How do you top your scariest novel? If you’re Stephen King, penning a sequel to The Shining 35 years later, you don’t even try. Doctor Sleep (September 24; Scribner) essentially abandons the single-setting haunts of the Overlook Hotel, instead sending a middle-aged Daniel Torrance out into the world to use his powers of “the shining” to make the world a better place. As a psychological thriller, Doctor Sleep is as good as it gets, a truly satisfying beach read. But it disappoints as a literary follow-up to King’s most haunting novel. Replacing the ghostly scares with psychic skirmishes and hot clairvoyant action, Doctor Sleep occasionally feels like an 1980’s TV series about a telepath hitching across the country solving mysteries.
Picking up in 1981, the sequel has Danny and a limping Wendy still recovering from the harrowing events at the Overlook Hotel, which was destroyed after the boiler explosion. Those more familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film than the original novel may be surprised to find Dick Hallorann alive and kicking, still serving as a sage mentor to a pre-adolescent Danny. Revisiting the events and characters from the Overlook serves as a scolding reminder from King that The Shining was a book first and a movie second, and don’t you ever forget it.
With his callback quota finally met, King is content to move on with his plot. Dan Torrance––now a quasi-hobo using hardcore alcoholism to quell “the shining”––hits rock bottom after cleaning out the purse of a coke-addled single mom. He finds salvation in a small town in New Hampshire where he cleans up, dries out, and makes some new friends using his special powers. But just when things are looking up for poor Dan, he’s contacted by Abra, a young clairvoyant girl on the run from the True Knot, a cult of immortal telepaths who hunt down children with “the shining” in order to drain them of all power.
The strength of Doctor Sleep lies in King’s vivid depictions of mental gamesmanship as Abra and the leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat, square off in a handful of psychic smack-downs. Not since The Dead Zone have psychic powers been so lovingly explored and detailed. But despite cameo appearances by Mrs. Massey and Horace Derwent, Doctor Sleep lacks the haunting tone and setting of its predecessor, instead adopting the slick rhythyms of a well-tuned thriller. It’s still a fine novel, but superfans of The Shining should go into Doctor Sleep knowing they’re in for an entirely different bag of bones.