Doctor Sleep

To paraphrase Heraclitus, “No novelist can step twice into the same subcreation.” Writers begin changing the instant they append “The End” to a novel. Readers begin changing the moment they encounter that same phrase. And even the novels themselves, through the strange transmutations of time and shifting tastes and mores, exhibit changes as we look backward upon them, acquiring retroactive meanings and tonalities.

The impossibility of a sequel ever recapturing everything — or anything — about its ancestor never stopped legions of writers from trying, or hordes of readers and publishers from demanding more of what they previously enjoyed. And so Stephen King — whose oeuvre has been mostly — with the exception of the Dark Tower saga and the duology he wrote with Peter Straub — admirably free of sequelitis, now delivers a new installment to one of his most famous books, The Shining. Does Doctor Sleep diminish or dilute, enhance or expand its admired and illustrious predecessor? Can it possibly be assessed in some sense on its standalone merits?

Let’s look back at The Shining first. The primary text, that is, for to bring in Kubrick’s cinematic adaptation would require volumes all its own.

Only King’s third novel, the book is a young man’s enthusiastic synthesis of his literary ancestors, as he revels in his newfound powers. (King was thirty years old in 1977, the year of The Shining‘s debut.) Besides the explicit references to Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the book also amalgamates haunted house tropes from The Yellow Wallpaper onward to EC Comics. Add in naturalistic frights such as the performance anxiety of a writer, marital discord, parenting issues (including reverse-Oedipal aggressions), class divisions, alcoholism, and economic hardships, and the witch’s cauldron of terrors is effectively full.

But the dominant speculative motifs of the book — rendering it more science fiction than horror — are actually two that may have passed unnoticed by “mundane” fans of King’s novel. Yet anyone steeped in genre work immediately recognized that King — widely acquainted from his youth with SF and fantasy, as well as horror — is riffing in The Shining on a long tradition of exceptional children in science fiction and on the thread of extranormal, or “psi,” powers.

Danny Torrance, the five-year-old possessor of “the shining” — the ability to read minds, see the future, and contact extradimensional realms — is utterly in a line of descent from similar children found in the work of Olaf Stapledon, Wilmar Shiras, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury, Henry Kuttner, and Jerome Bixby, among others. King portrays Danny in the same clinical, non-supernatural fashion as those earlier child savants: a prodigy one step up the evolutionary ladder. Nothing occult at all. But, like all such sports, Danny suffers from his gifts, which are as much curse as blessing. Here we see King’s possible homage to such works as Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, James Blish’s Jack of Eagles, and Poul Anderson’s “Journeys End,” all of which examined the mechanics and dangerous downsides of mental eavesdropping and other ESP “wild talents.”

Another facet of The Shining that must be remarked upon is its almost dramaturgical limitation of setting and characters. Deliberate or timid, it’s an influence on the narrow, claustrophobic feel of the story. Yes, some small realtime action does occur outside the Overlook Hotel, and flashback sequences also extend and enlarge King’s venues and troupe of actors. But essentially the whole book consists of a tiny cast on a small, unified stage. One wonders if King had in mind that hoary chestnut by Earl Derr Biggers, Seven Keys to Baldpate, with its similar hotel spookiness centering around a writer with a deadline.

We can observe, also, King’s trademark fascination and delight with pop culture and topicality, at least in utero. The novel is thoroughly but not overbearingly larded with 1970s touchstones, from Nixon and John Fogerty to CB radio and Howard Hughes. King’s prose, while always very readable, here lacks the sophistication and finesse he would later develop, and his scare technics are a little clunky. In fact, he was really not yet fully “Stephen King” as we know the author today, certainly not an icon in the public eye. Some of this old zeitgeist emerges from a period review by Richard R. Lingeman (nowadays a senior editor at The Nation), from the March 1, 1977 pages of The New York Times.

Stephen King is one of the hottest novelists currently working the horror-occult genre. His books “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” were best sellers in paperback, having been given a considerable boost by the popularity of the movie of “Carrie.” Judging from his latest novel, “The Shining,” he is a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap. Ranked on a scale of from 0 to Ira Levin and Thomas Tryon, to name two leading practitioners in this vein, he would score, I should say, about a 75. His long suit is an energetic and febrile imagination and a radar fix on the young people who probably make up the large hard core of the market. He is not up to Mr. Levin and Mr. Tryon, however, because he lacks the sly craftsmanship of the former, at his best, and the narrative strength of the latter. Still, like a fast short-order cook during the breakfast rush, he serves up the scary stuff with unremitting dexterity.

One wonders if Mr. Lingeman ever has cause in this far-off year of 2013 to look back at that old review and either confirm or deny his early assessment in the light of nearly forty more years of King’s output.

Given that I’ve seen fit to identify the buried but dominant motif of The Shining as a special child with troublesome powers — rather than the foregrounded adult-centered bloody doings at the Overlook — it’s only fitting that Doctor Sleep revolve around grown-up Danny. He was always of more interest than his parents, and King uses him to tell a far wider and more sophisticated tale than he did in The Shining. This sequel delivers both mature insights and shocks in equal measures.

King’s new tale starts hard upon the ending of The Shining. We witness a scarred and leery Danny growing up hard, his life a mix of poverty and debilitated single-mom inutility. Dick Hallorann, janitor from the Overlook and another possessor of the shining, is there to help him for a while with mental techniques for tamping down ghosts. This transitional period is sketched in intimate, taut, hard-hitting fashion: accelerated bildungsroman.

And during this segment of the tale, we also get our first glimpse of the True Knot, a group of soul vampires, American-style gypsies, roaming the nation in a seemingly innocent caravan of RVs. Led by the Amazonian and intimidating Rose the Hat, the tribe of immortal predators is etched in colorfully scummy variety. (Fans of King’s work will be tickled by a passing reference to the town of “Jerusalem’s Lot” as a True Knot hideout.)

Before too many pages pass, we are seeing Danny — Dan — as an adult. And a messed-up fellow he is.

Dan has succumbed to alcoholism — shades of his dad, Jack — to keep the stresses of his powers at bay. He’s a drifter, penniless, all his possessions on his back. One day a bus lets him off in Frazier, New Hampshire, and he finds sympathetic people and a job at a curious theme park, Teenytown (a scenario reminiscent of the “Joyland” riff in King’s other recent book by that name). In a few years, by 2004, Dan is in AA and putting his life back on track. He’s also switched occupations, working a menial job at a hospice and nursing home. There, his “shining” allows him to, non-officially, psychically comfort those patients about to make the transition into death. So gentle and compassionate is Dan that he earns the cognomen of “Doctor Sleep.”

In parallel to Dan’s story, we witness the 2001 birth of a child (mystically encauled as newborn Danny was), one Abra Stone. Over the next dozen years of story time, we see her grow up with the sometimes spooky manifestation of her own shining talents. Abra has a much nicer and better-adjusted life than poor young Danny — and she’s more powerful too, a “lighthouse” to his “flashlight” — and by the ultimate narrative year of 2013, she’s a bright, smart teenager who has vaguely sensed Dan’s nearby shining presence.

But Abra has also made inadvertent mental contact with the members of the True Knot. And to those merciless feeders she represents mere prey. Rose the Hat dispatches a party of True Knotters to capture the girl for the ritual, torture-laden cannibal feast.

By the middle of the book, barely in time, Abra and Danny have made face-to-face contact and begun to unriddle the nature and threat of the True Knot, with help from some friends, including Abra’s pediatrician!  Their harrowing battle with the cultists fills the remainder of the suspenseful tale.

Besides giving us this epic battle — which assumes mythic dimensions of good versus evil while still remaining very personal and Darwinian — King is intent on doing several things. For one, he wants to chronicle how Dan Torrance turned himself around with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. The story is replete with keenly witnessed enactments of that struggle. These ring very true and meaningful in a personal way, and in fact King in his “Author’s Note” tips his own close involvement by referring to himself as “the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining.” He gets full credit for an unsentimental and touching accounting of Dan’s thorny path.

King is also intent on showing us the mutually supportive union of mutant oddballs in a world of “rubes.” The True Knot members revel in a perverted version of this affinity, but Dan and Abra illustrate the more wholesome association. In fact, it seems pretty clear that King is invoking here another classic of the SF genre, Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human. The bonding and mentorship between Dan and Abra echo that classic’s depiction of the way Sturgeon’s hypothetical gestalt personality comes together. Likewise, Dick Hallorann’s mentoring continues even from beyond the grave.

In the mighty psychic and physical tumult between the True Knot and the Dan-Abra gestalt, I also sense homage to another fine book, one that’s rather forgotten today: The Power, by Frank Robinson. I’d be very surprised if the well-informed King did not reverence this noirish tale of a hidden cabal of telepathic sociopaths, and one innocent man’s horrific encounter with them.

King has become a much better writer in all regards than he was thirty-six years ago. His naturalistic elements are more convincing and assured. The over-labored haunted house motifs of the first book have been replaced by another house entirely: the Helen Rivington House hospice center, where Dan matures into his role of Doctor Sleep. And the ontological basis of evil has been broadened from a mere anomalous limited blot — the Overlook Hotel — to a net of True Knot depredations across the whole country. In fact, despite not being gory or splatterpunk, Doctor Sleep‘s vision of existential malaise makes The Shining look as cozily old-fashioned as M. R. James. And the several codas to the book are structurally and emotionally bravura.

On a sentence-by-sentence level, the new book also excels. King’s metaphors and dialogue are less over-the-top than of yore, more inviting and less self-conscious. And consider the fact that Part Three of Doctor Sleep launches a hundred pages of what is effectively one set piece of extended gripping action (Neal Stephenson did something similar in Reamde). The Shining offers nothing comparable and looks somewhat choppy and jagged in retrospect.

Ultimately, King’s sequel not only brings out and burnishes everything implicit in The Shining, giving us a totally satisfactory extension and conclusion of the forces and personalities at work there, it also jumps up a plateau to a whole new level of empathy and philosophical questing.

I’m sure the thirty-year-old King is honored, and is manifesting to his elderly avatar as a smiling child who now heads into the aether for a well-deserved rest.