Stephen King turned 66 this year. And while I’m aware that fifty is the new thirty, homeboy has some van-smashing-related health issues and I worry about his general well-being. So every time he releases a new book I hope with all the fangirl hopefulness I can muster that it’s good enough to be the one that he goes out on. Morbid? Perhaps, but he is a horror writer, so I feel like morbidity rather comes with the territory. Also, I had a scare a few years back when he said he was retiring after his next book. Which was Lisey’s Story. Which was about a famous writer dying. Which was tremendously uncool. Don’t do us like that, Steve! I really thought something was wrong with him.
But his new book, Doctor Sleep, was pretty great. Not earth-shattering, but solid. Definitely one that I’d be fine with if it were his last. It’s a sequel to The Shining. Brief rundown: Danny, the little boy, is a grownup now who has fallen into the loving arms of alcoholism to escape both his memories and his abilities. After spending most of his life stumbling from town to town and fuckup to fuckup he settles in a small New Hampshire village and gets sober. Almost immediately he is contacted telepathically by a young girl with a shine much stronger than his own. Problem is, a group of psychic vampires who feed on people with all sorts of abilities are hunting this girl because of the magnitude of her power. And a hearty chase ensues! With bonus psychic battle shenanigans!
I’m going to assume that for the purposes of this discussion I don’t need to remind anyone of the plot of The Shining. It’s a touchstone of American horror and we all know it, but let me be clear that the movie and the book are drastically different in a couple of ways that are important to this new book. In the novel, the hotel blew up because of a malfunctioning boiler. It adds a ticking clock element to the whole story that was missing in the movie. Also, I think Kubrick made the Overlook a character unto itself, a malevolent force whose goal was to bring out the evil it saw in Jack Torrance. He was food for the beast. But in the book, he fights against it and seems to be a genuinely good guy who’s battling things within himself rather than the hotel’s evil outside influence. Absorption of evil, rather than excretion of it, is a key plot point in Doctor Sleep. The place where the hotel used to stand is very powerful for the weird band of horrible psychic soul suckers and is an analogy for their way of life. King’s approach seems to be more autobiographical and an integral part of his intricate storytelling, whereas Kubrick’s is much simpler and more suited to his visual horror medium.
All of that aside, what I think is most interesting about Doctor Sleep is King’s portrayal of alcoholism, versus how he dealt with it in The Shining. He has a wealth of hindsight at his disposal now. While Danny is dealing with his disease in the present, the author has a very “you’ll get through this” attitude that was absent in The Shining, when King was in the throes of recovery himself. Even in the scenes with the worst bits, he seems to use more gentle language. In The Shining it was all rage and crashing consonants and jarring descriptions. This ties in, also, to Danny’s two most important relationships in the book: his AA sponsor and the young psychic girl, Abra. The AA sponsor is reminiscent of, but fundamentally different from, his earlier relationship with Dick Halloran, the old cook who taught him about his abilities in the first book. He abandoned that connection and that friend when he took up drinking full-time. He learned from those mistakes and is trying to rectify them with both of these new teacher-student relationships. And his Mr. Miagi-type teaching-the-grasshoppah-about-her-powers kind of dynamic with the kid is really very poignant, if a bit heavy handed. It’s the ninth step, in a way, for Danny and for Stephen King.
I should really stop comparing and contrasting sequels to their predecessors. It’s a bad habit. Why can’t I just enjoy a continuation of a good story? The thing about sequels is that you either love them or you hate them. What’s interesting here is how much King’s style has changed over the years. The Shining was his third novel. Doctor Sleep is his fifty-sixth. Not only does he have thirty-five years of personal growth (getting sober, raising children, almost dying, becoming a bazillionaire and an integral part of the Western literary and cultural canon), but he’s also got a whole fictional universe or three to draw on and tie into his work. And boy, does old Steve love a good inside joke. He references at least four of his own books (by my count), one of Joe Hill’s (who is his son, just FYI), and – completely randomly – an off-the-cuff reference to Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs. Also, because one of the main characters is a tween girl he gives brief mention to Twilight and a bunch of other things she would be into, most of which I will admit that I’m too old to understand. The dude is a brilliant weaver of completely disparate storylines and universes. As well as a keen observer of pop culture. Badass. Genius.
So, yeah. As always, the new Stephen King is totally worth the read. And if you haven’t read The Shining, what the fuck is wrong with you? Get on it. It’s a classic. Even if you’ve seen Kubrick’s brilliant film, you should still read the book. It’s apples and oranges, for real. Oh, and, there’s a weird documentary about the movie that I recently watched. Room 237. It’s on ye olde Netflix and is great, if a little wacky and conspiracy theory-tastic. So check that out, maybe. And then mash all these things together in your brain and let them stew for a while and try to untangle them into some sort of sense-making sentence blob. You’ll end up with a blog post that makes little sense and has no cohesion whatsoever, like this one. Good times.