When Stephen King published his third novel, "The Shining," in 1977, he was a writer with a lot on his mind. Initially, he told The Times in 1998, he conceived of the book as "a Shakespearean tragedy, a kind of inside-out 'King Lear,' where Lear is this young guy who has a son instead of daughters." He even went so far as to divide the first draft into acts and scenes.
Make of this what you will, but it suggests that King has always had more at stake than merely to frighten us, that he wants to get at the big themes: love, loss, loyalty, what happens between parents and their kids. In many ways, that's the essence of "The Shining," in which, even from the depths of his madness, Jack Torrance, the writer-turned-caretaker who has been possessed by the evil of the Overlook Hotel, manages to hold off his demons for a final instant and in so doing spares his son.
This is not to say that "The Shining" isn't scary; it's the scariest book I've ever read. But it's not the demons that terrify me so much as what they stand for: a world where evil is not only real but lingers, where love may not redeem us in the end.
In his new novel, "Doctor Sleep," King picks up the story of Jack's son Danny (now Dan) decades afterward — and Dan is struggling: "The shining [the psychic gift of second sight] was only one of the burdens … and not the major one. The major one was his alcoholic father, a troubled and ultimately dangerous man whom both Danny and his mother had loved deeply — perhaps as much because of his flaws as in spite of them."
If this makes "Doctor Sleep" sound like a ghost story, it is, in both a literal and a metaphoric sense. Dan is haunted, a recovering alcoholic trailed by years of bad decisions, some so traumatic he can hardly bear to think of them. Because he's a 12-stepper, the book is full of AA jargon, although it comes off as less cloying than a kind of code.
That's because, like all of us, Dan is looking for a way to live, a way to put the past behind him, to take those demons and lock them away. Early in the novel, King describes a visit from Dan's mentor Dick Hallorann, the former cook at the Overlook, who also is touched by the shining. Dick gives Dan a lockbox and tells him to memorize everything about it so he can re-create it in his mind. This is where the ghosts go, on a "high mental shelf" from which "they were never getting out." Of course, this being a Stephen King novel, they do get out — or worse, new ghosts emerge.
For the first half of the book, King does a fine job of playing out these tensions, while developing a series of overlapping plot and character lines.
There's Dan, who has found a place for himself as a hospice worker in New Hampshire; his acuity at helping the dying face their final moments earns him the nickname "Doctor Sleep." There's Abra, who lives a few towns over, a young girl so strongly touched by the shining it makes Dan's visions seem opaque. There are various friends and relations, who infuse the novel with the stuff of everyday existence, even as we know that this will shatter in the end. And then there are the members of the True Knot, a tribe of psychic vampires, some of them centuries old, who feed off children with the shining, sucking their essence (they call it steam) as they travel the highways of America in an RV caravan, disguised as harmless retirees.
It's an interesting choice, to build "Doctor Sleep" around such elements rather than to tell Dan's story alone. Who are these characters, after all, and what are they doing in a book that is, ostensibly, about someone reckoning with his past? But it works, at first, by keeping us off balance as we try to figure out how all of this will come together and what will happen when it does.
The danger becomes most palpable — and creepy — when Rose, the leader of the True Knot, tries to worm her way into Abra's head, after discovering the girl telepathically, in a random engagement of their minds. "Her shadow jumped high on the wall, but not just hers," King writes. "She turned her head and saw the little girl bearing down on her. Only she wasn't little anymore. Now she was a young woman wearing a leather jerkin with a dragon on her blooming chest and a blue band to hold back her hair. The bike had become a white stallion. Its eyes, like those of the warrior-woman, were blazing."
That's a terrific moment, as unexpected to us as it is to Rose, and it establishes Abra as a worthy adversary, setting up the battle between her (and, by extension, Dan, with whom she forms a friendship and an alliance) and the True Knot in something close to epic terms.
Still, in this interaction — or its aftermath — "Doctor Sleep" also starts to come apart: not to unravel but to grow predictable. Once the conflict between Abra and the True Knot is established, the novel becomes formulaic, and its tension dissipates.
It's not that the book is lackluster: King has built a layered plot, in which ideas, themes and images raised in the early pages resonate throughout. That is heightened by the hulking presence of the Overlook, which continues to resonate even if the physical hotel is gone. "He had known from the first — even before he actually saw it — that the Overlook Hotel was an evil place," Dan thinks. "It was gone now, burned flat, but who was to say the evil had also been burned away?"
And yet, in the end, the Overlook promises more than it delivers, since its evil has already been contained. As for the True Knot, they appear more dangerous than they are: sick and a little tattered from the rigors of their wandering.
"[E]verything that goes around comes around," King writes. "Maybe it's luck or maybe it's fate, but either way, it comes back around." What he's saying is that we can't escape the past, but while that may be true, it also leaves the novel burdened with a certain narrative inevitability.
That's the risk of a sequel, especially to a work as vivid as "The Shining." King addresses this in an author's note: "Did I approach the book with trepidation? You better believe it," he admits. His wariness is not misplaced. "Doctor Sleep" is not a bad book, although it doesn't live up to its predecessor. If it has a lasting message, it may be that that you can't go home again.
Scribner: 531 pp., $30