a young girl with an immensely powerful shining called Abra Stone. Rose knows that Abra’s steam would feed her and her people for a long time once she matures.
Abra and Dan forge a telepathic connection. By the time she reaches her teens, Abra’s supernatural abilities are so great that they pose a danger to herself and those around her, much like Charlie McGee, the pyrokinetic girl in King’s Firestarter.
When Rose is ready to take Abra, Dan senses the danger, and the two of them, with a handful of allies, confront the True Knot. The showdown is at the site of the former Overlook, now a campsite called Overlook Lodge. It’s more than ironic coincidence: “Life was a wheel, its only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it had started.”
The ideology of AA flows through Doctor Sleep. This is a novel about making amends, admitting and accepting one’s wrongs and surrendering to one’s “Higher Power” – literally so, in Dan’s and Abra’s case.
King’s own successful battle with addiction is addressed frankly in his memoir On Writing. His novels are themselves often exercises in self-exorcism: writer’s block, a persistent fear, has featured in many of them, not least The Shining. Here, in Doctor Sleep, we have the author ousting one more demon, bringing it screaming into the daylight to burn to ashes. It’s a gripping, powerful novel, all the more so for being patently heartfelt.
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