Stephen King returns to character from 'The Shining' in latest novel

smacknee@mcclatchy.comSeptember 29, 2013 

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    Dr. Sleep

    Stephen King

    Scribner, 531 pages

“Hey, any idea what happened to the kid from ‘The Shining’?”

This casual question from a reader at a book-signing event for “Bag of Bones,” published in 1998, led Stephen King to realize that he wasn’t the only one who ever idly wondered where life took little Danny Torrance after he escaped the evil Overlook Hotel in the 1977 King classic.

And so, in “Doctor Sleep,” we catch up with Dan Torrance as an adult, in the throes of the same addiction that turned his father into a monster. Drinking muffles the constant, unwelcome input that “the shining” – a type of clairvoyance – beams into his head, some of which comes from people no longer sharing this earthly plane.

After picking up the thread, we follow Dan from a “rock bottom” experience on the North Carolina coast up to New England, where, of all things, a miniature train attraction catches his eye and leads to his first occupation in the small town of Frazier, N.H. He sobers up, and we drop in on him through vignettes that cover a period of years, as he becomes part of the local community. Eventually, he winds up in a job he’s particularly well-suited for, easing the last moments of patients at the local hospice – hence the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

Through those same years, we follow the progress of another young person possessed with the shining. In the nearby town of Anniston, infant Abra’s parents start to suspect that she has strange ways of knowing things. Abra senses Dan’s presence and reaches out to him now and then, although he doesn’t know much about her, except her name. That changes when a threat arises and the two join forces to fight it.

Enter the latest original concept from Stephen King: the True Knot.

This author can make any ordinary object into a symbol of horror. It sometimes seems he tries to take the most innocuous thing he can think of and then asks: “How can I make even THIS scary?” Tennis balls, Saint Bernards, a Plymouth Fury (and elsewhere, a Buick Roadmaster), alphabet refrigerator magnets, lost dog posters – the man can turn anything sinister.

His new creation, the True Knot, is a gypsy-ish band of spiritual vampires who prey on children who possess the shining, torturing them to death to capture the “steam” released by their suffering. And the everyday object that the True Knot turns into a symbol of evil? The motor home.

The group travels in a set of tricked-out RVs, migrating to camp in spots where great destruction is in the wind, so the group’s members can capture the suffering that pours out. They look like ordinary middle-aged tourists, people who wouldn’t rate a second glance in their silly T-shirts and Bermuda shorts or shapeless caftans. But it turns out that they are responsible for many “Have You Seen Me?” posters of missing children.

When True Knot members get a whiff of Abra’s powerful shining, they start looking for her. The size of her gift translates to years’ worth of stored-up “steam,” and their supply is dangerously low.

There are many nods to “The Shining” as well as King’s other works and some lovely threads that will delight fans, but readers will want to discover those for themselves.

It’s a story that can stand alone for anyone unfamiliar with “The Shining,” but reading or re-reading that book first would enhance the enjoyment of “Dr. Sleep.”

For Stephen King, 531 pages is almost a novella; compare it to “Under the Dome,” at 1,074 pages. Here, the palette of characters is a restrained dozen or so, and he has one very focused story to tell: Whatever happened to Danny Torrance?

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