by Stephen King
524 pages, Hodder
Review by Pat Black
Stephen King says he always wondered what happened to little Danny Torrance.
I’m not sure I ever did. Thanks to Jack Nicholson, I suspect most people tend to associate The Shining with Jack Torrance, the father, rather than his psychic child. That’s a shame, as little Danny’s adventures in the spirit-blighted Overlook Hotel are as big a part of that novel as his drunken father’s descent into an alcohol-fuelled hammer rampage, cajoled by the evil spirits ingrained in the walls.
Doctor Sleep, the sequel to that novel – one that many consider to be King’s best - looks at how Jack and Wendy Torrance’s son turned out 30-odd years later.
Not very well, as it happens. The thirtysomething Danny is an alcoholic burnout by the time we catch up with him, prone to wild binges, psychotic rages and lizard-tongued hook-ups with like-minded ladies.
No-one does crappy Americana quite like King. We join Danny at his lowest ebb, fleeing the squalid scene of his latest roadhouse conquest after her little boy mistakes a line of cocaine for candy. Danny’s feet touch rock bottom after this incident. One intervention later, and he’s attending AA meetings in a little tourist town near the mountains, rebuilding his life one day at a time.
I haven’t mentioned the supernatural stuff, yet. There are some horrible people in this novel called the True Knot, a gang of psychic vampires who subsist on an ethereal substance which certain people of peculiar talents emit. They call it steam. It’s more prevalent in psychically talented children, and it can only be extracted by causing pain.
The adult Danny Torrance still has his special powers, and he uses them to help elderly people die at peace in an old folks’ home. Along with a seemingly precognitive cat – one of several spooky felines in King’s oeuvre – Danny knows who’s coming close to the end, and does all he can to make them comfortable. This special talent is noticed, leading to the nickname which provides this book with its title.
Danny is positively swimming in steam, but it turns out he’s a drop in the ocean compared to a young girl called Abra. Abra begins her life predicting things like 9/11, and she soon attracts the attention of the baddies. She’s packing enough steam to keep the True Knot, eh, steamin’ for decades. Step forward her knight in shining (har de har) armour, Danny Torrance, to protect her from them.
There are some familiar King themes here – childhood psychic talent, such as precognition and telekinesis – and some scary moments involving dead people, who were tapping Danny Torrance’s shoulder long before they hassled that little kid in The Sixth Sense.
But these were dwarfed by King’s long-standing preoccupation with addiction, particularly alcoholism, and its ruinous effect on people close to the addict. King’s been up-front about his past difficulties, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a lot of his own experiences fueled the sentiment of the novel, if not its actual scenes. Alkies have to hit rock bottom before they decide to stop – if they’re lucky. And almost all of them started caning it in the first place out of utter despair. This cycle can be seen in so many of King’s novels, either explicitly or in the abstract, particularly The Shining, Misery, Thinner, The Dark Half and The Tommyknockers. Doctor Sleep is different in that it examines the recovery process for alcoholics – and the difficulty some people have in staying on the rails.
But if you just want to read a battle between goodies and baddies, then that’s OK; you’ve got that, too.
It’s a pacy, absorbing novel, gone in a moment despite its length. King churns these slabs of prose out so often, and so well, that we tend to forget how much skill and charm is involved in creating them. Now well into his sixties, he’s showing no signs of slowing down. And all is well.
He doesn’t like what that Kubrick fella did with his book back in 1980, though. No sir!