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Light Thickens

Stephen King’s new book is a happy one.

Stephen King’s long-awaited sequel to his 1977 genre masterpiece The Shining is a happy book. That is not the only difference between Doctor Sleep and Jack Torrance’s descent into hell. To measure the distance from Shining — and we leave Stanley Kubrick out of the picture here altogether — it is pertinent to note the near-40-year background separating the two novels. The King who saved young Dan Torrance from his boozer father by exploding the faulty boiler in Colorado’s Overlook Hotel was a sinking alcoholic. The author who tells us the story of adult Danny has stayed sober since 1988. The result is a triumph of the will —and of the “shining” — in slaying the demons.

King’s popularity stretches beyond genre aficionados because of the ability of his horror universe to mix its eldritch elements with the quotidian. Disguised as ordinary RV folk travelling America’s highways is a group called the True Knot. Led by Rose the Hat,the oldest members may be as old as the Thirteen Colonies. Except,they don’t quite age. They feed on the “steam” released by kids with the shining when they are slowly tortured to death. The True Knot are scary because of their apparent ordinariness — their parked RVs in vacant lots,their blasting radios,their bumper stickers. But they aren’t going to leave generations of scarred readers behind.

Dan Torrance,struggling to beat his father’s curse of the bottle,hits his bottom when he steals money from his one-night-stand — a junkie single mother with an unfed and soiled kid,probably fathered by her brother. Booze suppresses the shining and the demons it attracts. Dan washes up in New Hampshire,and through the efforts of a kindly employer and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA),stays sober for a decade. But staying dry reinvigorates the shining and Dan is haunted by the vision of the mother and child ending up dead. The shining also helps him with his job at the hospice. He eases the crossing over of the dying,a spiritual euthanasia that earns him the name “Doctor Sleep”.

But the reason Dan stays sober and in New Hampshire for 10 years is a young girl called Abra Stone,with a shining much more powerful than Dan’s. Abra,as a five-month-old,had telepathically communicated the 9/11 attack to her parents the night before it happened. She attracts the attention of the True Knot after she “looks in” on their ritual murder and steam-eating of 11-year-old Bradley Trevor,the “baseball boy”. Now 13,Abra has to fend off Rose the Hat’s attempts to enter her head. Dan,with whom Abra had established “contact” as a toddler,has to join the war for her soul.

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After Kubrick’s 1980 film,and notwithstanding King’s protestations,the urge to read the ghosts and hedge animals of the Overlook as manifestations of Jack’s tortured psyche has been irresistible. This sequel changes the game by allowing us to read its raging battle as a recovering alcoholic’s “daily reprieve” at the cost of constant vigilance. AA,omnipresent in the narrative,might be the real protagonist of Doctor Sleep,helping King to offer an affirmation of the strength of the human mind,shining or no shining.

A pleasant surprise is how Doctor Sleep breaks from genre fiction’s bad habit of pretending it doesn’t exist by referencing other works by King (Salem’s Lot),his son Joe Hill (NOS4A2). It also alludes to,if tritely,Eliot,Pound,Auden,et al. This may be as literarily inclusive as genre fiction gets,but what keeps King’s horror from plunging into bathos is his abhorrence of the consistent and formulaic.