True sequels are as rare in fiction as they are all-too-common in other media. Of course, many authors have series characters, such as Sue Grafton and Kinsey Milhone. These are probably as close as fiction gets to a true Hollywood sequel, in that they are often the same novel written over and over, but they are closer to a television series than sequels in the cinematic sense of the word.
Multi-book cycles like the Harry Potter novels have more in common with preplanned movie series like the Star Wars prequels or the Lord of the Rings movies, where the number of movies and the overall storyline are planned in advance.
Typically, movie sequels follow the sequence A) “Holy shit, that movie was successful!” and B) “How can we replicate that success as quickly and cheaply as possible.” As a result, the experience of seeing a film like Taken 2 is depressingly similar to seeing the first Taken, only less satisfying.
In one sense, Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining in that classic Hollywood mold, but no one can accuse the author of turning out a rushed project to cash in on the success of the original, considering that 26 years elapsed between their publication dates.
But if Doctor Sleep were a cynical exercise in rehashing the formula of the first novel, Wendy and Danny Torrance would have wound up snow bound in another haunted hotel with another deranged alcoholic.
That is not the story of Doctor Sleep. Twenty-six years after the tragic winter in the Overlook Hotel, Dan Torrance has followed his father down the road of alcoholism but manage to crawl his way back. 2013 finds him as an orderly in a New England hospice, where his “shining” enables him to ease the final passage of dying patients, earning him the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”
Dan’s shining also helps him make contact with another child with the same talent, in this case a young girl named Abra Stone. Born on September 11, 2001, her shining dwarfs even Dan’s.
That makes her a target for a band of nearly immortal “psychic vampires” called the True Knot, who feed on the “shining” (or “steam,” as they call it) of children like Abra by torturing them to death. To the outside world, the True Knot appears to be harmless senior citizens trundling about the country in tricked-out motor homes. To them, young Abra represents an unimaginable bounty and they will let nothing stand between them and their “feast.”
Doctor Sleep succeeds not just because the author has found a wholly original narrative for the character of Danny Torrance. There is no reason that Doctor Sleep has to be a sequel to The Shining, and you can read this book whether or not you have read the first. If are you familiar with King’s original classic, this provides you an additional rooting interest in Dan’s survival, and not just in his battle against the True Knot. As an adult, he is a nobly flaw protagonist in a classic Stephen King mold. That’s a good thing.
Abra is such a vividly endearing character, the thought of her falling into the clutches of the True Knot is genuinely intolerable.
As villains, the True Knot is just original enough, with nicely realized details that make it all too credible that they could exist in our midst and go unnoticed. What they are not is so invulnerable that it beggars belief that Dan and Abra could emerge victorious. The True Knot suffer from believable weakness that are a logical result of their immortality and their contempt for ordinary people, “rubes” as they call them.
Doctor Sleep is lean and efficiently told, free of the bloat that occasionally plagues King’s lesser works, and his writing is fresh and vivid. I could feel the staleness in the air and smell the dirt as Dan and a friend break into a barn to unearth the remains of the Knot’s previous victim. I felt like I was in the hands of the man who wrote The Shining, ’Salem’s Lot, and The Dead Zone, rather than the guy who unleashed a forgettable stream of works like Insomnia back in the 1990s.