Mrs. Massey, the decomposing woman from Room 217, shows up on page five. Tony, the little boy who lives inside Danny Torrance’s mouth, appears soon afterwards. And REDRUM is just around the corner. Stephen King’s eagerly awaited sequel to his seminal 1977 novel The Shining — his most popular work and one of his best — picks up immediately after the end of the first book. The young Danny and his mother Wendy received a large settlement from the corporate owners of the Overlook Hotel and wound up living in Tampa. The Overlook’s former head chef, Dick Halloran, lives in Key West and drops in on them from time to time. The memories of that horrible winter — when Danny’s alcoholic dad Jack lost his mind and went after his wife and son with a croquet mallet — are still fresh. And some of the ghosts and monsters that terrorized the family at the Colorado resort have followed them to the East Coast.
Anyone who knows The Shining only from Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation, which made radical departures from the text, may be a bit confused at first. But after that brief prologue, Doctor Sleep jumps ahead two decades and sets out on its own narrative path. Wendy, a lifelong smoker, has died of lung cancer. Danny, who is now 30 and goes by Dan, has become his father’s son, an alcoholic loser who can’t hold down a job. In one of the book’s best and earliest chapters, Mama, he wakes up hung over in the shabby apartment of a woman whose name he can barely remember, his face bloodied and bruised, his wallet empty, trying to figure out where he is.
“There was a coffee table in front of the sofa. On it was an ashtray filled with butts, a baggie filled with white powder, and a People magazine with more blow scattered across it. Beside it, completing the picture, was a dollar bill, still partly rolled up. He didn’t know how much they had snorted, but judging by how much still remained, he could kiss his five hundred dollars goodbye.”
King, who has publicly discussed his voracious cocaine and alcohol abuse in the 1980s, writes about addiction from the inside in, with the authority and detail of someone who survived it. When Dan suddenly spots an 18-month-old boy in diapers trotting toward the drugs on the coffee table shouting “Canny!” and reaching for the cocaine, the moment is as terrifying as anything in all of King’s novels. Once again, the writer is able to conjure up real-life horrors as scary as make-believe ones.
His knack for finding the dark and ominous in everyday situations has always been a key element of King’s success. His ability for keeping even the most outlandish scenarios grounded in reality is critical to Doctor Sleep, which turns out to be much more like Firestarter, an action-thriller tinged with science fiction, than the hair-raising horrors of The Shining. The book centers on a band of traveling psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot, keep a home base on the grounds where the Overlook once stood and roam the roads in RVs, looking to feed on people gifted with Dan’s “shining” powers — a combination of telepathy and the ability to see the future. The group is led by a beautiful six-foot woman known as Rose O’Hara, who is fond of wearing a top hat and whose human form is a disguise for a ghastly monster with a gaping maw bearing only one enormous, gnarled tooth. King’s genius stroke — his way of making these villains frightening instead of cartoonish — is to make the Knot’s most favored victims children.