It’s odd how closely Stephen King’s new novel, Doctor Sleep, parallels NOS4A2, the latest by his son Joe Hill. Conceptually, the two books have a lot in common: Both are about people whose extraordinary talents draw monstrous attention when they’re children, warp their later years, and only let them regain a semblance of normality later in life. Both books start with the protagonists’ childhood encounters with horrific supernatural predators. Both books then blitz past years lost to addiction, and the protagonists’ attempts to drown their nightmarish memories and present stresses in consciousness-altering substances. Both protagonists eventually kick their habits in adulthood, and are stabilized by the need to protect a child targeted by a malevolent vampiric entity with a propensity for kidnapping. The two books even puckishly reference each other’s worlds, with King continuing the in-joke of casual crossovers between his writing and Hill’s. But of the two, only NOS4A2 is actually frightening. Which is particularly odd since Doctor Sleep is a direct sequel to King’s 1977 novel The Shining, one of his most terrifying books.
The new novel starts not long after The Shining left off, with young psychic Danny Torrance again encountering the ghost of the rotting suicide victim from room 217 in the Overlook Hotel, where his father went murderously insane and died. Danny’s mentor Dick Hallorann offers two pieces of advice: one for dealing with the ghost, and one suggesting that Danny, in turn, will someday be responsible for mentoring someone like himself.
As an adult, Dan Torrance becomes a hardcore alcoholic like his father, trying to drown out the grotesque visions that come with his gift. Then he washes up in a small New Hampshire town, finding peace and purpose in a hospice where his supernatural gifts let him help the dying pass on cleanly. He also makes contact with Abra, a little girl with her own extremely powerful psychic gifts—“the shining,” as Dick Hallorann always called it. Ultimately, Abra’s abilities attract the interest of a clannish bunch of near-immortal travelers called the True Knot, and their desire to capture and consume Abra forces a confrontation.
As a generic suspense novel, Doctor Sleep is entertaining enough, a quick-moving but hefty (at 544 pages) read with an easy, accessible flow, and several individual segments that play out like intensely compelling short stories. But at this point in his career, King has to be judged in comparison with his enormous body of past work, and he’s produced so much better than Doctor Sleep. By the standard of books like The Shining, or even much more recent King novels like 11/22/63, this is a disjointed, haphazard book that often feels unfinished. King’s tendency to gloss over many of the turning points in Dan’s life is frustrating and unfulfilling—particularly by comparison with the one case where he illustrates such a moment in poignant, painful detail. And past that sequence, the book never ventures too far into Dan’s psyche—or even into his point of view, usually King’s specialty. It breezes though events without exploring the mindset behind them, in the process giving up much of the sense of foreboding, exploration, and character suffusion that makes King books like The Shining so memorable and absorbing.
Doctor Sleep’s variations between close detail and speedy events prose never seem natural. King devotes a great deal of attention to the experience of an outsider joining the True Knot, for instance, then never takes up her perspective again. That approach turns his characters into puppets, and makes their narrative strings far too obvious: It’s clear when King is conveying information that will be crucial later, because he returns to the rich, dense detail that grounds his best work. Other chapters are airy and empty, with a lot of redundant dialogue and little forward movement—or a lot of rapid movement that wraps up key plot points far too quickly.
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But even more damning, Doctor Sleep just can’t muster significant tension. From the first encounter between Abra and the True Knot, King makes it clear that the latter is on the wane, and doesn’t pose a credible threat. There’s plenty of potential pathos in the idea of powerful immortals losing their mojo and facing decay for the first time—Clive Barker has done weird and wonderful things with antagonists who are coming to pieces as they head toward the big battle—but King only touches on that approach lightly and vaguely. The True Knot baddies, particularly their leader, Rose, are simply a hollow threat, stuck in a repetitive cycle of malice and venom without the power to back it up. It’s strange how much it feels like Hill’s latest, but even stranger how rushed and immaterial it all seems, when King had 36 years to ponder his next move in this story.