Heeeeeeere’s DANNY! Danny Torrance, that is. He goes by Dan now, by the way. “Danny” is his kid self, long since grown and far removed from the traumatic events of The Shining. The Overlook may be in shambles (this sequel follows the novel canon, not the film), but the horrors of the past still haunt Dan well into his thirties, and new threats emerge.
Dan Torrance is down on his luck. He’s a barely-functioning alcoholic, skipping from one town to the next, taking odd jobs and drawing his “talents” with a fresh bottle of liquor each night. His travels take him to Frazier, New Hampshire, where Tony—his imaginary friend from childhood, a manifestation of the shining—declares that this is the place. Dan befriends the locals of Frazier and settles down there. He quits drinking with the support of his new comrades and builds a happy life for himself. A few towns over, a girl named Abra is born, and as she grows, her incredible power makes her a target of the True Knot, a cabal of vampiric creatures who feed on “steam,” or the power of the shining, to stay alive.
Let’s start with the pressing question: is Doctor Sleep a must-read sequel to The Shining? Answer: no. That isn’t meant to be pejorative or judgemental. Doctor Sleep is an entertaining romp—exactly what Stephen King fans should expect. I simply mean it’s not an absolutely necessary addition to King’s canon. The Shining is a seminal piece of literature, a tentpole of the horror genre. Doctor Sleep is its sequel.
I worry I’ve undersold my enjoyment of Doctor Sleep, so I’ll rectify that right away. I thought the book was a blast in the way most King books are. It’s entertaining. It’s breezy, despite its 500+ page count. The themes and concepts are tightly wound into the narrative threads, but they don’t bonk you over the head like some Harley Quinn hammer. It’s a popcorn movie of a book. Not without its problems, but not bad, either.
Doctor Sleep hinges primarily on Dan Torrance, and I applaud King’s decision to follow him well into adulthood. This mid-thirties Dan struggles with alcoholism, an ailment he thought he’d avoid thanks to his dad’s erratic and violent behavior years ago. The result is a Dan who doesn’t have anyone. He barely even knows himself. This makes him something of a vessel. An empty one, waiting for something to fill it other than the two things he’s known best: liquor and the shining. When he finally arrives in Frazier, Dan finds a community of supporters and friends, and the vessel gets filled. Eventually, he’s able to pour more of himself into others as the eponymous Doctor Sleep—his hospice nurse moniker, earned by helping patients die in peace.
All of these things coalesce into a vibrant—and somewhat dark—image of a struggling man. It also provides a backdrop against which our other characters can be clearly painted. Abra, a girl with immense power via the shining, exists in stark contrast to the early-novel Dan. She has a network of love and support. Her well-meaning parents wish to hide her talents, and she does her best to appease them even as they’re trying to protect her. Abra, naturally talented with the shining, has power beyond the likes of anyone Dan has ever seen. It’s no wonder the True Knot, helmed by Rose the Hat, seeks to feed on her steam.
Dan’s mission to protect Abra is a direct follow-up to his lonely meanderings through the Overlook Hotel years ago. I only wish they faced something (or someone) other than the True Knot.
The True Knot is utter camp. Each member has a weird-ass name (Crow Daddy, Grampa Flick, Snakebite Andi, to name a few), and they exist solely to take in steam and thus live forever. Normally, I’m not one to beg for relatable villainous motivations. Sometimes evil for evil’s sake is plenty of fun. Look to The Shining for a prime example. The Overlook is an indisputable evil, but it has depth and mystery to it. The Hotel overtakes Jack Torrance and uses him as a puppet for its own nefarious purposes. With the True Knot, what you see (a bunch of old-ish people who talk like pale imitations of 40s gangsters and drive around in RVs murdering kids) is exactly what you get. They’re in the book only to push the plot forward and give Dan something to protect Abra from. I heaved a sigh whenever I had to read from their perspective.
Thankfully, much of the result of the True Knot conflict leads to interesting moments with Dan and Abra. He teaches her how to manage the darker portions of the shining. He advocates for her and protects her.
However, this also brings the shining into a much clearer light, and I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. Dan and Abra have to explain their powers to many characters, and it makes them feel too real. The shining fits best into a mysterious box. It’s more fun when you’re unsure what will crawl out when you open the lid. Defining even some of the abilities brings it more into hard magic territory. I’m no hard magic hater (I love a thoughtful, well-realized hard magic system), but it’s not what I want the shining to be.
Like almost every Stephen King book I’ve read, Doctor Sleep rolls right along like a train to Teenytown. It made me smile, cringe, laugh, and widen my eyes in fear. It’s far from perfect, but it’s a romp, and that’s enough for me.