In 1977 Stephen King gifted the world of horror fiction with a simple, elegant ghost story. The Shining was King’s third published novel and is still considered by many of his fans as one of the best novels he’s written. Among most King fans, there’s a general consensus that the books he wrote in his early days are his best. The rankings change, but most discussions about the “best” of Stephen King start with The Shining, The Stand, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and Pet Sematary. There’s also strong support for It and The Dark Tower series, but to this reader both of those works suffered from severe cases of bloat.
One of King’s saving graces is that even when his novels are overstuffed they’re so easy to read that the extraneous pages zip by without much effort being required. Of course, this is also a criticism…the pages that are crucial to the story also pass quickly without much effort. For this reason, many of King’s novels are fairly forgettable. Does anyone really have any memory about the plot points of From A Buick 8? Insomnia? Lisey’s Story? Needful Things?
This isn’t true of his earlier novels. King’s early work benefited greatly from being shorter and simpler than most of his recent novels. Carrie, clocking in at under 300 pages, was about a girl with telekinesis. ‘Salem’s Lot was about vampires. The Shining was a ghost story. Pet Sematary was, in essence, a zombie story. They were brief, intense, and very memorable. Compare these streamlined tales with the sprawling mess of Under The Dome or the alternate world-hopping of the thousands of pages that make up The Dark Tower.
Now King has released his first proper sequel (not counting Black House, his collaborative effort with Peter Straub that was ostensibly a sequel to The Talisman but was more closely affiliated with The Dark Tower). Doctor Sleep picks up the story of Danny Torrance, the little boy with the big shine who barely escaped the swinging roque mallet and possessed countenance of his father at the Overlook Hotel. Dan is now an adult with a serious drinking problem, restlessly moving from one spot to another, looking for any place he can call home. His mother is now deceased, as is Dick Hallorann. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel continued to plague him for years after the boiler blew the place sky-high, but Dan has learned how to lock the ghosts away in his subconscious, a plot point with much potential that never goes anywhere.
The bulk of the novel focuses on a newly sober Dan, in touch with a girl named Abra Stone. Abra has the shining as well, the brightest ever seen, and she is in danger from a group of psychic vampires who call themselves The True Knot.
It is this group, semi-immortal beings that feed off the psychic energy of children with the shining by torturing them to death and inhaling their essence, that ultimately undermines a story with a great deal of promise. The brief description of The True Knot is compelling, but the execution falls very far short. They are possibly the least effective villains King has ever created.
To all outward appearances, the True Knot seem to be middle-aged and elderly people who drive all over the country in tricked out RV campers. While their true age can be hundreds of years, they remain susceptible to disease, accident, and any of the other millions of ways mere mortals can die. Fairly early in the novel they kidnap, torture, and inhale the shining of a boy who has the measles. Because they are not immune, the True Knot then begins dying off from the measles. It’s enough to make you wonder whether, in their hundreds of years doing this, they had ever before met a child with a communicable disease. Apparently not.
The group’s leader, an Irish woman named Rose The Hat because of the top hat she wears, believes that if the group can get Abra Stone’s powerful shine into their systems that it will cure them. The problem is that the True Knot is about as competent as the Keystone Kops. Whenever Rose attempts to establish a psychic link with Abra, the young girl swats her aside effortlessly. The attempt to kidnap Abra is successful, but results in the deaths of almost the entire kidnapping party. The kidnapping itself is short-lived. A trap is then set by Dan Torrance, Abra’s father, and Dan’s friends from the local Alcoholics Anonymous. With very little drama, almost the entirety of the True Knot is dispatched, leaving only two survivors of the group. They, too, are easily taken care of.
The set up for the novel works. The True Knot’s base of operations is a campground in Colorado, on the site of the old Overlook Hotel, which brings Dan back to that haunted ground for the first time since the Peanut Farmer was President. It’s easy to see the potential here: Dan Torrance is back at the site of the Overlook; his subconscious is stuffed full of the ghosts that called the Overlook home; he is engaging in a pitched battle with psychic vampires who want to swallow the essence of his shining. All of this time I thought, Here it comes…Dan’s going to release them…the woman from 217, Horace Derwent, Lloyd the bartender…and the full battle will be on between the ghosts and the True Knot with Dan and Abra guiding the action with the shining. Pretty cool, huh?
Yeah, but none of that happens. The ghosts stay in Dan’s subconscious. Abra is thousands of miles away from the action and never in real danger. The True Knot puts up a fight worthy of a bunch of easily tricked, elderly people with the measles. And then it’s over.
The problem that plagues Doctor Sleep is that you never feel like the good guys are in any real danger. They’re constantly one step ahead of the True Knot. There is good in the novel. King’s portrayal of Dan Torrance is terrific, and the interactions between Dan and Abra are real and warm. There are enough connections to The Shining to make it a genuine sequel, even if the connections are never built upon. But Stephen King novels rise or fall on the strength of the villains, and the True Knot are as scary and intimidating as a group of mischievous puppies. That makes Doctor Sleep a huge disappointment. The Shining, one of the greatest ghost stories ever written, deserves better.