An ancient band of vampires camouflaged in the trappings of middle America and roving the interstates in search of special children to prey on, a protagonist tortured by alcoholism and past traumas both supernatural and self-inflicted, a little girl wielding an awesome and terrible power — these are the ingredients of Stephen King's newest novel, and they make for a compelling story.
Doctor Sleep has some trouble getting started; the first few dozen pages are taken up with the awkward, utilitarian work of bridging the wide gap between it and King's 1977 novel The Shining, which it follows. Only once the narrative is firmly rooted in the head of protagonist Dan Torrance, the now-adult child who barely survived The Shining, does it really begin to chug along under its own power. Other than occasional and brief derailments, it sustains that power through to a whiz-bang finale — and at that point, the hasty connecting of the two novels becomes well worth it, because all of The Shining's most frightening ghosts have been reanimated to play their parts.
While it doesn't achieve the epic heights of King's best, neither does it suffer from the bloat and aimlessness of his worst; Doctor Sleep is, in many ways, a solid horror offering. What sets it apart from the standard-issue spectrum of adjectives applied to King — blood-curdling to spine-tingling to haunting and everything in between — is how personal the novel can feel.
Alcoholics Anonymous is as central to the plot and protagonist of Doctor Sleep as it is to the author. The differences between the older, wiser King and, in King's words, "the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining," lend an authenticity and poignancy to Dan Torrance's struggles with alcohol and his retrospection about the alcoholic father who died in The Shining. In a sense, King is running through AA's 12 steps himself here, inventorying and amending the harm wrought in his darker years on, and through, his own characters. If Doctor Sleep introduces another adjective into King's vast repertoire, it might be "heartbreaking".