Perhaps it’s due to my early reading life furnished in horror, but for as long as I can remember, I have been intensely aware of my inner conversations and thoughts, because I never know who might be listening. I don’t believe in psychic phenomena, and I’ve never seen or experienced anything to dissuade me from this opinion, but I also don’t claim to have an in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the mind or the brain’s physiology. I suppose I remain both open- and closed-minded on the prospect.
I blame Stephen King for this – some of the first novels I ever read were by him and surrounded the nature of psychic power: Carrie, Firestarter, and, of course, The Shining. In fact, I think it may be The Shining that made me really consider the idea that someone could actually hear my thoughts. While hardly a visceral terror, I find the notion of someone impinging on my mind to be a horrifying concept. I’ve always loved King’s approach to psychic power; instead of a godlike power akin to something you’d find in the pages of X-Men, King’s psychics run a whole spectrum. Some have next to none; some just have a glimmer; some shine.
The Shining is one of Stephen King’s best-loved and most famous works, and for good reason. It’s a hell of a good book. First published in 1977, it was his third published novel (after Carrie and ‘Salem’s Lot), and it sold, and continues to sell, millions of copies. It was also the basis for the popular film of the same name directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1980. The film was a modest success at the box office, but in the thirty-three years since its release it has become a classic of modern horror cinema (the author’s opinions notwithstanding – it’s a well-known fact that King was not a great lover of Kubrick’s interpretation). The book is entrenched in popular culture, most notably in the form of two of its main characters, Jack and Danny Torrance. Of course, its most popular trope actually comes from Tony, Danny’s “friend” who lives in his finger and speaks through his mouth. Who will ever forget the word REDRUM?
And then King announced he was going to write a sequel called Doctor Sleep. I was a bit concerned; The Shining is one of my all-time favourite books and films, and I was scared that a sequel would tarnish the original (and for good reason – cough, cough, The Omen, cough, cough, The Matrix). Then I thought about it some more, and yes, I did want to know what happened to Danny Torrance. Fans of the book and the film know what he’s like as a terrified and naive little boy with unbelievable power, but what happens when he grows up? It struck me that I really wanted to know – needed to know.
Doctor Sleep answers these questions, and, to start, well, the child repeats the sins of the father. Along with being a straight-up horror story and a rather touching rumination on death, Doctor Sleep is also a harrowing tale about alcoholism and how it destroys the self. It’s made painfully clear in the first few chapters of the book that Dan (Danny no longer) uses alcohol to numb himself to the world, a not-unknown reason for excessive drinking. Dan has experienced untold horrors in his past in the forms of ghosts made manifest, a place so evil it twists those he loves against him, and an alcoholic and sometimes abusive father. Dan once claimed he’d never touch a drink, as many children of alcoholics say, but before long genetics win out, and he’s puking in a stranger’s bathroom and trying to keep a toddler away from cocaine that he and the boy’s mother spent their last few dollars on the night before. The scene is brutal in its vision of humanity, probably because it’s so very, very real.
Dan moves on (he’s a drifter), and he finds himself in a charming New Hampshire town where he vows to start a new life for himself. It largely works until he encounters two things: 1. a little girl whose powers dwarf even his own; 2. a group of what are effectively psychic vampires called the True Knot.
In the case of the little girl, Abra, we meet a charming, clever, and hilarious little girl who is in possession of such power that even she doesn’t know what to do with it. The notion of how a little girl can cope with this kind of ability is fascinating from the moment it appears – the reader is shown what she can do, and it’s not limited to channelling ghosts. If The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel was an amplifier for evil and psychic energy, Abra is something along the lines of those dishes used by SETI. King’s often broached the subject of strong psychic abilities in children and how it diminishes in adults. Take Firestarter: Andy McGee is a powerful psychic, but his powers pale in comparison to his daughter, Charlie’s abilities. Doctor Sleep continues in this vein; Danny Torrance was an unbelievably powerful psychic in The Shining, but in adulthood, Dan Torrance’s powers are far more subdued. Even Abra, who is in her pre-teens for most of the novel, has somewhat weaker abilities to what she could do as a baby and a toddler, but she’s still a force to be reckoned with, no question.
Her power is what the True Knot craves. The True Knot feed on Steam, and Steam is best derived from the power of young psychics. To them Abra isn’t a meal or even a banquet; Abra is an everlasting cornucopia of mythical proportions.The True Knot is one of my favourite groups of villains I’ve seen from King. The Shop was also scary as hell for its conspiracy-like possibilities, as were the Low Men and the followers of the Crimson King, but in the True Knot we have a mix of all these villains: sublime power and influence, beauty and horror, violence and greed. The True Knot are also scary as hell due to their relative invisibility. They’re the moving people, the RV people, the trashy people, and the family holiday people. Never stable, they travel all over America (formerly the world), sucking on teats of psychic energy derived from slow, meticulous, painful, and torturous violence. They scare me as much as the idea of people who might be listening; they might be there, just beneath the surface of what we choose to look at, but you have absolutely no idea.
There’s very little else I’ll reveal about the story, but what I will say is that this return to grab-you-by-the-balls horror from King is one of the most welcome surprises I’ve had all year. I devoured the book in days, and while I have done so for other Stephen King books over the years, very few have hooked me like this since I first discovered the man. The book is outstanding, and while it is a different kind of horror to the isolated and claustrophobic horror of The Shining, there are moments in Doctor Sleep that terrify, excite, creep, and straight-out gross you out within its 500-or-so pages. It’s horror, plain and simple, but it’s also a remarkably tender book that considers life, death, family, childhood, old age, addiction, redemption, and love.
I can’t recommend it enough.
Oh, and watch out for flies.