Vintage King is a frightening prospect
It has been more than 30 years since Stephen King published The Shining, but I still remember that little kid, Danny Torrance peddling his tricycle down the halls of the Overlook Hotel, and although the Overlook is supposed to be empty, Danny sees people in some of the rooms. If you are a Stephen King fan, you remember the sound of Danny’s wheels as they trundle from carpet to bare floor to carpet. He passes rooms where dead people beckon to him. (Remember the woman in the bathtub?)
Little Danny has “the shine,” which means he sees and hears things that aren’t there. Have you ever wondered what became of him? After the Overlook burned to the ground and Danny and his parents fled, where did they go? The Shining ends with some provocative questions: what becomes of Danny, his mother and his alcoholic father?
Well, little Danny Torrance is an alcoholic, an affliction that he inherited from his father. He is a failed member of AA and is still haunted by those same specters that he encountered at the Overview Hotel, but he has developed a survival skill that enables him to capture his stalkers and to mentally imprison them. Danny still has “the shine,” and during the years, he has become aware of others ... people who can communicate by telepathy.
After years of unemployment, he finds a place that actually needs someone with his skills. He and an aging cat named Azzie live and work in a New Hampshire hospice called Rivington House (just down the road from Castle Rock) where he has earned the title Dr. Sleep.
Danny’s job is an important one. When the aging patients of Rivington House are close to death, they (or the staff) send for Danny. Azzie comes when death is imminent and sleeps on the bed until Danny arrives. His job is to give comfort to the dying who are often frightened. However, when Danny takes their hands and whispers to them, they grow calm ... especially when he assures them that he will stay with them until they are “asleep.”
When Doctor Sleep begins, it seems that Danny Torrance has finally made his peace with his troubled past and has gathered a diverse collection of friends. But, then he awakes to find a message on a chalkboard in his room: “HELLO!” He has been contacted by a child who also communicates by telepathy, and she has “the shine.” It is the beginning of a unique friendship, and by the time they actually meet at the local library, they have developed a powerful bond. The girl’s name is Abra Stone.
In time, Danny learns that Abra has awesome powers, but because her parents are bewildered and frightened by them, she learns to suppress them. Abra is struggling to be “normal.” This is difficult because she is like a kind of Richter scale that registers unnatural events in the world around her.
For example, Abra cries hysterically for days when the Twin Towers disaster occurred. Random violence, like the death of murdered children, causes her great distress, not when they are reported by the media, but when they actually occur. When an 11-year-old boy in Kansas is kidnapped and murdered, Abra “sees” the crime when staring at a photo of the victim.
When she goes deeper into the murder, she makes a terrifying discovery. The boy was killed because he has “the shine.” His murderers are members of an a cult called the True Knot that survives by inhaling the “essence,” a kind of fog (cult members call it “steam”) which is released when the victim dies, and which revitalizes them. Their leader, one of King’s most frightening creations, is an ancient woman who is semi-immortal and is known as Rose the Hat.
Gradually, Abra and Danny learn that the True Knot once had thousands of members and that they moved among quietly among us searching for victims who have “shine.” In recent years, their numbers have been reduced as they encounter infections for which they do not have an immunity. (Measles can kill them.) Most of them appear elderly with nicknames like Steam-head Steve, Apron Annie, Crow Daddy and Grandpa Flick. They travel together, driving big motor homes, eating at McDonalds, staying in cheap campgrounds and moving from Colorado to Maine. When they find a victim (Rose the Hat can “sense” them), they capture, torture and murder them. Terror and pain enrich the quality of the steam, and the members of True Knot often revert momentarily from lame, arthritic elders to vigorous and healthy adults.
Doctor Sleep becomes a tension-ridden thriller when the 13-year-old Abra begins using her psychic powers to eavesdropping on Rose the Hat, only to discover that Rose “knows” that she is there. In effect, Rose and Abra begin a dangerous game in which they stalk each other. Rose believes she has found the ultimate source of steam and schemes to find Abra and kill her; Abra becomes increasingly repulsed by the True Knot and with Danny’s assistance, plans to kill them all. Fittingly, the final showdown is the site of the Overlook Hotel where the True Knot gathers each year.
Doctor Sleep is a return to vintage Stephen King. Abra Stone, like Carrie and a half-dozen King protagonists, has an arsenal of psychic powers. However, King may be preparing her for another sequel. What makes Abra an appealing creation is her short temper (yes, she has destructive tantrums) and her readiness to use her abilities in a ruthless manner. Although Danny Torrance is able to control Abra, he may not always be around. In fact, he nearly died in this novel when the decided to become the “carrier” for a secret weapon against the True Knot.
Doctor Sleep is packed with passages and themes that are King trademarks: witty, spot-on juvenile dialogue, some embarrassing schmaltzy passages, characters who quote T. S. Eliot and Shakespeare while singing the lyrics of current pop bands, and, as always, a chilling treatment of Evil ... the True Knot, which has members that date back to medieval times. The “swapsies” sections in which Abra and Rose play a kind of mental chess were confusing. And when we are told that Danny and Abra are actually related due to a one-night stand many years ago, well, I just didn’t buy that. But, I loved the book. Flawed perhaps, but there were numerous times when the True Knot scared me.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King. Scribers, 2013. 531 pages.