I have been a devoted fan of Stephen King’s work ever since the publication of his first novel, “Carrie,” all the way back in 1974. In the ensuing years, King has churned out 58 more novels in addition to a number of collections and other books. While I can’t say that I’ve read everything he’s written, I’ve come damn close.
Throughout the years King has made me believe in vampires, taken me on a terrifying journey through a haunted hotel, given me a ride in a car with a mind of its own, introduced me to seven outcast children who triumph over evil, exposed me to animals that return from the dead, subjected me to life under a mysterious dome, and whisked me back in time for a fresh take on the assassination of President Kennedy. King’s meticulous attention to detail makes his stories believable, and this is why he his writing is so effective.
Naturally all of King’s fans have their favorites among his novels, and some of mine are “’Salem’s Lot,” “The Shining,” “The Stand,” “It,” “The Green Mile,” and “11/22/63.” If you know his work, you’ll recall that “The Shining” is set in the massive Overlook Hotel perched high in the Colorado Rockies, and tells the story of Jack Torrance, an alcoholic who moves his wife, Wendy, and their 5-year-old son, Danny, to the hotel when he takes the job as the winter caretaker of the deserted place. The novel derives its name from Danny’s telepathic abilities, which play a major part in the story.
Critics generally agree “The Shining” is one of King’s best novels, and now 36 years after it publication, the Master Horror has come out with a sequel to that haunting story of the nightmare Jack Torrance and his family experienced in the Overlook. Although I think the original is a slightly better novel, “Doctor Sleep” definitely pays sufficient homage to its predecessor.
Although most of the action in “Doctor Sleep” occurs in the present, the novel opens with a section titled “Prefatory Matters,” in which King provides readers who may not have read “The Shining” with a bit of background about that story.
“On the second day of December in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground. The Overlook was declared a total loss. After an investigation, the fire marshal of Jicarilla County ruled the cause had been a defective boiler. The hotel was closed for the winter when the accident occurred, and only four people were present. Three survived. The hotel’s off-season caretaker, John Torrance, was killed during an unsuccessful (and heroic) effort to dump the boiler’s steam pressure, which had mounted to disastrously high levels due to an inoperative relief valve.
“Two of the survivors were the caretaker’s wife and young son. The third was the Overlook’s chef, Richard Hallorann, who had left his seasonal job in Florida and come to check on the Torrances is because of what he called “a powerful hunch” that the family was in trouble. Both surviving adults were quite badly injured in the explosion. Only the child was unhurt.
“Physically, at least.”
Also in the opening section, King introduces some key characters who will appear throughout the novel, and he shows us how Danny unfortunately has inherited a tendency toward alcoholism from his father. He’s still haunted by memories of the time he spent at the Overlook, and drinking is the only way he can cope.
After bouncing around from place to place, Danny finally finds a home in the small New Hampshire town of Frazier, where he meets a guy who convinces him to join AA and where he takes a job in the local hospice and uses his unique abilities to help people through their last moments before death. Things finally are going well for Danny. He has his drinking under control, he’s found some good friends, and he’s good at his job. Then he meets Abra Stone.
Abra is a young teenager who possesses the shining, and her gift has put her in grave danger from a group of monstrous beings who travel around the country in their campers searching for young people like Abra. When they find them, they torture them and kill them to suck their power or “steam” from them. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Danny befriends Abra and agrees to help defend her against these malicious monsters and their horrifying leader Rose O’Hara aka Rose the Hat.
As is typical in King’s novels, “Doctor Sleep” begins calmly enough, but soon the tension begins to build and escalate with every page. The mental conversations between Danny and Abra are masterfully done, and the close bond that develops between the two of them as at once moving and touching. And Abra ranks right up there with Charlene “Charlie” McGee (“Firestarter”) and Beverly “Bev” Marsh (“It”) as a memorable young female character.
Throughout the novel, King constantly weaves the past with present so that we never forget Danny’s link to the Overlook Hotel, and the site where that magnificent structure stood figures prominently in the nail-biting conclusion of “Doctor Sleep.” Abra and Danny’s final confrontation with the nefarious Rose the Hat, a superhuman monster reminiscent of the chilling Barlow from “’Salem’s Lot,” is vintage King.
Of course the main element that makes every King novel so exceptional is his incredible ability to paint pictures on the pages instead of just filling them with words. The best writers don’t tell readers things; instead they show them. And nobody is better at that than King. Early in the novel, Danny is still a young boy, and the vision of a dead woman lying in a bathtub at the Overlook still palgues him, and here’s what happens to him one day when he walks into his bathroom.
“The woman from Room 217 was there, as he had known she would be. She was sitting naked on the toilet with her legs spread and her pallid thighs bulging. Her greenish breasts hung down like deflated balloons. The patch of hair below her stomach was gray. Her eyes were also gray, like steel mirrors. She saw him, and her lips stretched back in a grin.
“The woman – he knew her name, it was Mrs. Massey – lumbered to her purple feet, holding out her hands to him. The flesh on her arms hung down, almost dripping. She was smiling the way you do when you see an old friend. Or, perhaps, something to eat.”
Although it remains to be seen whether or not “Doctor Sleep” will become an all-time favorite among King’s devotees, it is undoubtedly a worthy sequel to one of his best books. And it also reaffirms the fact that among writers of horror fiction, he still is the king.