Stephen King’s latest, Dr. Sleep, is a sequel to The Shining. Danny Torrance—the boy psychic from the original—is all grown up and, like his murderous dad, an alcoholic. Given King’s own experiences with the demon rum, it makes sense that this is some of his best-written work in recent memory. When he writes about Dan’s (he’s all grown up now, time to put away childish nicknames) drinking problem, you get the sense that King is doing more than describing: he’s recalling. Here’s Dan, trying to remember who, what, when, and where after a bender:
As he flushed the toilet, the president’s name arrived in his head with splendid clarity. And Dan wasn’t in either Cleveland or Charleston. He was in Wilmington, North Carolina. He worked as an orderly at Grace of Mary Hospital. Or had. It was time to move on. If he got to some other place, some good place, he might be able to quit the drinking and start over. He got up and looked in the mirror. The damage wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. Nose swelled but not actually broken—at least he didn’t think so. Crusts of dried blood above his puffy upper lip. There was a bruise on his right cheekbone (the Case cowboy must have been a lefty) with the bloody imprint of a ring sitting in the middle of it. Another bruise, a big one, was spreading in the cup of his left shoulder. That, he seemed to remember, had been from a pool cue.
From the foggy memories to the hope that the next stop—always the next stop—would be the last, one is struck by the idea that this is a man who knows of what he writes. Or this little nugget:
Dan eyed it with morbid fascination, reflecting (not for the first time) that the hungover eye had a weird ability to find the ugliest things in any given landscape.
The “it” is a fly, struggling futilely for life. King will never be known as a master craftsman or wordsmith, but his imagery gets quite a bit more vivid and concrete when he discusses the drink. The Shining‘s lasting image for me was not that of bathtub suicides or dead twin girls or shotgunned mobsters, but something far more subtle: King’s description of Jack Torrance dry-swallowing aspirin, the bitter taste creeping down the back of his throat:
He took one of the Excedrin from the counter, regarded it for a moment, then put it into his mouth and began to chew it, slowly and with relish. The taste flooded back like memory, making his saliva squirt in mingled pleasure and unhappiness. A dry, bitter taste, but a compelling one. He swallowed with a grimace. Chewing aspirin had been a habit with him in his drinking days; he hadn’t done it at all since then. But when your headache was bad enough, a hangover headache or one like this one, chewing them seemed to make them work quicker.
Dr. Sleep is, in a way, a two-part tale. The first revolves around Dan’s struggle for sobriety—one that King himself has dealt with since the late-1980s. The other, more King-like, portion follows Dan’s efforts to save the life of a young girl (Abra) with a powerful shine of her own from a roving band of psychic vampires. They feed off of negative emotions—pain, hurt, fear—which keep them young and give them vitality. When they find a child who shines, they steal the kid’s power, but torture him first. It “purifies” the essence they consume. The storytelling is solid and compelling; it’s pretty classic King. Fans of his work will find much to enjoy here.
It’s worth noting that three of King’s last four novels—11/22/63; The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole; and Dr. Sleep—have all relied heavily on plot points from previous works. And that they are pound-for-pound his best work in the better part of a decade. It is further worth noting that these books all share significant ties to his career-spanning Dark Tower series.* There is, I think, a longer piece to be written about the way he responded to almost dying in 1999 after being struck by a van, his return to the Dark Tower series after “finishing” it nearly a decade ago, his regrets at the way he ended the series, and his desire to reclaim certain of his cultural artifacts (foremost among them, The Shining).
But that will have to wait for another day.
*Explaining that last sentence is beyond the scope of this mini-review and perhaps unintelligible to those of you who aren’t fans of King. But to get a sense of what I mean check out this page.