Danny Torrance

Danny Lloyd plays Danny Torrance in the film adaptation of Stephen King's "The Shining." King's latest novel, "Doctor Sleep," is a sequel. (Warner Bros. Inc / March 4, 2013)

On the weekends in the early ‘80s, my dad would often take me and my sister to Trumbull Inn, a bar in Colorado’s South Platte River basin where he drank beer and played horseshoes (I know it seems strange to urban sensibilities that parents would bring their children to a bar, but in rural Colorado they double as community centers — all the kids met there to play along the riverbank). Trumbull had a small paperback exchange — a few shelves of Dean Koontz and “Megatrends.” Take one, leave one. I was 8 or 9 when I discovered there a disintegrating mass-market edition of a novel called “The Shining.” On the cover, a boy’s faceless head hovered over a silvery expanse. Welcome to the Overlook Hotel.


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Over the next few years, I mainlined as many of Stephen King's novels as I could find: I read about the rabid St. Bernard, the evil sentient car, the girl who started fires with her mind, the guy who wakes up from a coma with psychic powers. King's finest novel, "The Stand," introduced me to William Butler Yeats and Blue Öyster Cult. By junior high, after "It" and "The Eyes of the Dragon" (originally titled — fun fact — "The Napkins"), I'd moved on to hard sci-fi and Kurt Vonnegut. But I recall fondly that first rush — bartending ghosts, supernatural topiary, little Danny Torrance with his telepathic "shining," all mixed up now with Jack Nicholson's manic eyebrows.

So when I say that "Doctor Sleep," King's sequel to "The Shining" 36 years down the line, is pretty terrific, it's not an impartial judgment. King's never going to be much of a stylist; nothing goes clunk in the night like his stabs at literariness (I still remember "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon's" "hot pricks of light"). But so what? His power lies in narrative drive and macabre detail, which "Doctor Sleep" has to spare.

The novel opens by whisking the reader through Danny's post-Overlook childhood, as he learns to use the shining to fight the malevolent remnants of "that disastrous winter in Colorado" — undead things in the bathtub and whatnot, the usual. But the novel really gets underway as the adult Dan Torrance, sometime during the Clinton administration (King has an odd and enduring habit of using the White House as a clock), wakes up hungover in a strange bed next to a woman whose name he can't remember. Alarmed to discover his wallet $500 lighter than it had been at the beginning of the previous night, he slowly reassembles his memories, which include the purchase of a great deal of cocaine in a men's room from a man whose face crawled with flies only Dan could see.

This manifestation of the shining, you'll recall, indicates that the fly-face in question will soon shuffle off this mortal coil. Dan drinks to dim the shining, because it's sort of unnerving to read people's thoughts or be able to tell they're about to die or glimpse undead hotel guests. (King has said that he doesn't remember writing much of "Cujo" because he was trashed on booze and coke the whole time — he's been sober since the late '80s — so draw your own metaphor.)

Dan sobers up after this especially tawdry episode ends in petty theft and child endangerment. He lands a job at a nursing home in New Hampshire, where he eases terminal patients into the dead zone. No flies on their faces — a cat named Oscar can sense their imminent demise; if Oscar enters a patient's room, the nurses ring Dan, nicknamed Doctor Sleep.

But Dan's earlier behavior haunts him throughout the novel, fueling his transformation into one of King's typically flawed good soldiers. He connects via spooky-blackboard-writing-at-a-distance with Abra, a young girl whose shining is strong, and joins her in battle against the True Knot, a kind of vampire RV club. Dan plays Overlook chef Dick Hallorann, his mentor in shining, to Abra's Danny. Mayhem ensues; cancer is weaponized; on the former grounds of the Overlook Hotel, good, of course, triumphs, albeit, of course, at a terrible cost.

After some desultory work in the '90s, King has revved up the 21st century with some of his strongest novels; "Under the Dome" (2009) and "11/22/63" (2011) are masterpieces of choreography. If "Doctor Sleep" isn't quite of their caliber, it's because "The Shining" is a pop milestone, an unrepeatable culture shock. King was young when he wrote it, in the grip of a conception larger than himself. The novel's propelled by the fevered urgency of an artist learning the limits of his powers.

King is old enough now to have a Medicare card. He's one of the best-selling authors in the history of the world. And "Doctor Sleep" is as much about being The Guy Who Wrote "The Shining" as it is about what happened to Danny Torrance after the Overlook burned down. There are in-joke references to his son Joe Hill's latest novel scattered throughout "Doctor Sleep," as if King's passing the scepter.

If you've grown up with Stephen King's novels, or grown too old for them, the new book is bittersweet with nostalgia, like an aging favorite band's reunion tour. It's ridiculous and romantic, sure, "but in spite of these things," as Edgar Allan Poe wrote in "The Masque of the Red Death," in a passage that serves as an epigraph to "The Shining," "it was a gay and magnificent revel."

Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."

"Doctor Sleep"

By Stephen King, Scribner, 544 pages, $30