I don’t read a lot of Stephen King – not because I don’t recognize him as a master of modern horror, but exactly because he is. Reading Pet Sematary when I was young came close to traumatizing me; The Shining and The Stand imprinted themselves on me deeply, as much as I tried to shake them off. So I’ve pretty much given him a wide berth for years. That is, until Doctor Sleep. In this novel, he revisits one of his most compelling characters – young Danny Torrance from The Shining: the redrum boy who was touched by a mysterious emotive power that saved him from the forces that broke apart his family.
Fast forward years. With the help of the Overland Hotel’s old cook, Dick Hallorann, Danny – now Dan – is able to contain the nightmares that still exist from that time, but is unable to repair the damage they caused. Now a middle-aged drifter, Dan is running from a pattern of addiction that sabotages every attempt he makes to settle down. That is, until he reaches Frazier, New Hampshire, with the almost perfect small town persona which includes an amazing village replica called Teenytown, complete with a kid-sized train ride that speaks to something deep inside the damaged man.
While admiring the tiny train, Dan meets Billy Freeman, town maintenance man and conductor of the ride, and Dan’s shining flares the strongest it’s been in years. Billy offers him a job, and introduces him to Casey Kingsley, the municipal works supervisor who is himself a recovering alcoholic. The work, although temporary, gives Dan a foothold in town, as well as the kick he needs to try AA again, with Casey as his sponsor.
But the shining won’t leave him. There are nightmares that are more real than imagined, and hints that evil still lurks around corners, invading the night. The spirits of the Overlook Hotel still manifest his waking dreams. But there are less dire consequences, as well. At the hospice where he has found steady employment, Dan gains the nickname “Doctor Sleep”, with his ability to ease the passing of patients whose time has come, a welcome release from pain and loneliness.
There is also the mysterious writing that shows up on the whiteboard where he keeps track of the hospice patients; from someone named Abra – a name that he had unthinkingly written in his notebook days earlier. Abra turns out to be an 11 year old girl living in a nearby town, and she also shines, powerfully so; that’s what linked her to Dan. But unlike Dan, Abra lives in a well adjusted, well educated and fairly well off family, where her “peculiarities” are considered more bafflingly eccentric than dangerous; she is not a haunted child.
But her shining unknowingly attracts another element, a far more sinister one. A centuries old cadre of evil, who feed off the essence of the shining in the very young, have camouflaged themselves as “RV folks”, masquerading as harmless rubes.
You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones.
But they are anything but mild. They suck out the shining essence of children, piquing it higher through torture and fear. They call this essence “steam”, and it sustains them, gives them eternal life, and power. They call themselves the True Knot, and they consider each other family although they have not been born, they have been turned. Led by bewitching, heady Rose, they are pure, selfish, powerful evil. And they have caught Abra’s scent.
Stephen King takes all of these compelling elements and weaves them together, loosely at first while he builds his characters, before pulling the strings into a tautly ratcheting dynamic. We fear for the climax that is to come, and we have a right to fear, for there is so much at stake, for Dan, for Abra, for Rose and the True Knot, and for us as bystanders. Reading Doctor Sleep, I was afraid to turn the next page, scared to death for what might happen, but unable to stop, compelled to continue even though terrified of what each new page might hold.
A master of horror, indeed.
I’ve heard that some readers feel that Doctor Sleep is not one of Stephen King’s best; they call it soft, and missing the “wonderfully evil” characters of his earlier work. I wonder if we are reading the same book as I was, for I found the members of the True Knot to be absolutely terrifying, perhaps because they so easily passed as “normal” in our everyday world. The scenes in the book that were gritty were stickily so, the passages that were gruesome did not ease up, in detail or outcome, but they also did not happen often enough to allow me to become numb and impatient with the element of “been there, done that” which seems to permeate lesser works that aim to shock first and build the story as a second thought. For me, the storytelling in Doctor Sleep was exceptionally strong, making the threat of lingering nightmares worth taking.
Once I read the last page of Doctor Sleep, and closed the cover, I did what I always do after reading anything by Stephen King – I gave a quiet prayer of thanks that I live a boring, uneventful, mundane life. And now, thanks to this book, I will never, ever look at a caravan of Winnebagos the same, ever again.