Book review: Doctor Sleep, By Stephen King

A second shine as ghouls pursue the man who beat his demons

It's a mistake to go back, but not always. Sometimes you have to go back to make amends. Early in his career, before he even began to understand the full dimensions of what he was writing, Stephen King created, in Jack Torrance of The Shining, one of the most memorable portraits of a dry drunk in popular literature – the compulsive behaviour, the terrible rages, and at the climax the moment of self-sacrificial redemption that turns the monster back into a man. Like many of the greatest characters, Jack came out of the darkest parts of his creator, years before he accepted that drink was one of his demons.

Doctor Sleep is a thoughtful sequel to The Shining, in which the telepathic little boy grows up to have problems of his own, of which alcoholism and ill temper are not the smallest. Dan Torrance finds a sort of peace after a troubled young manhood – he finds AA and finds a vocation as an orderly at a hospice. His power has modulated into the ability to help the dying stay calm and hopeful.

Early in his sobriety, Dan scrawls a name in his notebook, and gradually becomes aware that a little girl, Abra, whose powers hugely exceed his, is watching him from a couple of towns away. Abra in turn becomes aware of predators – undead psychic vampires who eat young children with powers – and the predators, the True Knot, become aware of Abra. And are hungry...

This is splendid melodrama, but also a deal tighter and less discursive than some of King's later books. The devil gets some good tunes and the horrible Rose, leader of the True Knot, is a convincing predator whom we see corrupt and turn a bitter young woman with powers. Not all the True Knot started off bad to the bone – but they are now. Just as the climax of The Shining showed us redemption, so this shows us the possibility of becoming something utterly damnable.

This is also a book about family and friendship – the elective family of friends that an AA meeting can become, and the self-formed family of helpers Dan and Abra put together, but also the family of corruption and domination that Rose rules. It is also about tricks – King outwits his reader, time after time, as telepaths and vampires play games of strategy.

As always, one of his major strengths is the specificity of everything we see. This is an America of anonymous truck-stops and trailer parks as well as small towns where everyone knows everyone else's business. The True Knot live as itinerants, in mobile homes; this is a believable myth of what predators would be like; what exploiters, whether sexual or financial, are. They eat, drive on and never look back – whereas good people always have regrets.