I’ve been watching Daniel Anthony Torrance suffer for nearly seventeen years.
As a child, Danny was beaten by his alcoholic father, who then locked him and his mother in an empty hotel, secluded in the Colorado mountains. For months, Danny and his mother suffered through horrific threats. They had violent, sexual and torturous images forced on them repeatedly, continuously. And after every means of communication with or access to the outside world were cut off, Danny’s father attempted to kill his wife and child with a hammer.
When I was twelve years old, I saw Danny’s story on TV, I read it in a book, and I saw it in a movie. Between the TV mini-series, the original novel and Stanley Kubrick’s film, I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve lived through the story of that horrific winter in Colorado.
But when I began reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-gestating sequel to his classic The Shining, and I began reading about Dan Torrance’s dissolute adulthood, I started to cry. I didn’t realize until this weekend just how badly I had wanted the little boy from The Shining to be okay, how hard I had hoped over the last seventeen years that the same psychic gift that allowed him to survive that winter in the Overlook Hotel would also offer him the emotional and psychological resources to recover from it.
Instead, an adult Dan has found that drugs and alcohol don’t just help him bury his memories—they also help him tamp down his psychic gift, shut himself off from the world. Reading the new book’s opening chapters and watching Dan circle the drain, committing as much violence against his body and his future as his father ever did against his mind, my heart sank.
But the book goes on, and as it does, so does Dan’s life. He finds Alcoholics Anonymous, stops drifting, and in a plot thread that provides some of the book’s most lyrical and humane moments, earns the book’s titular moniker.
I mention lyrical and humane moments. At their worst, King’s hordes of imitators resort to schlocky shock-horror to get a reaction from their audience, violence for violence’s sake. But at his best, the supernatural elements of King’s stories (as well as his talent for finding the split-second thoughts we all have but would never share and drawing them out long enough to be observed) have always served as our entry point into exploring very real, very present anxieties. Despite the body-swapping and the roving horde of psychic vampires, Doctor Sleep belongs in the rolls of King’s best.
What seem at first to be artistic flourishes, like the almost on-the-nose metaphor of a young Danny learning to bottle up his demons, turn into important plot points later in the book. (Spoiler in white text: Adult Dan learning to release those demons and be rid of them is key to the final resolution of the plot.) And what seem at first to be sly winks from the author to his audience, such as a young girl’s habit of rubbing her mouth, turn out to matter in the world of the story, too.*
*It’s possible that this playfulness is the fruit of his work shaping The Dark Tower series’s increasingly complex, meta-textual story.
King sometimes has a tendency to contort narratives into happy endings that feel forced. But by the time Doctor Sleep crescendoes on the site of the old Overlook hotel, that one big, heart-warming plot twist that felt too convenient by half one hundred pages earlier feels earned twice over. This book offers something that is too rare in modern literature: A satisfying ending that doesn’t feel forced. As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think of “The Story of the Three Brothers,” from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: After all these years, Danny’s life is complete, and we can bid farewell to the ghosts of the Overlook, the way one waves off a friend.