September 25, 2014

Sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight

A lightning review of Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (New York: Gallery–Simon & Shuster, 2013). Trade paperback, 531 pp.

In Stephen King's Doctor Sleep, child protagonist Danny Torrence is now in his 40s and goes by "Dan." Traumatized by the events of The Shining and self-medicating to suppress his psychic abilities, Dan is now an alcoholic. When he drifts into a New Hampshire town, he quits drinking, joins AA, and lands a job in a hospice. He becomes known as "Doctor Sleep" because his psychic "shine" (re-emerged since he gave up alcohol) enables him to comfort and ease the passage of terminal patients.

Meanwhile, a young girl named Abra Stone, born shortly before 9/11, has manifested a shine of her own that is possibly even more powerful than Dan's. As she grows up, the two of them share a psychic bond. Abra unintentionally has a vision of the ritual murder of a boy in Iowa by the "True Knot," a band of vampire-like roamers who feed of the psychic "steam" given off by those who die in pain. This brings her to the attention of the True, who realize they could feed off her for a very long time.

I've been reading Stephen King's works in order, but I decided to let Doctor Sleep jump the queue, as I mentioned earlier this month. I'm glad I did. (I should make a general policy of reading King's new novels while playing catch-up with the older ones.) King has called this novel a "return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror," but I'm not sure if I found it to be that, exactly. The Shining was pretty much a straight-up ghost story-cum-psychological thriller. King's work since about the mid-1990s has been as much fantasy as horror, and Doctor Sleep seems to fit that mould pretty well.

Actually, the horror-fantasy and the very weird antagonists make this novel feel like it was conceived by Clive Barker before it was written by Stephen King. But it was fun to read nonetheless. Apart from the ongoing Dark Tower series, sequels by King are few and far between, so it was interesting to read what had happened to one of his earliest, most engaging characters.

By the way, this is the first time that a Stephen King cover has made me jump. I only noticed today what was in the background behind the text.

Sure, it's less than a week till the end of the month, but Science Fiction-Free September moves apace. On deck: In Cold Blood.