Although technically a sequel to The Shining (published in 1977 and probably Stephen King’s scariest and best book – step to me, It fans), this book should not be approached as such, because in reality the two novels have very little in common besides the central characters. This isn’t a bad thing – I just want to warn anyone going into this book to get rid of the “straightforward sequel” mindset. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining the way American Gods is a sequel to Anansi Boys. That’s not the first Neil Gaiman comparison I’m going to make in this review, so prepare yourselves.
Doctor Sleep seeks to answer two questions: first, what happens to Danny Torrance after he and his mother escape the demonic Overlook Hotel – what kind of adult does Danny become, and how much of his father has survived in him? Second, what about the others who have the “shining” that Dick Hallorann told Danny about? Who are the others who possess gifts like Danny’s, and (a central question in King’s books) who should they be afraid of?
The adult version of Danny, called Dan, is, frankly, a mess. He hasn’t been able to avoid the alcoholism that cursed his father and grandfather (there’s a whole term paper that could be written on this sickness infecting the Torrance family the way evil infects the Overlook, but I digress), and we see him in some pretty bad situations. Dan eventually starts going to AA meetings and trying to get his addiction under control, and ends up working at a hospice in a small New England town. Dan quickly becomes known as “Doctor Sleep” because of how he comforts patients near death, and helps them cross over. Meanwhile, a child named Abra is born, also with the shining. She and Dan have a psychic connection almost immediately, and eventually Dan becomes a sort of mentor/teacher to the teenage Abra.
In Doctor Sleep, the villains are not the vengeful ghosts of a cursed hotel, but a group of semi-immortals who call themselves the True Knot. They travel the country in RV’s and hunt people with the shining. When they catch them, the True Knot kills these people by torturing them to death and inhaling their souls (they call it “steam”).
Frankly, that sounds more like it came from a Neil Gaiman book, but I’ll go with it (it didn’t help that the True Knot’s leader is a woman called Rose the Hat, named for the black silk top hat she always wears, and once I started picturing her as Amanda Palmer I couldn’t stop). This is definitely a different story than The Shining. There, we were restricted to a single setting and less than five central characters – Doctor Sleep has dozens of characters and its action spans the country (with a final confrontation at the campground built on the land where the Overlook used to stand, because of course). Again, the fact that the scope of this novel is wider and somewhat more philosophical than The Shining is not a criticism. I liked its insistence on being more than just a haunted house story, which people too often – and unfairly – reduce The Shining to. There’s a lot more going on here than just psychics and the monsters who hunt them.
My biggest criticism, really, is that the villains are never enough of a threat. It’s established almost immediately than Abra is some kind of shining Messiah, with abilities much greater than Dan’s. In all of her interactions with the True Knot, it’s made clear that they have no idea who they’re messing with, and that Abra is more powerful than them. The final plan to confront the Knot at the end goes off without a single hitch, so there’s never any real danger of the True Knot winning (and if you really think it’s a spoiler for me to say that the good guys win at the end, feel free to let me know in the comments and I will be happy to ignore you). In The Shining, we were constantly reminded that Danny was a child facing undying, unrelenting evil all by himself, and throughout the story you really don’t know if he’s going to win. The tension that we felt in The Shining is almost gone here, and I was almost too confident in Abra and Dan’s ability to defeat the evil that threatened them. A more palpable threat of danger, and this book would have been improved greatly in my eyes.
Verdict: three out of five stars