Stephen King is one of the most prolific and talented writers alive today. His latest book, Doctor Sleep, is his answer to a fan’s question, “What happened to the little boy, Danny Torrance from The Shining?” I have been what Stephen King refers to as a Constant Reader since the release of The Shining as a paperback when I was a young pre-teen. Now, many years later, I consider the bits about the hedge animals to be some of the creepiest prose ever written, and the thought of the heavy Colorado snow thumping softly off them while your back is turned still gives me the willies.
“Is Doctor Sleep as frightening as The Shining?” is the obvious question most will ask. The answer is no, because a great deal of water has flowed under the bridge for Constant Reader and Mr. King since the Overlook Hotel burned to the ground. For us, as Dick Hallorann tells the adult Danny, “the devils are back in our childhoods, where every devil comes from,” and for Stephen King, as he states in the afterword, “The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kickass story.” Well, Doctor Sleep is unmistakably a “kickass” story, and so much more.
The story is fairly simple: Danny has grown up to struggle with alcohol, partially as a means to cope with his preternatural mental gifts. He hits bottom, but eventually stumbles into a town in New Hampshire, where he meets some friends who help him stabilize and find a way to use his talents to help ease the passing of elderly people in a hospice. In this town is another young girl like himself with “the shining,” whose life is in danger from an evil group known as the True Knot that feed off children with these special gifts.
Dan’s fight to protect the girl, Abra, is an atonement and reconciliation with his past. This is the fulcrum of Stephen King’s genius – his delivery of the complex message directly to the subconscious through the medium of a “kickass” horror tale. The supernatural of Doctor Sleep is simply a myth or fable, speaking quietly to us in an undertone about addiction and anger and dying. King has always mined deeply into his characters’ psyches and reported everything of humanity he found there, the good, the bad, and the unbearably ugly.
The Stephen King of today, though, clearly loves much of humanity with all the passion of Walt Whitman, and points to paths of love and forgiveness with a quiet profundity. Here is his description of Dan, “Dr. Sleep,” helping one his patients at the hospice exit with grace:
Instead of taking Charlie’s pulse – there was really no point – he took one of the old man’s hands in his. He saw Charlie’s wife pulling down a shade in the bedroom, wearing nothing but the slip of Belgian lace he’d bought her for their first anniversary; saw how her ponytail swung over one shoulder when she turned to look at him, her face lit in a smile that was all yes. He saw a Farmall tractor with a striped umbrella raised over the seat. He smelled bacon and heard Frank Sinatra singing “Come Fly with Me” from a cracked Motorola radio sitting on a worktable littered with tools… Then the pictures blurred together, the way cards do when they’re shuffled in the hands of an expert, and the wind was blowing big snow down from the mountains, and in here was the silence.
I don’t think there are many writers who are able to pull (and have consistently been able to pull) such a wide range of emotional strings.