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book review

The Bard of Bangor returns to old haunts with a fresh eye.Shane Leonard

"A queer thought came to him. Once upon a time, his father had probably sat in a room like this, being interviewed for the position of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. What had he been thinking? That he really needed a job? That it was his last chance? Maybe. Probably. But of course, Jack Torrance had had hostages to fortune. Dan did not."

Stephen King certainly can't be criticized for a lack of self-awareness.

In the Author's Note to his new book, Doctor Sleep, the eagerly anticipated, three-decades-on sequel to The Shining, he outlines two key concerns that faced him when he considered writing the novel.

First is the external concern, the difficulty in following up a fan favourite, one of the books which "really scared the bejeezus" out of his readers, and the risk of sequel-failure in general. "…Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable."

The second area of concern was internal: "People change. The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining."

King addresses both of these concerns by creating a novel utterly unlike The Shining, so distinct as to belong to an entirely different fictional species. Doctor Sleep works – and works so well – because King never attempts for it to be The Shining, Part Two: it stands resolutely, and winningly, on its own.

In fact, it stands so free of its progenitor that my advice would be to suppress your natural (if you're a King fan) inclinations to read or re-read The Shining to prepare for Doctor Sleep. Reading the two novels back-to-back (as I did in the past five days) will create a jarring dissonance; the difference between the two books will be read, initially, as a problem, rather than the strength it is.

The Shining is a masterpiece of horror, a terrifying chamber play for (largely) three voices: Jack Torrance, his wife Wendy, and their young, psychically gifted son Danny. Surely I don't need to summarize the plot of the book at this late juncture (though I will note that it is quite distinct from the Kubrick film, at which King – who famously loathes the adaptation – takes another kick in his Author's Note). The Shining succeeds – and terrifies – because of its self-imposed limitations: the reader becomes trapped in the text much as the Torrance family is winter-bound in the Overlook, and the insidious, claustrophobic creepiness builds to the breaking point. It succeeds precisely because of its small scale and low stakes: the central question is the survival of just three people. It is, perhaps, the epitome of the haunted-house story.

Doctor Sleep, on the other hand, is sweeping and far-ranging, moving from the small towns of New England through much of the United States. It's creepy, to say the least, but it reads more fantastic, and with the beats of a thriller, than a horror novel.

After some background – what happened to Wendy and Danny after The Shining, and how young Torrance came to control his "gift" and its costs – Doctor Sleep begins with Danny, now just Dan, hitting bottom. A long-time drifter and alcoholic (just because he survived his father doesn't mean he escaped everything of the man, and Dan's drinking is linked to both his genes and the booze's efficacy at muting his psychic abilities), Dan ends up in a small town in New England, where he gets a job at a hospice and is drawn into Alcoholics Anonymous. He finds, after years of unconscious searching, a life.

More than that: he finds meaning. Over the next few years, Dan becomes known as Doctor Sleep, using his psychic gift to ease the passing of the elderly patients at the hospice, their oncoming deaths signalled by a prescient cat who snuggles up to the dying.

As Dan settles and grows – though haunted by the past and barely resisting the urge to drink – a girl is growing up in a nearby town. Abra Stone, it turns out, has the shining as well, inestimably more powerful than Dan's ever was. This gift draws the attention of the True Knot, a tribe of immortals who roam the roadways of America in motorhomes and RVs, murdering similarly gifted children and consuming their "steam," the distillation of their shining, which grows more pure the longer they are tortured before their deaths. When not crisscrossing the country disguised as pensioner-vagabonds, they hole up in a bucolic camp high in the Colorado mountains, a place of powerful evil and psychic darkness where a majestic hotel once stood, before it burned to the ground in the late 1970s. The True Knot, under the leadership of the sexy and terrifying Rosie The Hat, begin to hunt Abra, growing increasingly desperate for her steam.

All of this is fine set-up for a horror novel: few things are scarier than monstrous forces pursuing a young girl, as King has demonstrated more than once in his career. In Doctor Sleep, though, Abra fights back, and draws Dan in to protect and assist her. There is no creeping menace here, but the thrills of a conflict fought out both in the physical world and in the space between minds. It's a dizzying, impressive ride populated with skilfully drawn characters that will thrill and satisfy even the most diligent of King's readers, so long as they are prepared to read the book they have in hand, rather than the book they had imagined he might write. Doctor Sleep is a suspenseful, thought-provoking and emotionally resonant read; that it's not the unadulterated horror of The Shining is, perhaps, its greatest strength.

Robert J. Wiersema's next novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year.