The Bread of Wickedness

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013): King’s 36-years-later sequel to The Shining finds psychically gifted Danny Torrance (call him ‘Dan’, now, please) all grown up and working at a seniors’ hospice in New England. His mother Wendy Torrance died of lung cancer several years ago. And Dan has survived a decades-long battle with alcohol.

Nine years sober when the main narrative of the novel begins, he uses the psychic gifts of the Shining to help calm and comfort people who are about to die, all with the help of a cat, Azreel, who somehow knows when people are going to die. It sounds like the set-up for the weirdest children’s book ever.

Meanwhile, roaming around the country in a malign fleet of RVs are the members of the True Knot. Long-lived psychic vampires, they feed on mass death and, when at all possible, the physic residue created when they torture and murder someone with the Shining.

As the power of the Shining tends to peak when a child is 10 or 11, they’ve spent millennia torturing and murdering children to increase their own lifespans. Their protective colouration (other than their own prodigious range of psychic powers) is that they look like a normal band of mobile-home enthusiasts of all ages. Truly of all ages, as that psychic residue — which they’ve dubbed ‘steam’ — can age them backwards when imbibed in enough quantity.

Now, through a series of truly unfortunate events, the True Knot has become aware of the most powerful psychic they’ve ever detected — a pre-adolescent girl named Abra (no fooling) who lives a dozen miles or so from Dan Torrance. They’re going to come and get her and eat her, and while she’s more powerful than Dan ever was, she’s going to need his help to survive, and to perhaps destroy the True Knot once and for all time.

Billed as King’s return to horror, Doctor Sleep really isn’t, at least entirely. Much of it is of a piece with his other ‘Wild Talent’ novels — Carrie, Firestarter, and The Dead Zone — which would have been classified as science fiction had they been released in the 1950’s. The True Knot’s members are horrifying, especially leader Rose the Hat, but King devotes a lot of space to making them understandable by depicting their group dynamic and their genuine concern for one another. They’re monsters, but as a knowledgeable ghost tells Dan at one point, “they’re sick, and they don’t know it.”

Moreover, the True Knot’s travelling ways and their quasi-carnival slang (normal human beings are “rubes”, for instance) put them firmly in the tradition of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, a dark carnival King has riffed on a number of times in his work, most notably in It and Needful Things.

It’s with Dan that the novel must succeed or fail. I think it succeeds. Torrance, plagued by memories of his alcoholic father and the demonic Overlook Hotel, certainly has his reasons to escape into the bottle. But he’s also finally forced to find his reasons for getting out again — and, with Abra, to play the role that the Overlook’s benign cook with the Shining, Dick Hallorran, did for Danny. Because beyond the threat of the True Knot, there is the threat posed by Abra herself, poised closer to the edge of becoming Carrie than anyone initially realizes.

Doctor Sleep isn’t one of King’s scarier novels, though it has its moments. As a character study, though, of Dan Torrance and of the horrible, pitiful members of the True Knot, it succeeds. It’s a novel about forgiveness more than anything else. Some ghosts must now go, quietly or not. Recommended.

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