Way back in 1977, Stephen King’s third novel and horrific tour de force, The Shining, was published. It tells the story of Jack Torrance, an alcoholic caretaker who descends into madness one winter and attempts to kill his wife, Wendy, and son, Danny—a child who has psychic abilities and can see the disturbing, violent past of the Overlook Hotel.
Whether you read King’s book or saw Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 cinematic interpretation of it (which Stephen King has never endorsed), chances are The Shining ranks high on your list of Most Terrifying Things EVER. Now, 35 years later, King has written its sequel. Doctor Sleep picks up in modern times. Danny (Dan) Torrance is now a grown man battling demons of both the alcoholic and telepathic variety, and working as a hospice assistant in New Hampshire where he assists the dying in “crossing over.”
The novel is also about a preteen girl, Abra, who has “the shining” herself, and when a band of soul-sucking gypsies called the True Knot sets its sights on her, only Dan can save her from torture and death. The story is set against a background of AA meetings, New England quaintness, and all-American RV caravans and campgrounds. Ultimately the novel ends up where The Shining left off—in Colorado, where the Overlook once stood, and where Dan must face his haunting past.
Though not as bone-chilling as its predecessor, Doctor Sleep still turns out to be 528 pages of satisfying goosebumps and gasps. However, its true strength lies in its excellent writing, broad cast of characters, and well-turned plot. It may not be as revolutionary as The Shining was to the world of horror, but it just might be a better read all around. King, who is a recovering alcoholic himself, has come into his own (both personally and on paper), and Doctor Sleep is a testament to that. Here are the five reasons you should pick it up (and probably won’t put it down).
1. For the Humanity
King is a warm guy. You can feel his humanity emanating from his pages. He likes kids. He knows women. He gets guys. His characters exude a realness that comes from their creator’s ability to observe people not just with the eye, but with the heart. King’s knowledge of how humans work and what makes them tick/love/cry/explode is key to Doctor Sleep‘s success. And that knowledge is ultimately how he is able to scare us. He draws us into his characters, he makes us sympathize and empathize, and then he takes a sickle to us. When Dan’s hit rock bottom, King shows us a little baby, in a sagging diaper, reaching toward a pile of cocaine, and saying “Canny.” The moment torments Dan Torrance, and it will torment you.
And that’s just one example.
2. For the Laughs
Like all of King’s books, Doctor Sleep has some funny moments. And thank goodness: horror calls for occasional levity. King’s is a borderline goofy style of humor, the kind that has a crude boyish charm about it, but the lewdness of his laughs melds well with the graphic nature of his books.
Take, for instance, how he describes elderly motorhome drivers: “They’re annoying as hell when they descend en masse on a rest area and fill up all the toilets, but once their balky, road-stunned bowels finally work and you’re able to take a pew yourself, you put them out of your mind, don’t you? They’re no more remarkable than a flock of birds on a telephone wire…”
3. For the Imagery
What’s the scariest, most petrifying thing you can think of? A top hat sitting in a bathtub full of blood? A baby drowning in the blue water of a dark airport lavatory? A boy’s body being exhumed, his baseball glove full of maggots? A face floating outside your bedroom window? A piano playing on its own? Hundreds of spoons hanging from the ceiling? A demon that you can’t lock out of your house because it enters THROUGH YOUR MIND?
I’ll stop there. All of those are in this book. Among many, many others.
4. For a New Kind of Monster
The Shining is so terrifying in part because it’s not about demons or monsters or zombies or vampires; it’s just about people. People who are losing their minds and people who’d died but never moved on and now want revenge. In my opinion, crazy humans are far scarier than any boogeyman a writer could think up, because they can and do exist.
For better or worse, in Doctor Sleep there ARE devils, but thankfully King has the good sense to think up a new breed of beast. The book’s True Knot antagonists are best described as a troupe of wandering psychics who live off the “steam” of psychic children. To harvest this “steam,” they torture telepathic kids, and when that commodity runs low, they seek out mass disasters—like 9/11 or hurricanes or plane crashes, where they suck the steam from dying souls out of the air. It’s vampiric in theory, but at least it’s not two fangs and blood; in Doctor Sleep, it’s one giant tusk and the human psyche.
5. For the Hope
Doctor Sleep is fundamentally a book about hope. King’s latest creation offers redemption for drunks, mercy for the tortured, salvation for sinners, a world beyond for the dying, and promise for those wanting to rise above their grim pasts. Much of the book deals with both overcoming addiction (through Dan Torrance’s AA involvement), and the afterworld (through Dan Torrance’s hospice work). Somehow, it doesn’t feel preachy, and somehow it balances the inherent fiery terror of the book without throwing water on it. It feels genuine and autobiographical and well-crafted. In brief, it’s hope handled by someone who knows real-life horror firsthand.
Despite the length of Doctor Sleep (and two demanding kids), I read it in about five days. That’s proof not of any special reading abilities on my part, but of King’s ability to tell a story you just have to hear. As King always says, he likes his books to be so good that nothing gets done—not chores or cooking, bathing or sleep—until the reader has read his last page. He achieves that goal in Doctor Sleep. If you want paralyzing fear, I recommend The Shining. But if you want an excellent book you can’t part with, I recommend Doctor Sleep. Now that I’m finished, I’m ready for the film, because if it’s done right, it’s going to be epic.
(Now, just a final, random question for King fans: let’s say my child finally started pedaling his tricycle on his own while I read this book. Is that cause for celebration? Or will he stare at me while I’m asleep until I spontaneously combust?)