Book review: Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep tells the story of the adult Dan Torrance, son of the late Jack Torrance, who was last seen getting blown up by an overloaded boiler in the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s 1977 novel, The Shining.

The bad news for the surviving male member of the Torrance clan is he’s picked up his dad’s habit of drinking heavily, getting into fights and living a bleak, unhappy existence.

King chronicles the painful bottoming out of Dan, who finally finds some hope and a great deal of danger in a small town in New Hampshire. At the same time he has been developing a psychic bond with a young girl whose own powers far outstrip Dan’s. This girl–Abra–eventually becomes the target for a group of near-immortals that call themselves The True Knot. The Knot maintains its longevity by inhaling “steam”, the psychic essence that escapes from someone experience pain, either mental or physical (a big payday for them early on is the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, where the suffering and anguish fills them like an all-you-can-eat buffet).

The leader of the Knot is a woman with a few psychic tricks of her own named Rose the Hat. By turns caring and threatening, she leads her group across the U.S. and through the centuries. Upon discovering Abra’s existence she fancies the girl could be tapped as a nigh-endless supply of steam.

King does a fine job of weaving the various sides of the story together, intertwining them neatly as they converge toward the inevitable confrontation. The ending–which I won’t spoil here–surprised me in being conventional yet satisfying.

Dan’s descent as he hits bottom with his drinking is perhaps even more horrifying than the ghosts of the Overlook that seek him out. King’s own battles no doubt informed these scenes and they have a stark authenticity that buttresses the supernatural elements.

My strongest criticism–and it’s overall fairly mild–is one I often have with King’s characters, and that’s the way so many of them have an almost prescient ability to correctly guess the actions or motivations of others, as if every person in King’s universe has some low-grade version of the shining. Having said that, King does explain in Doctor Sleep that many people do have exactly that, so it’s a convenient way to retcon the ability in the characters in his previous billion or so novels.

Doctor Sleep is vintage King, as trite as that sounds. His storytelling and characterizations remain as vital as they were when the original tale of the Overlook Hotel debuted 36 years ago.

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