DOCTOR SLEEP, by Stephen King. Scribner, 531 pp., $30.
Remember little Danny Torrance from "The Shining"? You know, REDRUM and all that? Well, he's all grown up in "Doctor Sleep," Stephen King's highly anticipated sequel to his 1977 horror classic, and he's a complete train wreck, at least early on.
Heeeere's Danny, for example, the morning after a booze- and coke-fueled evening with "the goddess of the Western world," a single mom named Deenie he snagged at some Carolina honky-tonk. "He rolled off the mattress onto his knees, staggered to his feet, then swayed as the room began to do a gentle tango," King writes. "He was hung over, his head was bursting, his gut was filled with whatever cheap food he'd put in it last night to tamp down the booze ... but he was also still drunk."
Dan turned to the bottle to drown out the shining, the spooky gift that torments him with "crazy dreams and visions" and the "random thoughts of passing strangers." But a near tragedy that morning involving Deenie's kid puts him over the edge. He heads north for a fresh start and eventually lands in tiny Frazier, N.H., where he scores a municipal job and a hard-core Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor.
That's a good thing, because a boozer won't stand a chance against Rose O'Hara. A "woman of startling beauty" compulsively clad in a battered top hat, Rose is the leader of the True Knot, a band of nomadic vampires who crisscross the country in campers "like a silent virus." These undead parasites aren't bloodsuckers, though. They inhale "steam," the essence people who shine emit when they die. And because the ones who die in agony emit the strongest steam, the True kill their victims by torturing them to death.
The good news is that Rose isn't interested in Dan. Years of alcohol abuse have diluted his shining, which means his steam is weak. The bad news is that his shining pal, a sweet young girl named Abra Stone, is at her peak. "I'm a flashlight," Dan says. "She's a lighthouse." That makes her the True's "find of the century" and Rose's "great white whale," so they're coming for her. Hard. But Abra and Dan won't go down without a fight.
Easy reading -- which "Doctor Sleep" most certainly is -- is supposed to be hard writing, but you've got to believe King had a ball crafting this one. Playful literary references, from Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin, bubble up, and several lines are a hoot. Discussions at a North Conway AA meeting, for example, tend to veer off "in other directions, like an unruly planchette scurrying around a Ouija board beneath the fingers of neurotic teenagers." But perhaps what King enjoys most is scaring the bejeezus out of people, and by that measure, "Doctor Sleep" delivers in spades.
One of the author's best devices involves covering the faces of characters who are about to die in flies that only Dan can see. That may sound innocuous here, but King deploys it with chilling timing. Of course, there's also some good old-fashioned horror. Here, Rose and the True Knot claim a Little Leaguer somewhere in Middle America: "The boy lasted a long time. He screamed until his vocal cords ruptured and his cries became husky barks. At one point, Rose paused and looked around. Her hands, long and strong, wore bloody red gloves."
"Doctor Sleep" is a paranormal story about good versus evil, but it's also a poignant story about the importance of family and a young girl forced to leave her childhood behind. Late in the novel, for example, Abra sobs uncontrollably, and one character asks if she's upset because Rose and the True Knot are coming for them. "Temporarily incapable of speech, she could only shake her head so vehemently her pigtails flew," King writes. "It was she who was coming for them, and that was what terrified her."
In an author's note, King confesses he approached "Doctor Sleep" with trepidation because he knows "The Shining" is a fan favorite, and "nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare." He's also changed a lot over the past 36 years. "The man who wrote 'Doctor Sleep' is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote 'The Shining,' " he writes, "but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kick-ass story."
They're both pretty darned good at it, too.