Stephen King's 'Doctor Sleep': Demons, personal and supernatural

What happened to Danny in 'The Shining'? King's latest brings us up to date


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"The Shining" is one of Stephen King's best known novels and arguably the one that firmly established him in the pantheon of great horror authors. Published in 1977, "The Shining" was Mr. King's third novel and his first hardcover best- seller.

The 1980 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick cemented the story and visuals in the minds of the public, thanks in no small part to Jack Nicholson's bravura performance as the blocked writer Jack Torrance. As a story, and as a highwater mark in Mr. King's career, "The Shining" is a hard act to follow. So why write a sequel more than 35 years later?


"DOCTOR SLEEP"

By Stephen King
Scribner ($30).


The term "The Shining" referred to the psychic powers of 5-year-old Danny Torrance, who survived the events of the original novel. Real life inspires art. The inspiration for Danny's character was Mr. King's son Joe Hill, who has grown into a successful adult and author in his own right.

Mr. King also says that one of the most frequent questions he has been asked by fans in the intervening years is, "Whatever happened to Danny?" "Doctor Sleep" is an attempt to answer that question.

Danny's powers did not disappear after the destruction of the Overlook Hotel and the death of his father. They faded as he grew older, but still brought him images of horror.

Despite his father's failings, Danny turns to the only thing that seems to dim the Shining: alcohol. At age 30, he has hit rock bottom. There is no future before him and only burned bridges behind him. He lands in a small town where he finds a job and, more important, a sponsor.

The scenes detailing Dan's experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous are obviously written by someone who knows the struggle firsthand. Mr. King's issues with alcohol are well-documented and provide a powerful real-world underpinning to the story.

Years pass, encapsulating Dan's sobriety and his eventual assimilation as a valued member of his new community. He works at an elder care home where his abilities allow him to comfort the dying, soothing their fears and helping them to let go of life peacefully. This earns him the nickname "Doctor Sleep."

A group of beings known as The True Knot have traveled the world for unknown centuries, blending in with humanity in the most innocuous of guises. They have become virtually immortal by feeding on the Shining, the psychic energy of the gifted young. They are the last of their kind and desperate to survive.

Young Danny had escaped their notice in the past, but in the present they stalk a new target, a young girl named Abra Stone, the most powerful psychic they have ever encountered.

They believe her essence, her life, will feed them forever. Dan must help Abra and redeem himself. By saving her he will also save the scared 5-year-old Danny who still lives inside him.

Mr. King writes great character arcs, and Dan's journey is sympathetic. Like so many children in the real world, Dan repeated the self-destructive mistakes and addictions of his father and hurt people along the way.

It is a story of gradual growth and redemption, the kind that comes with no magical solution, simply time and a lot of hard work.

The biggest problem with "Doctor Sleep" is that the True Knot beings are never very convincing as a threat. They are portrayed as bumbling and not very bright. Dan and Abra outsmart them at almost every turn, and there is little doubt that together they are smarter and more powerful than those that hunt them.

The challenges they face confronting their personal demons are more frightening than the vaguely supernatural antagonists. Growing up seems to be the real villain of the piece.

In 1977, Stephen King's voice was new and innovative and, in time, influenced every successive generation of horror writers. In 2013 anything Mr. King writes comes with the weight of expectation.

Just as the past informs every aspect of Dan's adult life, Mr. King's early career casts long shadows over any attempt to re-create it. We are not surprised by Mr. King anymore, so the joys of reading his work must come from a different place than previously.

His powers have not diminished with time. Like Danny's work as Doctor Sleep, they have moved into a different realm -- perhaps not as dark or spectacular, but more subtle and healing. "The Shining" was a tragedy. Danny and his mother survived, but the cost was terrible. "Doctor Sleep" is more hopeful. Danny's life was a very dark place, but Abra has the opportunity to truly shine.

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Wayne Wise (tetroc@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and novelist living in Lawrenceville. First Published September 22, 2013 4:00 AM


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