Over two years ago, Stephen King announced that he would embark on a sequel to his 1977 horror masterpiece The Shining - as well as write a new book in his previously-thought completed Dark Tower series. The Dark Tower book must have taken precedence, because he later told fans they shouldn't hold their collective breath for the Shining sequel, tentatively titled Dr. Sleep, and The Dark Tower book, called The Wind Through the Keyhole, will be published on April 24th. (Stay tuned for a review of that, and thanks to Scott Wampler for the promo site link!)
But Dr. Sleep is now a go, and King read the first chapter aloud to fans at the Savannah Book Festival's closing ceremony this week. Watch the video, hear the chapter, and then let's dissect it!
Dr. Sleep follows Danny Torrance, the young, clairvoyant protagonist of The Shining, working in his 40s as a hospice orderly in upstate New York and using his unusual gift to ease the passage of terminally ill patients. But the excerpt read by King opens the novel just three years after the events that conclude The Shining with a bang.
The novel begins with an outsider's, and thereby inaccurate, perspective of the tragedy that closes The Shining. We learn the whereabouts of the three survivors of the Overlook disaster: Wendy Torrance and her son Danny live in Tampa and Dick Hallorann lives in Key West. The Torrances are living on a modest settlement from the owners of the Overlook due to Wendy's debilitating back injuries. Hallorran sometimes visits the Torrances when he feels one of his "powerful hunches"; he is visiting today because of an early morning call from Wendy. Danny woke the previous night and wandered to the bathroom, finding the decaying old woman from the Overlook's Room 217. King's description is horrid and gross and great:
He turned the knob and opened the door. The woman from Room 217 was there, as he had known she would be. She was sitting naked on the toilet with her legs spread and her pallid thighs bulging. Her peeling breasts hung down like deflated balloons. The patch of hair below her stomach was gray. Her eyes were also gray, like steel mirrors. She saw him and her decayed lips stretched back in a grin.
Danny knew one day someone from that nightmare would show up again; of course he did. Danny has plenty of powerful hunches himself. He thought it might be Horace Derwent (the former owner and eventual haunter of the Overlook Hotel) or the bartender Lloyd who would present themselves in their terrifying and supernatural glory.
He supposed he should have known it would be Mrs. Massey though, even before it finally happened. Because of all the undead things in the Overlook, she was the worst.
Goosebumps, people! The man knows how to spin a spooky yarn. I love this excerpt. The clinically detached opening soon gives way to a gruesome tableau, and readers are reminded organically of the crucial points of The Shining - with no overly cumbersome exposition. If the novel takes place thirty-five years later, I'm glad it opens with the young Danny Torrance, of whom we all felt so protective in the original book. I also quite like the synopsis. I have dealt with hospice workers many times through various family illnesses, and I have always been fascinated by the strength and generosity of those who work with the dying and grieving every day of their professional lives. I love the idea of a clairvoyant using his gift in that way. So far, so good. Dr. Sleep seems intriguing and potentially significant.
Now, several websites have reported lately that Danny battles a group of migratory vampires named The Tribe, and I was frankly dismayed at the news. Why take a perfectly contained story about death and grief and broaden it with an elaborately silly vampire plotline? Well, because that's what King does - he takes beautifully personal stories rife with finespun metaphors about the human condition, and then throws in a giant spider that serves as a much clunkier and far less effective metaphor. But fortunately, the vampire report is inaccurate. On King's website, the news archives link to a video of an appearance King made at George Mason University in September 2011. I'm embedding the video below; he begins to talk about Dr. Sleep about 29 minutes in.
He says that he never stopped wondering what happened to Danny Torrance once he grew up; the idea kept gaining strength in his mind, and he eventually sat down and started to write. Here's what he says:
I knew there were bad people in this story that were like vampires, only what they suck is not blood, but psychic energy from special people like Danny Torrance. And I came to realize that these people were called The Tribe and that they move around a lot and that their leader is this woman who calls herself Rose the Hat. They all have these kind of pirate names, because pirates are sort of what they are. And I thought, well, how did people like that get along? How did they move? And I realized, you go on the turnpike. The most sinister thing out there, on the turnpike and at rest areas, are RVs. They're the RV people.
He goes on to read another excerpt from later in Dr. Sleep, an excerpt that describes the mysterious RV people, who own entire cities in Maine, Florida, Colorado and Arizona but who never stay anywhere for long. These are the "vampires" - not vampires at all but telepathy-absorbing transients. While this is all still rather broad, vampires are played the hell out. I don't feel that there have been many stories about psychic gypsies, and I'm down to read one.
After making myself familiar with both excerpts and the synopsis, I am now completely stoked about Dr. Sleep. We all know that King is hit or miss, and he's far more often "miss" lately, but when he's playing at the top of his game, no one can touch him. The Shining and The Dark Tower are deep, rich wells from which he can draw, and they are two of his best and most beloved creations. I'm going to go ahead and hope that King is playing at the top of his game for these two.
Speak up, kiddos. Are you with me, or do you think I'm fooling myself?