The Shining is probably the one novel in Stephen King’s canon that transcends all the others. Even if you’ve never read the book, I’m sure you’ve seen, or at least are aware of, the classic 1980 Stanley Kubrick film that starred a disturbing axe-wielding Jack Nicholson. The “Heeere’s Johnny!” scene is so ingrained in popular culture that not knowing that reference would either make you a recluse or a member of the Amish community. Okay, maybe a bit of stretch, but everyone knows that quote, right?
With the recent release of Dr. Sleep some thirty-six years later, King has revisited his 1977 horror masterpiece. In the author’s notes at the back of his new novel, King expresses his own reservations about going back to his most famous work and rightfully so, as The Shining solidified King’s name as one of the best storytellers of our generation. However, with Dr. Sleep, he’s managed to breathe new life into old ghosts with a mix of nostalgia and supernatural that only King can deliver. Dr. Sleep is his sequel to The Shining, but don’t expect the same story that was its predecessor, as his new novel is a whole different monster altogether.
At the beginning of Dr. Sleep, Danny Torrance is struggling to deal with the consequences of his family’s horrific stay at the Overlook Hotel when he was a small child. Years later, not only is the grown-up Danny tortured by his powers of the “shine,” but he is still traumatized by his father’s possession and subsequent death at the hands of the paranormal entities that inhabited the Overlook Hotel. As a result, Danny is a tormented alcoholic floundering from town to town, lost in his haze of inner demons and addiction. However, along the way, Danny realizes he can use his “shining” powers for some good and finds employment in hospice care, helping the nearly dead cross over to other side.
Enter Abra Stone, a feisty young girl who possesses an even stronger “shine” and begins to communicate with Danny through long distance telepathic messages. In turn, Danny becomes an unusual mentor to her and helps calm the young Abra who’s scared of her power and unsure of what she really is. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Stephen King story without some monsters lurking under the bed, and Dr. Sleep is no exception. This time around, it’s the True Knot, a roving band of human-demon hybrids who have lived for centuries killing and feeding off of the life-force (or “steam,” as they refer to it) of these special children like Abra who “shine.” Predictably, this all leads to an epic battle of good versus evil as the True Knot seeks to devour young Abra before Danny can stop them.
Unfortunately, Dr. Sleep isn’t a story that lives up to the huge expectations of what a sequel to The Shining should be. That being said, the novel does manage to carve out its own little place in King’s epic body of work and pleasurably shines in its own small way. While King struggled with his own drinking problem early in his writing career, by using the character of Danny Torrance to act as his own cathartic outlet, it seems King is finally comfortable excising his own past demons. With that in mind, the real villain of this story isn’t the absurd True Knot tribe but something entirely darker: the destructive force of addiction. Furthermore, the bond formed between Abra and Danny in the book is touching without being overly sentimental. In the end, Dr. Sleep might not have been the novel we expected or wanted, but I’m glad King wrote it nevertheless.