Appeared in Creative Loafing, October 17, 2013
In my college/marijuana years, I lived in a house where my fellow residents and guests were encouraged to write on the walls. The best scrawl said, “The only hell is what we do to each other.”
So of all the scary things conjured up by frightmaster Stephen King — flesh-eating fog, girls whose eyeballs can set bad dudes on fire, homicidal haunted cars — it seems that the stories that frighten us the most are the ones that come from our all-too-real terrors.
King has been pretty upfront about his battle with alcohol, and it was Jack Torrance, the tormented wannabe writer with a drinking problem, who provided the real scares in The Shining, one of King’s most enduring novels. As a poster boy for Bad Dads, Jack Torrance broke son Danny’s arm and nearly killed his wife during his ill-fated tenure as caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel during a devastating Colorado winter.
Forty years have passed since that book and King is on the other side of his alcoholic continental divide. He wanted to check in on Danny Torrance these days, to see what ever happened to that tormented kid.
As you might expect, Danny inherited father Jack’s alcoholism and caused a lot of pain himself. He lied, cheated and stole for the Next Drink. But now the older, wiser King lays out a path of redemption for Dan Torrance.
Doctor Sleep is a four-decades later sequel to The Shining, and though it does delve into the supernatural and we’ve got people fading in and out of the afterlife, it’s the brutality of a world served in slavery to alcohol that scares the most.
We pick up Danny Torrance’s life not long after his father’s death and the explosion of the evil Overlook Hotel. The boy is still visited by the hotel’s demons, but he learns to hide them away in distant parts of his memory. He is unable to keep away the demon of alcoholism and spirals into a life much like his father’s. His mother’s death leaves him alone and he enters his 40s as a well-meaning but helpless slave to booze.
But then he turns things around and eventually finds a use for his gift, his “shining.” He helps usher the elderly residents of a nursing home into the afterlife, because he can understand all of their pain and suffering and eases them out of this world. They call him Doctor Sleep.
Sober but teetering on the edge of relapse, Dan is telepathically approached by a young girl who shares his gift. She writes messages on the blackboard in his apartment and he responds. Through one of her visions, she learns of a cult of non-humans who travel among us (in Winnebagos, of course), sucking the life out of young people. Those faces on milk cartons and telephone poles? They are victims of this savage, centuries-old tribe of monsters called the True Knot.
Sounds like a little much, but by that time in the unfurling of Doctor Sleep, we are so caught up in the lives of Dan and his young friend, Abra, that we don’t really mind some of the hokey parts.
Don’t want to give up too many details — have your own fun reading the book — but Dan does get to make a return visit to the site of his childhood trauma, the Overlook. There’s also a rather startling reveal that you don’t see coming — nothing that makes you jump, but a surprise nonetheless. The drama of the actual confrontation between the good guys and the True Knot is a little protracted and is so talky that it risks becoming a teacup drama.
Quibbles. If you like King’s books, you’ll love this. If you only read a Stephen King book once a decade, you’ll still love this. It returns to some of his recurring themes of children in peril, battles of good and evil, and journeys to ominous destinations.
And it’s the simple things that frighten us: his description of a face at a window, looking in at the young girl, is as frightening as any moment from childhood.
How scary is Doctor Sleep? Not sure I can put it on a Stephen-King-frightened-the-piss-out-of-me continuum, because I couldn’t finish a couple of his books since they were too darn creepy. But whether he’s wiping out most of civilization (The Stand) or setting a whole novel inside a car interior (Cujo), the dude knows how to tell a story.