Stephen King can find the scary in anything — even RV parks.
Of course, the sweetly named Bluebell Campground that plays a role in King’s new novel, “Doctor Sleep,” happens to be on the site where an isolated Colorado resort hotel burned to the ground back when “a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House.”
If that reminds you of the Overlook Hotel, the monstrously haunted setting of King’s terrifically terrifying 1977 novel “The Shining,” you’ll want to know that “Doctor Sleep” is the answer to the question “Whatever happened to Danny Torrance?”
Danny, of course, was the sweet little boy who had a psychic gift called “the shining” and an alcoholic father, Jack Torrance, who sank so far into dementia, or possession, or something, during a snowbound winter at the Overlook that he almost murdered his wife and son.
King rarely writes sequels to his horror novels, but 36 years later he has picked up Danny’s story — as he told it, King emphasizes in his author’s note, not as Stanley Kubrick told it in his 1980 film of The Shining, which took liberties with the book’s plot. King dismisses “Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember — for reasons I have never quite understood — as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.” Just goes to show you how hard it is to scare Stephen King.
King, however, has no trouble scaring the rest of us, and he doesn’t wait long to do so in “Doctor Sleep.” The book begins just a few years after the Overlook fire with Danny and his mother, Wendy, living in Tampa. Their lives are quiet until Danny wakes late one night and finds the bathroom door, usually open, is closed, although his mother is fast asleep in her bed.
“Reaching with an arm that seemed too long, too stretchy, too boneless, he turned the knob and opened the door.
“The woman from Room 217 was there, as he had known she would be. … (She) lumbered to her purple feet, holding out her hands to him.”
As soon as Wendy realizes the revenants of the Overlook are pursuing her son, she calls on Dick Halloran, the resort’s one-time chef and the man who identified Danny’s “shining.” Halloran shares with Danny some of his own experiences with shining and gives him resources that help lay down the Overlook’s dead.
Most of them, at least. Cut to Dan Torrance all grown up, and he has done what he once swore he’d never do: follow in his father’s reeling footsteps. At 30 Dan is, in fact, a full-bore drunk, not quite hitting the bitter bottom but sinking fast. King follows him all the way down, and then to the little New Hampshire town of Frazier, where Dan finds redemption thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, a community of friends and a job where he feels he makes a difference: tending hospice patients. It’s there he earns the nickname that is the book’s title, for his knack for gently helping patients make their final crossing into death.
King alternates Dan’s story with that of a little girl in the nearby town of Anniston, a sunny but strange kid named Abra Stone. She’s the apple of her parents’ eye, even if she does things like play the piano in another room while lying in her crib and hang all the spoons in the kitchen from the ceiling without touching them. Shining? You bet, big time, and even as a tot, long before they meet in person, she is reaching out to Dan — because all that drink didn’t wash the shining out of him. They have a link whose depth they won’t discover for a while, but it’s a vital one for both of them, because a third story line is circling them like a predator.
The True Knot is a tribe of predators, a clan of long-lived monsters whose current guise is traveling the highways as retirees in RVs: “They drove along Route 77 toward Show Low in the usual caravan, fourteen campers. … There were Southwinds and Winnebagos, Monacos and Bounders. Rose’s Earth Cruiser — seven hundred thousand dollars’ worth of imported rolling steel, the best RV money could buy — led the parade.”
That would be Rose the Hat, the True’s leader, a lusciously beautiful, utterly ruthless woman whose nickname (Abra will say the True all have “pirate names”) comes from the gravity-defying top hat she wears tipped on her raven tresses.
The True aren’t exactly vampires, although they’re not averse to lapping up a little blood. Instead, something like J.K. Rowling’s dementors, they feed on what they call “steam,” the psychic essence of the humans they refer to as “rubes.” They feed at disasters, because sudden and violent death generates steam, but the best source, the source that can sate their hunger for a long, long time, is the murder of a child who shines. And they’re zeroing in on one in New Hampshire.
At the same time, an even more ancient killer is haunting the True themselves in a way they never imagined, and they think Abra just might be not only a feast but also the key to immunity.
At just over 500 pages, “Doctor Sleep” is a bit slimmer than most of King’s recent novels, and it barrels along at an accelerating pace. Is it as bone-chillingly scary as “The Shining”? No, and few books are. But it’s plenty creepy, and it’s richer in the themes that have come to occupy King more, especially family relationships.
There are unlikely heroes and a truly surprising last-minute redemption as Dan races to find a way to save Abra and himself, finding the answers, as Dick Halloran tells him, “in your childhood, where every devil comes from.”