Rating:If there’s one thing Stephen King’s 1977 horror novel, The Shining, beat over our heads, it’s that ghosts from the past almost always come back. Jack Torrance’s personal demons joined forces with malevolent spirits during that fateful winter he spent caretaking the evil-infested Overlook Hotel. Overtaken by forces beyond his control, the alcoholic Jack burned up with the hotel that was his charge, but his wife and paranormally-gifted young son, Danny, survived and spent that book’s final pages lounging at a Maine resort with fellow shiner Dick Hallorann—who didn’t die as his Scatman Crothers-acted counterpart did in Kubrick’s iconic film adaptation (one King has famously said he hated). But after living through such metaphysical horror (including watching his father mangle his own face with a croquet mallet), you had to wonder what kind of life little Danny could possibly lead. Doctor Sleep tells us, and it starts off awfully bleak.
Ghosts come back early on, as the book opens in the aftermath of where The Shining left off. Danny is visited by the presence of that old crone Mrs. Massey, the decaying woman who once rose from the tub in Room 217 and curled dead fingers around his tender throat. Unlike your run of the mill ghost, she even leaves behind organic traces of slime and dead skin. Dick’s called in to teach Danny how to imprison Massey— and the other returning Overlook ghouls— in a mental lockbox presumably forever, and from there we flash forward to the dark days leading up to the inevitable “My name is Dan Torrance, and I’m an alcoholic.” As it turns out, when you have a preternatural ability to tap into other planes of existence, booze does a hell of a job of blunting that uncanny mental acuity. Also, heredity’s a bitch.
After Dan stumbles upon a job opportunity at tiny train-oriented theme park called Teenytown (the second amusement park in a 2013 King novel, after Joyland), his boss tough-loves him into sobriety through the help of AA. Years pass and Dan falls into the role of end-of-life liaison at a nearby hospice due to his supernatural talents at easing terminal patients onto the other side of the veil. It’s here that he earns the moniker “Doctor Sleep,” a fitting callback to the “doc” pet name favored, in his early years, by his parents. But this isn’t totally Dan’s story. Around the same time as his come-to-Jesus with his AA-sponsor boss, a special little girl named Abra is born, just shy of 9/11. Her inconsolable infant shrieks that have her frantically brought to the E.R. cease instantly when the second plane hits the tower. Lo and behold, she’s got far more shining than Dan ever did, and even in her inchoate years she’s able to perform telekinetic feats such as mentally hanging spoons on the kitchen ceiling during one of her first birthday parties. But this ability also makes her a target for hungry ghosts.
The antagonists in Doctor Sleep aren’t eternal party guests or twin girls who want to play forever and ever and ever. Instead, they’re actually a parasitic band of something like psychic vampires who call themselves the True Knot and manage to live for centuries by torturing and killing children who possess a touch of the shine then feasting on the mist that emanates from their pained final breaths. They call the stuff “steam” and their prey “steamheads” while referring to all other normal folk as “rubes.” They have ridiculous names like Rose the Hat, Crow Daddy and Barry the Chink. They hide in plain sight by tooling around the country in RVs in order to avoid drawing attention to their drastic regression in apparent age when they “take steam” (the essence of shining children serving as a fountain of youth for this brood), but they also make a kind of home base out of—you guessed it—the site of where the razed Overlook Hotel once stood. Naturally, to them, Abra is a mouthwatering mother lode and also an unprecedented threat.
King sets these saucers spinning in breathtaking fashion. He melds the vintage memories of Danny in the Overlook with a whole new cast of fleshed-out characters (even when they are more specter than human) and the story has instant forward momentum. Dan’s early internal struggles against his own alcoholism eventually morph into external conflict with the True Knot as they come for Abra, whom Dan has befriended through a psychic connection as only two steamheads can. As initially disorienting as it is to read about the 35-year old conceit of the shining while encountering myriad contemporary references to things like Firefox, Twilight, iPads, the deaths of Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse, The Hunger Games, Dr. Phil, 9/11, Dean Koontz, the NSA, Harry Potter and Nancy Grace, it mostly works because the times have indeed changed from—as King describes it—a Georgia peanut farmer president to an ex-actor president to a cowboy president to a black president.
But King also over-explains often, and despite some incredibly ominous pieces to play with, he never puts Abra or Dan at the brink of any real peril. They more or less run circles around the True Knot simply because they shine brighter. And the book culminates in the revelation of too literal of connections, too-easy a final battle and the kind of maudlin loose-end tying-up that serves as the exact reverse of King’s onetime criticism of Kubrick that the famed director “thinks too much and feels too little.” Still, Doctor Sleep doesn’t disappoint in the page-turning department, and though it’s its own beast, a more fitting sequel to The Shining was unlikely anyway. There might not be much in the way of true scares, but there’s enough otherworldly playfulness at work to make the adult Dan anything but a dull boy.