"The Shining" has long been one of Stephen King's most popular novels, and with good reason - while Stanley Kubrick's creeptastic film (which King considered a much too liberal interpretation of his 1977 work) has gained a cult following, the book stands on its own with strong, well-developed characters, a deliciously creepy setting and the perfect mixture of horror and suspense.
So my expectations for the 2013 sequel, "Doctor Sleep" - which focuses on a grown-up Dan Torrance and a young girl named Abra who has been bestowed with the shining - were considerably high.
While Dan (no longer Danny), now in his 40s, no longer seeks advice from his imaginary friend Tony, the effects of the shining (a term that loosely envelopes a group of abilities including telepathy, telekinesis, psychic abilities and the ability to hear and see ghosts) and of that fateful winter at the Overlook Hotel have left their mark on his life. In fact they have caused him to follow his father's sad trajectory, as Dan uses alcohol to blunt the edges of the shining and chase away his darkest memories. Like Jack Torrance before him, Dan allows his addiction to bring out the worst in him. Alcoholism and the struggle to overcome it are familiar territory for King, whose own experience of hitting rock bottom clearly informs his writing. Dan's story starts off a bit slowly as we learn how depressed and desperate he has become to leave behind the legacy of the Overlook Hotel and his late father's descent into madness.
As Dan struggles to get his life together thanks to a few good friends and Alcoholics Anonymous, he learns of a new talent provided by the shining: the ability to ease the passage into death, a skill which earns him the nickname "Doctor Sleep" at the local nursing home.
This strange gift, while referenced in the book's title, is not the focus of the story; it merely provides a way for Dan to reconnect with his powers before he meets Abra, a girl whose psychic abilities far surpass Dan's.
Abra's story is the true plot of "Doctor Sleep," and while this book is loosely related to "The Shining," it doesn't feel much like a sequel. It's difficult to relate the 40-something Dan Torrance with 5-year-old Danny, and Abra is too strong a character on her own to stay in the background. She quickly became my favorite King character.
She accepts her power but isn't defined by it; she's young and brave, often stupidly so; and her sensitivity toward her power's effect on others (bringing her to hide her true abilities from her parents and friends to keep from scaring them) makes her loveable and relateable. Having read King's "Carrie" for the first time this year, I couldn't help comparing Abra to Carrie White and wondering how Carrie's story would have turned out differently had she not grown up in an oppressive environment full of bullies and tyrants. Abra is allowed to nurture her power and, like Dan, she chooses to use it to protect others.
The bad guys in this story are some of King's most interesting. A group of ageless nomads who themselves the "True Knot," travel in search of people possessing the shining, in a twist on the classic vampire story: they get their longevity from the "steam" released when they torture and kill people with psychic abilities (this may sound far-fetched, but it feels completely real). They're so evil that they quickly become characters the that reader loves to hate, but King throws in enough complexity and back story for a few of them that they never slip into one-dimensional, pure villainy.
King is at his best when he maintains control over the supernatural elements of a story and allows his characters and their personal demons to take center stage. "Doctor Sleep" contains just enough paranormal action to plant it firmly in the horror genre while remaining a character-driven story. While it qualifies as a sequel to "The Shining" and can be better understood after one has read its predecessor, "Doctor Sleep" stands firmly on its own.