Given the trend for profitable literary sequels – the oddest of which has to be a follow-up to The Woman in Black that isn’t written by Susan Hill – the watchful reader approaches Doctor Sleep with caution. At least Stephen King’s penned his own sequel to The Shining, his 1977 novel about a booze-soaked family nightmare among the ghostly guests in the Overlook Hotel that is perhaps his most terrifying and affecting book.
Still smarting from the movie version 33 years on, King reclaims the characters for his sequel. Quite right, too, because Stanley Kubrick’s butchery (in every sense) of Dick Hallorann, a key character in the book, was unforgivable. So it was heartening to encounter the Overlook chef, who shared the young Danny Torrance’s psychic abilities, in the first few pages of Doctor Sleep. The familiar King tropes are also present and correct: an astute portrayal of small town America, an old-fashioned notion of good and evil, and the terrors of childhood playing out in grown-ups. For Torrance, that fear is accentuated by the gift of the Shining – he sees ghosts, as well as flies on the faces of those stalked by death – and it’s led him into alcoholism just like his father.
King draws on his own experience of Alcoholics Anonymous and he’s good on the psychological baggage sons inherit from fathers. Most of all, he’s a master of terror – both subtle chills and all-consuming horror – as he pits Dan and a psychic schoolgirl protégé against a community of peripatetic vampires who feed off the essence of dying children touched by the Shining. There are pleasing allusions to another King classic and even his son Joe Hill’s latest novel, NOS4R2; plenty of revelations for fans of the original; and there’s a cat that may have a touch of the Shining too. Every good horror novel needs a cat. And Doctor Sleep is a very good horror novel indeed – perhaps King’s finest work in the genre since Misery.