Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
Previously published in Dawn’s Books & Authors
Stephen King is a master craftsman - he always has been, regardless of whether each of his novels appeal to each of his readers or not. His early books have been a gateway drug to all sorts of thrillers, science fiction, horror & mystery to teenagers all over the world. There probably isn’t another writer nearly as prolific as him, with King clocking in with fifty novels, almost two hundred short stories, multiple production and screenwriting credits for television and even a short film/music video with Michael Jackson. His own history of addiction and alcoholism is public knowledge, with King later admitting that he barely recalled writing a word of Cujo. It says a lot for King’s control of his craft, if he was able to write a book as terrifying as Cujo with a mind completely addled by drugs and alcohol.
Stephen King always taken the familiar and made it terrifying- a car, a cat, a dog, a clown, some balloons - there’s no telling what ordinary thing King will use to reduce his readers into a frightened mess. But with Doctor Sleep, his sequel to 1977’s The Shining, King is less interested in having teenagers cower under the covers because of deadly poltergeists or ghosts. At 66, King now wants you to know the ultimate truth - that sometimes growing up and trying to deal with the world around you is terrifying in itself. Doctor Sleep isn’t a horror story about losing your life to the supernatural, but about losing your life to something as ubiquitous as alcohol, and trying to recover from the demons left behind from childhood traumas. Leaving aside the slightly tedious recollections of The Shining that Doctor Sleep begins with, this is just what King intended it to be: ‘a kick-ass story’.
The True Knot, lead by the beautiful, deadly, ancient Rose the Hat, are a strange breed of villain. They travel across the United States in their motor homes, seemingly innocuous and mild-mannered. But they are an almost immortal people who once ‘rode camels in the desert; once they drove caravans across eastern Europe’ and ‘they eat screams and drink pain’. There’s are now less than fifty of them; including a few who seem to be of the bumbling sidekick variety and only Rose herself is truly frightening. The Knot may seem to be a part of King’s contemporary Americana, in their RVs and their powder blue polyester clothing, but they are not born of American society, not in the way certain characters from some of King’s classics were - Carrie’s Margaret White, or Misery’s Annie Wilkes, for instance. King never explains why the Knot are what they are - other than a few references to their almost-immortality, we never find out how they became what they are - a dying breed of sort of vampiric once-humans who survive on the psychic powers of others, powers like that of Danny from The Shining. Locating, torturing, murdering and feeding off ‘steamheads’ is all that drives them - quite literally, with them traversing the country until Rose’s ‘steam’ detector is triggered by someone who has the shining. They are able to rejuvenate themselves by ‘taking steam’, inhaling the shining, life source and psychic ability of their victim, so much so that a ‘tottery, grumpy old lady of eighty suddenly becomes sixty again. A leathery old gent of seventy is able to put away his cane; the skin-tumours on his arms and face disappear.’
In that particularly gruesome way only Stephen King has, Doctor Sleep reminds you brutally of the terrors of real life. Leave aside the supernatural for just a second - it’s King’s ability to make his readers afraid of something very human, something worryingly ordinary - alcoholism that really gets Doctor Sleep going. Danny, the young boy from The Shining who survived his father’s violent descent into madness is now Dan, the miserable alcoholic, a drifter with no aim in life other than to bury his demons at the bottom of a bottle of cheap booze. Dan wanders from town to town, picking up odd jobs to just make enough money for his next bender. Danny the young boy dealt with his shining as best he could, but Dan the alcoholic doesn’t want to deal with it at all - he wants it gone, removed from his head, locking up the ghosts from his childhood in the mental strongboxes the Overlook hotel’s cook Dave Hallorann taught him to use. But there’s only so far you can run from the demons in your head, as Dan soon discovers. It is when he hits what alcoholics refer to as ‘the bottom’ that King really forces home the desperate fears of and about an alcoholic. In a scene that is recalled in fragments throughout the book, and recounted as a perfect bookend at the very of Doctor Sleep, Dan finds himself stealing money from a young single mother he is sneaking out on, leaving her with food stamps, leftover cocaine and a toddler who has clearly been abused. King is fierce in his judgement, just as he wants his readers to be - there are no redeeming features to Dan’s actions here, even though soon after this Dan finds himself part of the Alcoholics Anonymous, in a small town where he works in a hospice, using his shining, his ‘terrible privilege’ to help the elderly residents die in peace, and without fear.
Dave Hallorann taught the young Danny how to secure some of his demons, but he also predicted a time would come when Danny would be the mentor and possible saviour for someone else with the shining. That person is Abra, who even as a baby has such immense potential that she is able to predict 9/11, through vivid images ‘transmitted’ to her parents’ dreams. As she reaches puberty, Abra’s shining is incomparable - much greater than Dan’s or Dave’s ever was. As Abra nears puberty, her shining strengthens, making her aware that the True Knot are trying to find her and use her. Dan, it seems, is her only hope for survival, and even after a decade with the AA, his sobriety. still seems tenuous. But for every weakness Dan has, Abra has a strength - she’s almost too perfect a character, a ‘good’ girl with more power and better control over her life than any of the adults around her. Luckily, the action is so well paced that Abra’s perfection doesn’t have a chance to be boring, and instead helps King bring Doctor Sleep to a very neat, tidy and ultimately hopeful conclusion.