If you’ve never read “The Shining,” you probably have only a mental image of Jack Nicholson (or Homer Simpson) announcing his entrance with a menacing, “HERE’S JOHNNY!” Although the Kubrick treatment of the classic Stephen King novel departed wildly from the original text, it retained much of the scare-juice found in the story of a haunted hotel and a special little boy.
“Doctor Sleep” is Stephen King’s sequel to the work that brought us REDRUM by the bucketful. Little Danny Torrance is all grown up, but the monsters of his childhood have not gone away. He is told by his mentor that he must reach out to a young girl named Abra who has the same ”shine” he does, and together, they must fight a roving band of monsters who eat the children of their talented tribe. “Doctor Sleep” delivers on its promise of resolution for the tormented Torrance family but reminds us that life is a wheel that must turn back to where it all began. For longtime fans, this story began in 1977 and has finally come back around.
There is a lot to love about “Doctor Sleep.” King has long been at the loom of his collected fictions, weaving them together in a complicated series of adjoining universes where one story crisscrosses another and they work together to tell their tale. There are callbacks in his newest work to “The Dark Tower” series, but also to “Firestarter,” “Carrie,” “The Stand” and “It.”
These signposts are only perceptible to those familiar with his work. In many ways, “Doctor Sleep” is a long piece of fan service. For people who cannot let the talented kid or the haunted hotel from “The Shining” fade from their memories, “Doctor Sleep” tells what happened next. It is a thrilling tale, both frightening and exciting, and it never fails to grip the reader. King even hired Rocky Wood, an expert in King’s canon, to ensure continuity between the original work and the sequel.
There are a few small things that take away from “Doctor Sleep.” The thread of the story from which the title is taken is only tenuously related to the rest of the tale. It becomes important in the climax but relies on the character of Abra’s great-grandmother, who was never properly fleshed out, so the plot fails to pack the punch it might have. There is one unforgivable Dickensian the-pauper-is-actually-a-prince moment that made me fling the book down in the disgust of utter predictability.
Also, King’s poorly concealed hatred of technology (the subject of one of his worst novels to date, “Cell”) bleeds through, and his terminology is sometimes very dated. A background character in “Doctor Sleep” is jarringly and thoughtlessly given the same name as one of the victims of Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs.” “Doctor Sleep” is a book about terrifyingly potent mental powers, and yet pages are spent on long drives and telephone calls. Better editing could have made this novel a tour-de-force rather than a tour-de-Iowa.
Read “Doctor Sleep” if you are already a Stephen King fan. It’s as comfortable as an old pair of shoes, and the walk you take will be exciting. The novel will return you to your favorite paths in a dark wood, and you will see people you remember along the way. If you are new to King and looking to be scared, read “The Shining.” Read “Carrie.” Read the earlier, grittier pieces of this legendary talent and come to understand why the rest of us keep coming back, even though the woods have gotten thinner and the spooks are a little predictable. Because despite the waning efforts of his later years, the trees are still carved with “Long Live the King.”