When I moved to Stephen King’s home state of Maine, I thought it would be fun (if a bit cliché) to finally read his books in earnest, and discover how I really feel about his work. For this installment, I decided to find out whatever happened to that kid who talked to his fingers, and picked up the 2013 Shining sequel Doctor Sleep.
In 2013, shooting wrapped on the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, a project that took 12 years to make, because it was filming its child star, Ellar Coltrane, in real time. As we watched the main character grow from a 6-year-old to a college freshman, we were watching Coltrane grow, too. It turned out to be little more than a gimmick – Boyhood is a fairly forgettable domestic drama. If only it had a fraction of the narrative thrust of another 2013 experiment in fictional growth, Stephen King’s absolutely gripping literary sequel Doctor Sleep.
When we last saw Danny Torrance, it was at the end of King’s 1977 classic The Shining. Danny was six years old, and reeling in an auspicious salmon on a Maine lake, with his mother Wendy and telepathic mentor Dick looking on. It’s one of King’s best endings, a realistic infusion of hope after a long, grim reckoning with violent spectres of inherited trauma. It made us feel like Danny just might have a shot at a happy life, guided by the empathy that comes with his ability to see into the minds of others. Before we even start turning the pages of Doctor Sleep, we’re already rooting for its main character.
King’s novel picks things up 36 years later, without missing a beat. Danny is now Dan, and although he’s learned a few tricks on how to deal with the real-life monsters that followed him from the accursed Overlook Hotel, he’s not handling his psychological trauma quite as well. He’s become a melancholy alcoholic with a violent streak, just like his father. Yet even though he steals booze money from a poor single mother’s purse, Dan remains a better person than the arm-breaking, axe-wielding Jack Torrance. Redemption is still possible. Maybe even happiness. In King’s able hands, this reintroduction feels completely organic. It’s as if Danny had always been alive in the author’s mind, aging in real time.
As he so expertly gets us up to speed on Danny’s life, King includes an old conversation with Dick Hallorann that sets the stage for the events to come:
“Did it ever strike you funny, how I showed up when you needed me?” He looked down at Danny and smiled. “No. It didn’t. Why would it? You was just a child, but you’re a little older now. A lot older in some ways. Listen to me, Danny. The world has a way of keeping things in balance. I believe that. There’s a saying: When the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. I was your teacher.”
Doctor Sleep is the story of Danny the student becoming Dan the teacher. After hitting rock bottom, he somehow finds his way back above the waterline, in a small New Hampshire town. His first boss becomes his long-time AA sponsor. (This book is loaded with AA references, but King sprinkles enough healthy skepticism around to avoid getting preachy.) His job as a custodian at the local hospice center helps him discover his calling – Dan uses his shining to help the dying cross over, providing them with the kind of definitive serenity that no priest could ever gin up. And, most critically, Dan finds himself one town over from a 12-year-old girl named Abra, who shines more powerfully than perhaps anyone in history.
King pulls out some of his oldest tricks when filling in Abra’s history, creating a kind of alternate universe where Carrie White grew up in a loving and supportive household. When Abra predicts 9/11 as an infant; or plays Beatles songs on the piano, from her crib, with her mind; or makes all the silverware stick to the kitchen ceiling, her parents have to admit that their child has telepathic powers. They want to pretend it’s a phase, and Abra lets them think that. Until an evil none of them ever imagined sets its sights on her destruction.
The big bads in Doctor Sleep are not vindictive ghosts, or psychotic parents. They’re a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot, who spend their lives riding the interstate in tricked-out Winnebagos, posing as your average American retirees, out to make the most of their golden years. The True Knot subsists on “steam,” a vapor that has to literally be tortured out of the bodies of human beings who can shine. At first, these villains felt a little too convenient, and more than a little goofy – their leader is “Rose the Hat,” a sneering, top-hatted succubus who routinely lies to the group about how much steam she has in stock. But once they sniff out Abra, and start dropping like flies thanks to a nasty case of the measles, the True Knot becomes a terrifying metaphor for humans who can’t die peacefully. Like a convoy of hillbilly Elizabeth Bathorys, their desire to destroy the young, just so they can squeak out a couple more years, reflects the darkest side of human nature.
Dan feels Abra shining pretty much from the moment he moves to New Hampshire. She “writes” him notes on his apartment wall, and they slowly get to know each other, exclusively via the shining. Dan thinks of her as family. And when she’s endangered, he and the few others who know of her abilities come up with a few elaborate ruses to destroy the Knot, without using her as bait. This sequence of the book is just impossible to put down, a gripping, fantastical showdown between the living and the dying, the givers and the takers, the listeners and the din. And through it all, we’re seeing that 6-year-old kid – who watched his father lose his mind, who was so close to the edge of destruction for most of his life – face his own demons, along with Abra’s.
All these years later, Stephen King still believes that you don’t have to become your parents. All it takes is some willpower, and the kind of family that you can choose. Then, chances are when it’s time to go, you’ll do it peacefully, your mind opening up as your body powers down.
THE “CATCHING UP WITH KING” RANKINGS
5. Doctor Sleep