by Stephen King
531 pp. Scribner. $30
“Doctor Sleep” is Stephen King’s latest novel, and it’s a very good specimen of the quintessential King blend. According to Vladimir Nabokov, Salvador Dalí was “really Norman Rockwell’s twin brother kidnapped by gypsies in babyhood.” But actually there were triplets: the third one is Stephen King.
The Rockwell small-town rocking chair, the old-fashioned house with the welcome mat, the genial family doctor, the grandfather clock: there they are, depicted in all their lifelike, apparently cozy detail. Both Rockwell and King know such details intimately, right down to the brand names. But there’s something very, very wrong. The rocking chair is coming to get you. The family doctor is greenish in hue and has been dead for some time. The house is haunted, and the welcome mat is alive with things. And, pace Dalí, the clock is melting.
“Doctor Sleep” picks up on the story of Danny, the little boy with psycho-intuitive powers in King’s famous 1977 novel, “The Shining.” Danny survived both his evil-infested dad, Jack Torrance, and the ghouls that inhabited the grisly Overlook Hotel in Colorado, escaping by the hair of his chinny-chin-chin just before the clock struck midnight and the hotel’s infernal boiler blew up, incinerating the forces of bad and leaving readers hiding under the bed, but cross-eyed with relief.
In “Doctor Sleep” Dan has grown up, but he retains his “shining” abilities. Having wrestled the demon drink to an uneasy standstill — his father had that problem too, as we recall — he’s attending A.A. and working at a hospice facility, where, with his mind-probing talents, he helps the dying to reconcile themselves to their often misspent lives. Thus his nickname, Doctor Sleep, which echoes his childhood nickname, “doc.” (As in the “What’s up?” of Bugs Bunny fame. What, indeed?)
Enter another magic child, Abra — as in “cadabra,” the text helpfully points out — who’s even better at the shining stuff than Dan is. She alarmed her parents early on by predicting the 9/11 disaster while still in her crib, and has since caused dismay by sticking all the spoons to the ceiling during her birthday party.
The two shiners soon find themselves in spiritual communication, which is a lucky thing, because young Abra is going to need big help. She is the target of a rackety, entertaining bunch called the True Knot, who lust to drink her spiritual mist, or “steam.” (This is a whole new twist on steampunk.) The Knot members have been alive for a Very Long Time — not usually a good sign, as those who know their “Dracula” and “She” can testify — and, disguised as vacationers roaming the countryside in RVs, they kidnap and torture their victims, then imbibe their essences. They also bottle these in case of shortages; for if they run out of steam they evaporate, leaving their clothes behind, like the Wicked Witch of the West when melted.
They’re led by a beautiful woman named Rose the Hat, whose main lover is a gent known as Crow Daddy. (From “crawdaddy,” we assume. King loves wordplay and puns and mirror language: remember redrum, from “The Shining”? Who could forget?) The names of King’s characters are frequently appropriate: Daniel “Lions’ Den” Anthony (the tempted saint) Torrance (it never rains but it pours) is a case in point. Rose is a sinister Rosa Mystica, a negative version of the Virgin Mary. (For starters, she ain’t no virgin.)
As for the Overlook Hotel — on the site of which the True Knotters have pitched their main encampment — its name has at least three layers: the obvious one (it looks out over the landscape), the semi-obvious (the bad folks overlook something) and the deeply embedded, which I’m guessing has to do with the old song about the four-leaf clover and the somebody I adore; for King’s good-and-evil arrangement is usually yin and yang, with a spot of darkness in every goodie and a tiny ray of sunshine in every baddie. Even the True Knotters are sweet with one another, though their status as human beings is dubious. As one new recruit says, “Am I still human?” And as Rose replies, “Do you care?”
Wild ectoplasmic partly decayed vampire horses would not tear from me the story of what happens next, but let me assure you King is a pro: by the end of this book your fingers will be mere stubs of their former selves, and you will be looking askance at the people in the supermarket line, because if they turn around they might have metallic eyes. King’s inventiveness and skill show no signs of slacking: “Doctor Sleep” has all the virtues of his best work.
What are those virtues? First, King is a well-trusted guide to the underworld. His readers will follow him through any door marked “Danger: Keep Out” (or, in more literary terms, “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here”), because they know that not only will he give them a thorough tour of the inferno — no gore left unspilled, no shriek left unshrieked — he will also get them out alive. As the Sibyl of Cumae puts it to Aeneas, it’s easy to go to hell, but returning from it is the hard part. She can say that because she’s been there; and, in a manner of speaking — our intuition tells us — so has King.
Second, King is right at the center of an American literary taproot that goes all the way down: to the Puritans and their belief in witches, to Hawthorne, to Poe, to Melville, to the Henry James of “The Turn of the Screw,” and then to later exemplars like Ray Bradbury. In the future, I predict, theses will be written on such subjects as “American Puritan Neo-Surrealism in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ and ‘The Shining,’ ” and “Melville’s Pequod and King’s Overlook Hotel as Structures That Encapsulate American History.”
Some may look skeptically at “horror” as a subliterary genre, but in fact horror is one of the most literary of all forms. Its practitioners read widely and well — King being a pre-eminent example — since horror stories are made from other horror stories: you can’t find a real-life example of the Overlook Hotel. People do “see” some of the things King’s characters see (for a companion volume, try Oliver Sacks’s “Hallucinations”), but it is one of the functions of “horror” writing to question the reality of unreality and the unreality of reality: what exactly do we mean by “see”?
But dig down below the horror trappings, and “Doctor Sleep” is about families. The biological families of Dan and Abra, the “good” family of A.A., to which “Doctor Sleep” is a kind of love song, and the “bad” family of the True Knot. High on the list of King sins are the maltreatment of children by male relatives, and the brutalizing of women, mothers in particular. Righteous anger and destructive anger both have their focus in the family. As Doctor Sleep himself says to young Abra, “There’s nothing but family history”: often the narrative glue that sticks a King novel together. The family dimension, too, is quintessentially American-horror, all the way from “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” on up.
What will King do next? Perhaps Abra will grow up, and become a writer, and use her “shining” talent to divine the minds and souls of others. For that, of course, is yet another interpretation of King’s eerie, luminescent metaphor.