Scribner, September 2013
Hardcover, 544 pp., $15.00; Kindle, $7.49
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) established itself as among my favorites the first time I read it and has confirmed that assessment every time I’ve re-read it. It has survived two attempts to reduce it to film—both excellent in their own way, but neither truly capturing the essence of the novel—and its images are the ones that first come to mind when I hear the title. It is one of the first King novels that I included in my courses at Pepperdine and is perhaps his most “teachable work.” My second-hand Doubleday book-club edition, my first introduction to the story, still has page after page annotated in my then-firm handwriting, and tucked beneath the front flap is a nine-page booklet I constructed listing themes, images, words, allusions to literary and historical figures…everything I could find to help me understand the power of the book. When I am asked about which King novels is likely to survive “the ages,” The Shining is the first I mention. I think it a masterpiece.
Like millions (literally) of others, I was excited by the news a few years after The Shining appeared that King and Peter Straub (another genuinely fine author) were collaborating on a horror-fantasy; and like millions of others, I showed up at the local bookstore on the day to buy my copy—hardcover first-edition, this time—of The Talisman (1984). And hardcover first-edition or no, that copy has stood by me for three decades. Every blank page at the beginning, including the endpapers, is covered with lists: references to allusions, especially Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis; cross references to other novels by King and Straub, most significantly the reciprocal worlds that would ultimately become the core of the Dark Tower saga; notes on language and perception; and everything else that struck me as important over several readings. While on a different plane than The Shining, it too shows King (and Straub) at the height of his powers; perhaps no other character in a King novel has the mythic strength, the sheer charisma and magnetism of Jack Sawyer—so much so that when he shows up for a cameo in The Tommyknockers (1987), his mere image does much to import the magic and fantasy of the earlier novel into the later one. The Talisman was, and remains, a favorite.
Then, in 2001, King and Straub published a sequel to The Talisman, the aptly named Black House. When I heard about the venture, I felt a measure of ambivalence. On one hand, it would be marvelous to experience The Talisman again, to re-capture the mysticism of the Territories; on the other, experience with sequels had led me to suspect that the second volume would probably not live up to my expectations.
For the most part, however, it did, primarily because it was not simply a sequel that trotted out a well-worn band of characters and put them through their paces again. Instead it turned into something at once less than and more than a sequel. It became, as I write in a review dated September 12, 2001—one day after the catastrophe that was 9/11—part of a larger disquisition on Good and Evil and the perennial struggle between them:
It is not a commercially-driven sequel. It is in fact a linchpin narrative bringing together—explicitly, undeniably, and utterly—the mythic worlds King and Straub have drawn, pulling them together and knotting them at the core, providing for them, as had the original Talisman itself, a ‘nexus for all possible worlds.’ Implicit in Black House are Straub’s signal accomplishments in novels as diverse as Ghost Story, Shadowlands, Floating Dragon, and the Blue Rose Trilogy. Black House fits seamlessly into the themes, the structures, and the styles of those books, those worlds, and expands upon them to give us a glimpse of a unity underlying Straub’s fictions. Even more explicitly—it links most of King’s major work over the past decade and looks directly forward to what may turn out to be the capstone work of his remarkable career: the completion of The Dark Tower.
It was as well, I thought and still think, a powerful novel with its own strengths.
And yet as I was reading it, that first time, something crucial seemed to be missing. And that something, it turned out, was Jack Sawyer. As an adult, he has no memories of The Territories or of his experiences there. And that, it seems, weakens the character. Only midway through Black House does he reconnect with The Territories, and from the point the novel again reasserts his quasi-mythic status. But in the opening pages…a sense of loss.
In Doctor Sleep (2014), King again revisits an earlier story, this time The Shining. But in setting forth on this new adventure, he follows a different tack. This time, his child hero remembers…and those memories come near to destroying Dan Torrence as an adult. He becomes a drunk, a drug user, a user of women—one in particular, who haunts him throughout the story. But in this case, we understand why. His gift—the Shining—is simply too much for him to deal with, so we see him off and on for several decades, gradually deteriorating.
And then he stops. Not because of any supernatural intervention but because of his own choices. He chooses to stop drinking, to stop using drugs, to remove himself from his former life and re-make himself, ultimately becoming a care-giver in a hospice, where his ability—again, the Shining—allows him to help terminally ill patients cross over. He becomes known as Doctor Sleep.
But the true crisis in his life approaches, even as he grows and develops away from his old. A group of nearly immortal vampires who live by torturing children with the Shine has set its sights on Abra Stone. At one point Dan Torrence notes that if he is like a flashlight, Abra is a lighthouse. The True Knot, led by the villainous Rose the Hat, will stop at nothing to capture Abra, torture her, and store her essence in canisters. Dan will not allow that to happen.
Doctor Sleep is a long and complex novel. More importantly, it constantly reconnects with The Shining, even returning to the still-haunted site of the long-since burned-down Overlook Hotel. Bits and pieces from The Shining are picked up and integrated into the new novel, providing a kind of closure to the old as well as a richness of texture in the new. Dan Torrence is allowed his memories, and in the end, those memories, coupled with everything he has experienced since that terrifying winter so long before, provide him with a source of strength in combatting the True Knot.
Doctor Sleep might not replace The Shining or the Talisman at the top of my list of favorite King stories; it is in some ways narrowed, more tightly focused, and lacks the allusive quality of the first two. But it will certainly remain high on the list for a goodly while.