Stephen King does not like “The Shining.”
In the author’s note to “Doctor Sleep,” his fantastic new sequel to that classic horror tale, King expresses his bafflement with Stanley Kubrick’s movie version. “For reasons I have never quite understood,” King complains, many people remember it “as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.”
Of course, many writers dislike movie adaptations of their books, and Kubrick’s version differs substantially from King’s novel. But who can forget Jack Nicholson’s manic performance as Jack Torrance and Shelley Duvall as the hysterical wife, and their little son riding his Big Wheel down the creepy maze of corridors, the lady in the bathtub, the elevator of blood and those spectral twins? It’s one of those cinematic experiences that threaten to outstrip the original source material in the public imagination. Forgetting Kubrick would be as impossible as dismissing Victor Fleming’s “Wizard of Oz.” Once seen, it can’t be unseen.
So King faces a particular challenge in “Doctor Sleep.” Not only does he have to create a satisfying and compelling new story from the bones of “The Shining,” but he must also wrest control of our memory of that little boy, Big Wheelin’ Danny. He pulls off the trick by writing a virtuoso tale that outshines “The Shining,” particularly in dealing with its core theme: the corrosive ravages of alcoholism.
“Doctor Sleep” picks up the tale of Dan Torrance and his own battle with booze. Haunted by the events of that December when he was a little boy, Dan suffers through his childhood and then drifts for decades. While he escapes the Overlook Hotel, he can’t shake the visions he sees by virtue of the shining, that extrasensory capacity to perceive the hidden horrors of the world and to communicate telepathically with others who share the power.
With great gifts come great responsibilities, which weigh heavily upon the young man. After a one-night stand with a coked-up barfly, Dan finally hits rock bottom. He finds some respite in a small New Hampshire town where a tough but kindhearted sponsor drags him off to the local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He lands a job as an orderly at a nursing home and quickly earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep” for his uncanny ability, with the aid of a cat, to discover and ease the suffering of the dying.
Just as he has settled into this role, Dan begins to pick up signals from a little girl named Abra Stone, who lives in a nearby town. She is attuned to “the weird radio in her mind,” receiving news of faraway disasters — from the events of 9/11, when she was just a newborn, to the present-day abduction and death of a young boy halfway across the country. In time, she also picks up the presence of Doctor Sleep and forges a connection with Dan.
Meanwhile, out in the middle of America, the villains of the novel are traveling the highways and byways in their Winnebagos. Under the guise of stereotypical RV people, “those midlife pensioners and cheery older folks in their golf hats and sun visors with appliquéd flowers on them,” the True Knot, a gang of paranormal beings, seek out children with the shining in order to feed off the “steam” or life force released as they are slowly tortured to death. The True Knot need that steam to stay forever young. Under the leadership of Rose the Hat, one of King’s more colorful characters, the True Knot and Doctor Sleep end up in an epic clash between evil and innocence.
King is a master of the paranormal thriller, cross-cutting among these three plotlines in short cinematic scenes that give “Doctor Sleep” its relentless narrative drive. His characters, particularly the baddies, are drawn with an economy that brings them briskly to life. Like some twisted bastard son of the Houses of Lovecraft and Dickens, he is as macabre and entertaining as ever.
“The Shining,” published in 1977, is a young writer’s book. King, who turns 66 this month, has learned many new tricks of the trade. One key difference between the earlier novel and this sequel is how immediately he now plunges into the action. But “Doctor Sleep” inevitably takes a different tack regarding its main character’s central flaw. We get a more nuanced view of the cause of, and remedy for, alcoholism. Despite its many horrors, “Doctor Sleep” is more assuredly a novel of redemption, well-earned in the end. It won’t make you forget Jack Nicholson and his ax, but “Doctor Sleep” will give you a fresh case of the creeps.
Donohue is the author of “The Stolen Child” and two other novels.
By Stephen King
Scribner. 531 pp. $30