The first story that scared the daylights out of me was an old campfire standby, too long and shaggy to recount here, the punch line of which is “Maniacs lick hands.” It was told to me by a friend at a sleepover party, and while I don’t know exactly how old we were, I do know that she was still using a Sesame Street sleeping bag. I also know that for years, whenever my arm flopped over the side of my bed, I felt a twinge of primal panic.
That was the beginning of my decade, give or take, of scary-ass stories. It wasn’t that I had any focused interest in horror fiction as a kid; I was, and am, too wimpy for that by half. But I did have the underage bookworm’s indiscriminate reading habits, plus parents who let me read anything in the world. On the plus side: the sex scenes in Shōgun. On the down side: Robin Cook’s Coma. Oh my God. Its cover alone left me with enough holdover heebie-jeebies to last a lifetime.
Not that it didn’t have help. Tom Sawyer, which is seldom billed as horror fiction, contains a scene in a cave that caused me to levitate. Various collected works left me jumpy for months—thank you, Trixie Belden, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe. And that is to say nothing of all the one-offs: Something Wicked This Way Comes, or The Silence of the Lambs (what was I thinking?), or Misery, which, in a fit of late-adolescent masochism, I read alone, in the attic, after dark.
And right there, toward the end of my teenage years, the trail goes cold. Yes, many books have frightened me since then, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I think of as the South Pole of literature—as far as you can go, for one thing, and also the place where the meridians of ghastliness and gorgeousness bend and meet. But these were chance encounters. My deliberate, sustained engagement with the sick, scary, spooky, and supernatural ended before I turned 18. From then until this summer, I did not read a single book that could be classified as horror.
Why did I stop reading scary books? Conversely, why does anyone ever start? What do we get out of that particular literary experience, other than insomnia and a problematic relationship with the shower? And, finally, given that I am surely among the least qualified critics in the nation to do so, what in the world made me decide to review Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-awaited sequel to The Shining?
A quick recap, in case you’ve been cowering under your covers for the last 36 years. The Shining concerns the Torrance family: 5-year-old Danny, who possesses extrasensory powers (said “shining”); his mother, Wendy; and his father, Jack, a recovering alcoholic and Great American Novelist manqué, with a temper that is not manqué at all. Early in the book, Jack takes a job as the winter caretaker of the remote Overlook Hotel, hoping the change of scenery will repair the damage done to his family by his anger issues and alcoholism. Spoiler alert: It does not. Jack and the hotel self-destruct. Wendy and Danny survive, thanks largely to a kindly older black man named Dick Hallorann. (In the movie, Stanley Kubrick kills off Hallorann. King did not. You’ll meet him again, alive and well, in Doctor Sleep.)
Like Poe, King works at the blurry boundary between supernatural horrors and psychological ones, and The Shining is, at heart, a portrait of domestic violence: its devastating cycle of rage, shame, fear, and love, and the way it leaves families psychologically snowbound. As much as I relish its bathtub ghosts and bloodthirsty topiary animals, what makes the book truly scary is the mental disintegration of its main character. Like a spool feeding a spindle, the more Jack unravels, the more tightly the book is wound.
By contrast, the scariest thing about Doctor Sleep is the possibility that it will turn out to be dreadful. That fear dogs all sequels, and especially sequels to iconic stories—and, for fully 50 pages, King does little to dispel it. After a perfunctory update on Danny, now 8, we meet our new bad guys. These are a clan of vampirelike beings known, regrettably, as the True Knot. Not regrettably, though awfully Carl Hiaasen–y, they roam the country in RVs, clad in stretch pants and grandma-wear. Their leader is one Rose the Hat: tall, smart, sexy, in charge, intemperate, dangerous. When we meet her, she’s wearing a unicef T-shirt that says WHATEVER IT TAKES TO SAVE A CHILD.
Well, save like leftovers, maybe. The True Knot subsists not on blood but on “steam,” a substance produced when children gifted with the shining are tortured to death. Trouble is, shiny kids are getting rarer, like bluefin tuna, and the True Knot is succumbing to starvation and disease. Then along comes little Abra Stone, born with a caul over her face, a charming personality, and a whopping dose of the shining. Eventually she will join forces with Danny, and Team Shiny and Team RV will square off on the site of the former Overlook Hotel.
Eventually, also, Doctor Sleep will get good. In the meantime, though, we must suffer Dick Hallorann waxing Afro-avuncular, a favorite move in the King playbook. (“My gramma also had the shining … She taught me. And it was her great-gramma that taught her, way back in the slave days.”) We suffer one Andrea Steiner, who is repeatedly raped by her father and grows up to become—one guess, folks—a man-hating lesbian with a vengeful streak. (Eventually she joins the vampires, thereby making the cultural stereotype that won’t die officially Undead.) Worst of all, we suffer faux-Latin chants. “We are the True Knot,” one of the villains intones, “and we endure”: “ ‘Sabbatha hanti,’ the others responded. ‘We are the chosen ones.’ ‘Lodsam hanti,’ they responded.”
Well, sabbatha hanti, or however you conjugate it: I endured. And, finally, it paid off. Way too many pages in, Dan Torrance, now grown, wakes up hungover, in bed with a coke-addled stranger who is—as Dan discovers when he tries to slip out unnoticed—neglecting a toddler in the adjacent room. So much for sweet little Danny of The Shining. This Dan is adrift, alcoholic, barely able to hold down a string of jobs as a hospital orderly, estranged from his mother, from Dick, and from all humanity, including his own. Alone with that toddler, he is about to hit rock bottom. And Doctor Sleep is about to get much, much better.
King has said that he wrote a sequel to The Shining because, over the years, “I would find myself calculating Danny Torrance’s age, and wondering where he was.” What King calculates best, though, is the psychological trajectory: Danny is the son of an abusive, alcoholic father, and the odds that he, too, would become a rage-prone addict are notably high. By adulthood, he is both: “There was a dangerous dog inside his head. Sober, he could keep it on a leash. When he drank, the leash disappeared.”
But for Dan, unlike for Jack, the rage is secondary. It’s the booze that almost destroys him, and much as The Shining was fundamentally about family violence, Doctor Sleep is fundamentally about alcoholism. King, a recovering addict himself, is excellent on addiction and its attendant dysfunctions: deception, self-justification, disregard of others, new-leaf fantasies and their near-instant collapse, the next fix as the North Star.
And, conversely, he is excellent on deliberate sobriety. Some of the best parts of Doctor Sleep draw on the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous, which also provides this book’s ethical core. Not by accident is Abra saved by two recovering drunks. As for her tormentors: “They are sick and don’t know it,” Hallorann says of the True Knot. Like unrepentant addicts, the villains of Doctor Sleep destroy everything around them in pursuit of a deadly substance.
Once Doctor Sleep stops being bad, how good is it? As the dating sites say, it’s complicated. In 1984, when King published Thinner under the not-yet-unveiled pseudonym Richard Bachman, one reviewer described it as “What Stephen King would write like if Stephen King could really write.” That comment has come in for much gleeful ribbing from fans, but the fact is, Stephen King sometimes writes like a Stephen King who can really write, and sometimes he does not.
Another question: Once Doctor Sleep stops being bad, how horrible is it? Here King is on firmer ground. “I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader,” he once wrote. “But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.”
For good or ill, there’s a scene in Doctor Sleep that nails that sick trifecta. It depicts the death by torture of the star hitter of a midwestern Little League team: Norman Rockwell meets Norman Bates. It is the only scene in the book I found difficult to read on the grounds of gruesomeness. Perversely, it is also the only scene I found difficult to read on the grounds of verisimilitude.
I don’t subscribe to the usual moral objection to horror fiction—to wit, that it causes horrible facts. But it doesn’t follow that such fiction causes no real-life effects whatsoever. Consider the standard disclaimer that appears in the front of novels: that the events therein exist solely in the author’s imagination. That is not entirely true. Once you’ve read the book, those events exist in your imagination, too. I suspect this is part of why I stopped reading horror fiction: I enjoyed the frisson but started to resent the afterimage. Books like King’s are not responsible for what endangers us, but they are responsible for what scares us, and somewhere along the line, I decided I wanted to live with as little fear as possible.
As to why other people read horror: I have no idea. Or rather I have a great many ideas, which amounts to the same thing. Maybe, by so flagrantly crossing lines, horror fiction reassures us that they still exist, in ourselves and in society. Maybe it helps us rehearse our own death, to prepare for it, stave it off or both. Maybe it provides a sense of meaning and control where none truly exist. Maybe it’s the counterfeit prey the zookeeper feeds the lion. Maybe it’s just fun. A strange sort of fun, some will say—but then, so is reading Finnegans Wake.
Certainly, “strange fun” describes my experience of Doctor Sleep. It’s less scary than The Shining, and, bluntly, less good—but also funnier, slyer, and less genre-bound. This is a novel where the so-called hero starts out a derelict and ends up mostly just a mensch. Similarly, the so-called villains sometimes seem like meth-heads from hell, and sometimes like my family bickering amicably over dinner, and sometimes like they’re about to do the Time Warp.
Granted, horror has always shared a border with camp—but in this book, it shares a border with every camp. This is, I think, the thing King gets best, and that the timorous and censorious resist: that horror is just part of the human mix. There’s a throwaway scene in Doctor Sleep in which Dan, having walked past an aerobics class, finds himself singing aloud: “Young man! I was once in your shoes.” That moment did a lot to boost my faith in King as a writer, or at least to like him. It is joyful and funny and plucked with acuity from the endless burble of the human mind, which is precisely what it illustrates: that it is possible, all at the same time, to be battling literal and figurative demons, resisting the craving for a drink, thinking about work, and singing the chorus to the campiest song ever written.
It’s just a trifle, just a line. And yet if you linger there a bit longer—you won’t; but if you did—you will remember the homeless shelters Dan once frequented, the 80-proof abjection of his past, his long struggle to come clean; and suddenly the voice of the Village People will ring like a church bell on redemption day. You can stay at the YMCA! It’s a funny thing about King. For a writer of horror, he is terrifically humane.
As for “Doctor Sleep”: It does not refer to the member of the True Knot who lulls men into slumber in order to slash and rob them. It refers to Dan Torrance, hospice worker—who, in his sober, shining kindness, comforts his elderly patients as they’re dying. What a strange and interesting book Stephen King has given us: a work of horror that promises, of all things, a good night’s sleep.
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King. Scribner.
*This article originally appeared in the September 23, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.