DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King
Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
‘Because that was then and this is now. Because the past is gone, even though it defines the present.’
Thirty-six years after the events described in The Shining, Dan Torrance – once Danny to most, and doc to those that mattered – is living in Frazier, New Hampshire, working in a hospice where he uses his gift – his shining – to help people in that final step across the border between life and death. Nicknamed Doctor Sleep by those who are aware of his work, Dan is a regular face at half a dozen local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Twenty miles away, in the town of Anniston, Abra Stone lives with her parents. Her shining is the strongest Danny has ever encountered, and while the two have never met, they are aware of each other.
The True Knot travel across America in their RVs, never stopping in one place for long, though they have a number of home bases spread across the country. The Knot survive by taking the essence of children who can shine. Pain and suffering clarifies the essence and makes it stronger, so none of the people who die at the hands of the Knot die well. When the group sets their sights on Abra, they underestimate the power of this young girl, and the people she has around her.
In the first sequel to one of his books, Stephen King revisits one of his best-loved novels to answer one of the questions most often asked not only by his fan-base, but by his own mind: ‘What is Danny Torrance doing now?’ Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining left off, and we fast forward through the next twenty-five or so years of Danny’s life, stopping for a look at some of the milestones: the night Mrs Massey, the old woman from the Overlook’s Room 217, appeared in the bathroom of their latest home; the night Danny awoke to discover he had spent his paycheque on drugs. Danny, it would seem, has followed in the footsteps of those great Torrance men who went before, his father and grandfather, to become a short-tempered alcoholic who has trouble holding down a job or leaving a bar without a fight. The narrative slows as Danny – now, in his early thirties, known as Dan – arrives in Frazier, and finds the help he needs to get straight.
From here, the events of Dan’s life run in parallel with those of Abra Stone who, like Dan, is born with a caul, and whose powerful shine gives her immense precognitive powers. The two ultimately meet, introduced by an unusual party, someone Constant Reader has met before, and Dan finds himself walking no longer in the footsteps of Jack Torrance, but in those of the other important male presence in his life, the Overlook’s chef, Dick Hallorann (‘When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear.’). Like his father, though, Dan retains a constant thirst, but it seems that the support group he has built up around himself – not only his various AA meetings, but also the friends he has made in Frazier – help in this regard. Which begs the question of how different Jack Torrance might have been had he discovered AA before taking the job at the Overlook.
Dan’s alcoholism is not the only evidence of history repeating itself in the novel. A theme begins to emerge early in the story, and King uses light touches throughout to ensure that we don’t forget: Abra’s Pooh Bear nightlight, which mirrors the one used by Danny all those years ago (which may say more about the endurance of AA Milne’s stuffed bear than anything else), and Abra’s regression to early childhood towards the end of the novel, as she hugs her battered stuffed rabbit, echoing Danny’s own regression to thumb-sucking as things begin to lose control late in The Shining. King also uses more literal imagery – the wheel that Abra uses to shift her consciousness into someone else’s body – and in doing so echoes one of the central tenets of the Dark Tower series:
Life was like a wheel, its only job was to turn, and it always came back to where it had started.
Substitute ‘ka’ for ‘life’, and the quotation is almost exactly word for word. There are other subtle references to Roland’s world, finally connecting the world of The Shining to the wider canon: Dan’s claim that ‘[t]here are other worlds than these’ a distorted echo of Jake’s final words to Roland in the first book of the series. There are, of course, references to some of King’s other works, and even one surprising reference to one Charlie Manx, perhaps as repayment for son Joe Hill’s references in this year’s NOS4R2.
As we’ve come to expect from the novels of Stephen King, Doctor Sleep is populated by a cast of colourful and real characters. Long-time Constant Readers will revel in this chance to meet up with an old friend as he reaches his forties, and to meet the new people in his life: young, vibrant Abra; fellow alcoholic John Dalton; Azreel the psychic cat. In the once-human members of the True Knot, and particularly in their leader, Rose the Hat, the author presents the very epitome of evil while giving them a three-dimensional feel that will have most readers looking with some suspicion upon the elderly owners of recreational vehicles for many years to come. It’s testament to his skill that we can come away from a book feeling so strongly about fictional creations, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who felt a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye during the novel’s final showdown.
Doctor Sleep is written in a strange style, halfway between King today, and King of the late seventies. It’s an interesting combination and, happily, it works very well. It gives King the ability to re-use, quite naturally, some of the tricks and tics that made The Shining work so well:
It made him think of how her ponytail had pendulumed back and forth when she
(Dan where’s the Crow WHERE’S THE CROW ???)
ran at Abra’s father.
It should come as no real surprise for Constant Reader that the final act of the novel sees Dan return to Colorado, and the site where the Overlook Hotel once stood. That wheel in motion once more. There’s a nice idea here that evil places attract evil things. The list of towns where the Knot are at home bear this out, with at least one other instantly-recognisable place from King’s back catalogue. As well as providing motivation for that final cross-country trip it goes some way towards explaining and tying together much of King’s work: why do so many bad things happen in Castle Rock, for example? Or Derry, for that matter? Don’t worry, though: there is no sense here that King is winding down, trying to tie up loose ends. Doctor Sleep shows a writer who has matured much in the thirty-six years since the novel’s predecessor was published, but who still maintains the power to entertain the reader, to scare them half to death if need be, to make them cry or make them laugh through the manipulation of words on the page. I’ve said it before, but each time I read one of his novels, it hammers the point home once again: no-one does it quite like Stephen King.
Late last week I found myself wondering how to sum up one of the greatest horror novels ever written. This week, I discover that my job was easy when compared to the question how do you follow one of the greatest horror novels ever written? With books like this, especially when the original is such a well-known and well-loved piece of work, there is always the potential for disaster. Far from that, Doctor Sleep is the perfect follow-up to the story that began with Jack Torrance’s interview for the position of winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. It is the perfect complement to The Shining, expanding the legend that King created back in 1977, and adding a host of new ideas to the mix. In answering the question of what Danny Torrance is up to now, King has finally completed the wider story of the Torrance family that The Shining, to a certain degree, left hanging, and has gone some way towards laying to rest the restive ghost of Jack Torrance through the actions of his son (for if the son bears the sins of the father, surely any reparations made should be paid backwards). Do you need to read (or re-read, for that matter) The Shining before you start in on Doctor Sleep? Technically, no. King has crafted a novel that stands well in its own right, giving brief glimpses into the events at the Overlook when required. But, as with all these things, going into Doctor Sleep with the story of Jack’s descent into madness fresh in your mind adds an extra level of enjoyment to the story. In either case, Doctor Sleep is a must-read and should prove, in particular, a comfortable re-start point for fans who may not have been keeping up with the author’s recent output. One of my books of the year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.