“Doctor Sleep” by Stephen King; Scribner (544 pages, $30)
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Mrs. Massey, the decomposing woman from Room 217, shows up on page five. Tony, the little boy who lives inside Danny Torrance’s mouth, appears soon afterwards. And REDRUM is just around the corner. Stephen King’s eagerly awaited sequel to his seminal 1977 novel “The Shining — his most popular work and one of his best — picks up immediately after the end of the first book.
The young Danny and his mother Wendy received a large settlement from the corporate owners of the Overlook Hotel and wound up living in Tampa. The Overlook’s former head chef, Dick Halloran, lives in Key West and drops in on them from time to time. The memories of that horrible winter — when Danny’s alcoholic dad Jack lost his mind and went after his wife and son with a croquet mallet — are still fresh. And some of the ghosts and monsters that terrorized the family at the Colorado resort have followed them to the East Coast.
Anyone who knows “The Shining” only from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, which made radical departures from the text, may be a bit confused at first. But after that brief prologue, “Doctor Sleep” jumps ahead two decades and sets out on its own narrative path. Wendy, a lifelong smoker, has died of lung cancer. Danny, who is now 30 and goes by Dan, has become his father’s son, an alcoholic loser who can’t hold down a job. In one of the book’s best and earliest chapters, “Mama,” he wakes up hung over in the shabby apartment of a woman whose name he can barely remember, his face bloodied and bruised, his wallet empty, trying to figure out where he is.
“There was a coffee table in front of the sofa. On it was an ashtray filled with butts, a baggie filled with white powder, and a People magazine with more blow scattered across it. Beside it, completing the picture, was a dollar bill, still partly rolled up. He didn’t know how much they had snorted, but judging by how much still remained, he could kiss his five hundred dollars goodbye.”
King, who has publicly discussed his voracious cocaine and alcohol abuse in the 1980s, writes about addiction from the inside in, with the authority and detail of someone who survived it. When Danny suddenly spots an 18-month-old boy in diapers trotting toward the drugs on the coffee table shouting “Canny!” and reaching for the cocaine, the moment is as terrifying as anything in all of King’s novels. Once again, the writer is able to conjure up real-life horrors as scary as make-believe ones.
His knack for finding the dark and ominous in everyday situations has always been a key element of King’s success. His ability for keeping even the most outlandish scenarios grounded in reality is critical to “Doctor Sleep,” which turns out to be much more like “Firestarter,” an action-thriller tinged with science fiction, than the hair-raising horrors of “The Shining.” The book centers on a band of traveling psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot, keep a home base on the grounds where the Overlook once stood and roam the roads in RVs, looking to feed on people gifted with Danny’s “shining” powers — a combination of telepathy and the ability to see the future. The group is led by a beautiful 6-foot woman known as Rose O’Hara, who is fond of wearing a top hat and whose human form is a disguise for a ghastly monster with a gaping maw bearing only one enormous, gnarled tooth. King’s genius stroke — his way of making these villains frightening instead of cartoonish — is to make the Knot’s most favored victims children.
“And if you happen to be one of those unfortunate people who’s ever lost a kid — nothing left but a bike in the vacant lot down the street, or a little cap lying in the bushes at the edge of a nearby stream — you probably never thought of them. Why would you? No, it was probably some hobo. Or (worse to consider, but horribly plausible) some sick (expletive) from your very own town, maybe your very own neighborhood, maybe even your very own street, some sick killer pervo who’s very good at looking normal and will go on looking normal until someone finds a clatter of bones in the guy’s basement or buried in his backyard. You’d never think of the RV People, those midlife pensioners and cheery older folks in their golf hats and sun visors with appliqued flowers on them.”
When the group learns of the existence of Abra, a little girl Danny has befriended who has extraordinary shining powers, they head out on a cross-country trip to New Hampshire to capture her. The bulk of “Doctor Sleep” is the kind of exciting and elaborate chase adventure King excels at crafting. But the author, who is now 65 and has perhaps grown kinder and less merciless with age, rarely writes novels these days that end with a devastating finale (think “Cujo” or “The Dead Zone”). You read “Doctor Sleep” in the same furious rush with which most people read “The Shining,” but the stakes are much lower, and the ending is never really in doubt.
And although the book contains some profoundly disturbing passages (including the Knot’s prolonged torture and murder of a little boy), “Doctor Sleep” is never all that scary. The book is best at depicting how even the most damaged people can rebuild their lives, as long as they are willing to put in the work — a theme that gives the novel an autobiographical air. The title refers to the job Dan gets at a hospice, where he uses his powers to help comfort the dying as they make their way into the afterlife. That may sound hokey, but King makes those sequences strangely affecting, even moving. In the latter stage of this remarkably prolific writer’s career, his trademark penchant for ghastly, bloody horror is gradually being overshadowed by humane, heartfelt compassion.