In 1977, after the successes of “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot,” Stephen King published “The Shining,” which centers on Jack Torrance, an alcoholic writer, who moves his family to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. The Overlook proves the epicenter of nasty evil forces, which speak to Danny, the Torrances’ son, who is blessed, or cursed, with psychic abilities — “the shining,” his gift is called. These forces also wreak havoc on dad. At book’s end, an insane Jack nearly destroys his family and is killed as the hotel burns to the ground.
When “The Shining” was released, King was 29. To write that book, King, like his protagonist, relocated his young family to Colorado and spent time at a hotel that was supposedly haunted. Like Jack, King also drank. Later he became addicted to drugs. In the late 1980s, he quit all substances. Now 66, King has written “Doctor Sleep,” a return to the territory of “The Shining” and to the murky world of addictive behaviors.
The novel continues the tale readers have waited to hear since “a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House.” Yet King acknowledged in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview that there are pitfalls to this kind of homecoming to hallowed ground. First, he wondered, could he still scare the daylights out of people? And then there is the fact that “most sequels really suck.” How does his fare? Is “Doctor Sleep” suspenseful? Somewhat. Action-packed? Sure. But this time around, there’s meager creepiness to seep under your skin or into the corners of your mind.
“Doctor Sleep” opens with exposition. After the Overlook Hotel debacle, young Danny still possesses telepathic powers and is haunted by visions (including, fans will rejoice, receiving messages like “REDRUM” — “murder’’ in reverse). As Danny becomes adult Dan Torrance and “an ex-actor [replaces] the peanut farmer,” he becomes increasingly plagued by his “phantom nightlife.” Dan becomes, like his father, an addict. “Your mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser.” Drinking “tamped down the shining.”
The bulk of “Doctor Sleep” gives us a destitute, but sober Dan now deep into his 40s. It’s the 2000s, and Dan takes a bus north to a fictional White Mountains tourist town called Frazier. (New Englanders will revel in King’s interweaving of the fictional with real locales — from Marlborough Street in the Back Bay to Somerville to a New Hampshire exit for the Fox Run Mall.) In New Hampshire Dan nearly loses his sobriety before finding Alcoholics Anonymous. He begins working at a local hospice, using his otherworldly powers as “Doctor Sleep,” to help dying patients pass through the “slow blue pulse in the darkness” and into the afterlife. In these quieter moments of human connection, the novel shades into an agreeable pathos, and Dan’s journey swells with tender poignancy.
But this initial tale of recovery must be crammed between the covers of a supernatural thriller. All the while, King has been stitching together two other storylines. Plot A: Abra, a girl secretly hard-wired since birth to Dan via some clairvoyant mind-meld; they can swap minds, long distance. Like the eponymous Carrie, Abra is coming of age and into her powers. Plot B: the True Knot, an ancient tribe of entities roaming the nation in search of shining-rich kids to kill so they can drink their psychic essence, or “steam.” Thing is, these zombies pose as retirees piloting herds of Winnebagos. You’ve seen them, King winks, driving “at exactly ten miles an hour below the legal speed limit.” King has a grand old time imagining his undead cult dressed in “ASK ME ABOUT MY GRANDCHILDREN!” sweatshirts.
Yet, as the plot lines predictably converge, “Doctor Sleep” devolves into a disappointing series of gunfights, car trips, and psychic showdowns. “Rose the Hat,’’ the True Knot’s leader, has set her sights on Abra for her tribe’s ultimate binge drink. Of course, Dan and Abra can’t turn to the authorities. Who would believe them? With a decade of sobriety under his belt, Dan becomes the leader of a crack team of local AA yokels battling these psychic villains. At one point, Dan actually utters, “I have a idea. It’s sketchy.” His “plan” just might work. But as Dan’s character stops growing, so does the novel.
There’s much to admire here, if you read “Doctor Sleep” as a meditation on addiction. Like Dan and King and the bottle, True Knot members are addicted to their fountain of youth. “[A]m I still human?” a new convert asks after her first hit of steam. To which Rose replies, “Do you care?” The conceit of paranormal voices in one’s head is an apt metaphor for the ghosts of pain and loss. As Dan Torrance puts it, “You’d be surprised what a person can live with.”
The irony is that, for King, a writer who has made a reputation as a horror master, what’s most affecting in “Doctor Sleep” is not its attempted dose of heebie jeebies, but this quieter tale of a broken man’s modest recovery. That’s a storyline Stephen King clearly appreciates, but leaves behind high and dry.