In the author’s note that accompanies “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King explains some of the obstacles he faced in writing this follow-up to “The Shining.”First, there were memory issues: Mr. King used an assistant to check all references to that earlier horror classic rather than rely on his own recall. And there was alcoholism, to which the memory issues were related. Before he became sober, Mr. King wrote many of his scariest books (“Salem’s Lot” in 1975, “The Shining” in 1977, “The Stand” in 1978) while in a purple haze. And it’s hard to write a new installment of a story that was blurry to begin with.
He had two more demons to deal with. One was Stanley Kubrick, whose film version of “The Shining” is at least as well remembered as the novel with which it tampered. (Mr. King has made it clear that this is not his favorite film adaptation.) And perhaps worst of all, there was sequelitis. Even on the rare occasions when a sequel measures up to an original, it rarely gets credit for being any good.
But Mr. King also undertook “Doctor Sleep” with a couple of clear advantages. One was a lack of baggage. The Overlook Hotel has burned to the ground, and the murderously writer’s-blocked Jack Torrance is dead. So is his wife, Wendy, which leaves only little Dan Torrance as a requisite figure for “Doctor Sleep.” And Mr. King had an easy way of approaching Dan’s story: He was the son of a violent drunk, and he had psychic powers that spooked him. Ergo, Dan must have become a drunk too.
“Doctor Sleep” draws heavily on the writings and slogans of Alcoholics Anonymous as it presents Dan and his troubling legacy. Dan has also been sexually abused (with a nod to “N0S4A2,” the novel by Mr. King’s son Joe Hill) and receives brief but creepy visits from the last of the Overlook ghosts. This history, combined with a vague sense that he still has the Shining (i.e., psychic powers to detect the energy of other psychics and even meet them in some vaporous form), is more than Dan, now a young man, can bear. The book describes what happens when he hits bottom, inadvertently contributing to the death of a toddler because he’s too drunk to intervene. Dan then wanders his way into a New England town — and lands a hospice job that makes him the Doctor Sleep of the title. Dan’s powers can help ease dying patients as they “cycle” (the book’s word) out of this world.
Since Dan’s boss insists on sobriety, the job can be seen as a blessing. But Mr. King doesn’t write whole books about nice things, does he? Also roaming through “Doctor Sleep” is a band of tetchy freaks, led by an evil beauty called Rose the Hat. This group calls itself the True Knot — or the True, when it’s feeling more like a rock band. True members nourish themselves with the “steam” that emanates from humans who have the Shining. Unfortunately, the best steam is harvested when those humans die in horrible pain.
Add one more evanescence and the book’s setup is complete. A girl named Abra begins demonstrating paranormal powers from the time she is a baby. Abra, Dan and Rose are all capable of communicating on Mr. King’s way-cooler version of an astral plane: when any two of them are in touch, they can hear each other’s words without speaking, inhabit each other’s bodies, whatever. Dan and Abra are on the good side of this equation and Rose on the evil one. At least for starters.
So “Doctor Sleep” has its own vivid frightscape, one that’s not too derivative of “The Shining.” And it’s scary enough to match the first book, though not better or scarier. Mr. King has in recent years created much more fully imagined characters than he did in his 100-proof horror days; “Under the Dome” was full of them. The trade-off has been a loss of bloodcurdling apparitions, like those in which “The Shining” specialized. By the way, Tony, Dan’s invisible friend, still lingers in the new book, as evidenced by the word “Redrum” scrawled on its back cover. That word still packs quite a wallop.
“Doctor Sleep” is less panic-inducingly surreal. The adult Dan is, after all, struggling to keep his mind clear and to understand exactly what his supernatural capacities are. He’s also eager to make amends for that terrible, boozy lapse involving the toddler, a memory that haunts him as much as any of this book’s otherworldly creatures do. So even when he and Abra join forces to thwart the creeps from True Knot, it’s in a rational, even heroic way. “You may have some talents, you son of a bitch, but I don’t think you have much in the way of telepathy,” Dan says, speaking in Abra’s voice. (It’s complicated.) “I think when you want to talk to your girlfriend, you use the phone.”
This sequel takes life, aging and death too seriously to be a young man’s book. The same is true of its attitude toward sobriety, which is often discussed. Mr. King’s earlier books were full of phantasms and demons, but he grows ever more adept at rooting his dark thoughts and toughest struggles in reality. And when Abra goes into warrior mode, it’s not much of a fantasy stretch. She just models herself on a character from “Game of Thrones.”
“Doctor Sleep” is on the long side, but it tells a very quick and nimble story. It makes up in suspense what it lacks in nuance, and its special effects are easy to visualize. The body-switching among characters smacks of exorcism, though it has no religious component. The red mist secreted by the dying is terrifying to imagine. And the steam of those who Shine is one of Mr. King’s best surreal inventions. He remains amazingly resourceful. He’s so good at scaring that he can even raise goose bumps when he writes about the measles.