Friday, January 3, 2014

Doctor Sleep

In Doctor Sleep, the master of horror, Stephen King, revisits his classic The Shining and its memorable redrum-uttering character, Dan Torrance. The book picks up after the horrors of the Overlook Hotel have left Wendy and Danny Torrance physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred. Wendy suffers with back injuries that will plague her until the end of her life and thanks to his shining Danny is still haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel; including Mrs. Massey from Room 217 who pays an early unexpected visit, "she was sitting naked on the toilet with her legs spread and he pallid thighs bulging. Her greenish breasts hung down like deflated balloons...She saw him, and her lips stretched back in a grin...she was smiling the way you do when you see an old friend. Or, perhaps, something good to eat." Danny's early saving grace proves to be Dick Halloran, the Overlook's ex-chef whose own shining had fortuitously brought him back to the Overlook to check on the Torrance's in time to help save Winnie an Danny. Now Dick uses his own shining and childhood past to teach Danny that "some spirits - angry spirits mostly - won't go on from this world, because they know what's waiting for them is even worse" and shares a secret gift to use on ghouls like Mrs. Massey and the like.

As the years pass, Danny - now Dan - carries the baggage of his childhood as well as his father's demons, coping with each with alcohol, drugs and violence. After hitting rock bottom through a decision that will weigh on his soul for years to come, he drifts from state to state; still drinking, but sometimes helping people, mostly old people, until the day he boards a bus that brings him to Frazier, New Hampshire. Dan knew that "you take yourself with you, wherever you go" but it seems the angels were on his side this time for finally in Frazier Dan not only finds true friends; a job at a hospice where his shining helps afford a peaceful final passage to his dying patients, where he's coined by staff and patients with the moniker "Doctor Sleep"; but most importantly an A.A. community that redirects the course of his life and helps him to finally find a measure of peace. Then one day during one of the early A.A. meetings, while still feeling breakable and "almost skinless" he writes a single word in his notebook "ABRA". What it meant he didn't know at the time, though he would soon find out.

Abra Stone was in fact born only miles away from Dan and also blessed with the shining, though if Dan's shining was a flashlight, Abra's was a lighthouse. The cosmic connection which brings these two special beings together will grow over the years, and as Abra grows from infant to toddler to little girl the two will communicate with each other without actually meeting; each an ethereal presence in the other's life - one they might not understand but treasure all the same. As Abra blossoms though into a beautiful teenager of thirteen an evil force grows, the True Knot; a tribe of unhuman beings who have lived for generations upon generations and whose sustenance comes from the steam of shining children tortured to death ("the more they hurt them before, the stronger the stuff is.") When Abra makes a connection with one of their victims and by extension their enigmatic leader, Rose the Hat, they will feel an unexpected fear and stop at nothing to discover the threat. Facing a life or death struggle, Abra will turn to her lifelong friend and ally, and Dan will be forced to join a battle between good and evil that will reacquaint him with the nightmares and monsters of his past.

Despite its hefty 500+ page length, I loved this book. It was a riveting thriller that kept me up until the wee hours on more than one occassion as I raced to discover the dark secrets of the vile and murderous True Knot and the cat and mouse game between them and Abra. King uses every one of those 500 pages wisely; building slowly and deliberately, though never ploddingly, towards its thrilling climax. He fleshes out each character, providing more than the bare bones and offers depth and insight into what makes each tick - past and present, hopes and fears - and in doing so makes the reader feel a deeper connection to each; love or hate, but definitely not indifference.

As for the characters, my heart went out to Dan and his painful battles with both his otherwordly demons but also the bogeyman very much of this world and partially of his own making - his alcoholism. In spite of being a thriller/horror, King doesn't slack on this important aspect of the story, and offers an honest and insightful look at the everyday struggles of someone fighting addiction and offers a kind of love letter to A.A. and the salvation it offers Dan (and based on the "Author's Note" at the end of the book, the salvation it offered King himself). Abra's character is a bright light in the book; a typical teenager in many respects yet gifted with all of the courage of Joan of Arc and the wisdom of someone well beyond her years. Brave and sometimes reckless, Abra inspires a similar heroism from Dan; a heroism always there just slightly beaten down by life. I was equal parts intrigued and repelled by Rose the Hat, Snakebite Andi, Crow Daddy and Silent Sarey to name a few of the True Knot; each an evil perversion of nature, yet some with tragic backstories that pluck an unwanted twinge of sympathy and compassion for the victims they'd once been and the horrors that shaped them into the hellish abominations they'd since become.

As suspenseful and memorable as I found the course of events which lead to the taut and spellbinding epic final confrontation, as well as Abra and Dan's jaw-dropping use of their powers, I was equally moved by the quieter poignant scenes where Dan uses his shining with the hospice patients. There was such gentleness and reverence in the depiction, that you felt like an intruder in a private almost sacred moment.

What else can I say, other than read it! I found more thrills than scares, though it did take me a little longer to get to sleep after each reading; oh, and I'll never look at an RV quite the same way again. Overall, King shines (sorry about the lame pun) with this brilliant sequel that reasserts his status as the godfather of scare and highlights in his tale the redeeming power of love, family and hope.