Recently when I checked my stats on Goodreads, I was amazed to discover that Stephen King topped my list of most-read authors. At the end of Doctor Sleep, King wishes his Constant Readers (who are legion), “long days and pleasant nights”. And then I read an article in the Guardian recently where the journalist commented that King has become a Grand Old Man of Letters; many of the people who first encountered him in their teens are now editors, publishers and writers themselves.
I, too, first encountered King in my teens, buying Christine at CNA, where it topped the bestseller list, for R8.95 (in those halcyon days of cheap books). I also bought The Stand at the same time. And so it began. Thereafter I either bought every single book that King published, cadged it from the school or town library, or much later bought hardcovers, or even later than that, Kindle files. I grew up with King; he showed me the power of good writing, and awakened a fire for genre fiction that has not dampened over these (many) years.
Which is why Doctor Sleep is such a special book. The Woman From Room 217 has to be the scariest thing I have ever read; King wisely notes in the Afterword to his sequel that first scares are always the best. What made that scene so memorable was not only the physical horror of the dead woman reaching out to Danny from her empty bath, but the fact she was naked, and all the confused emotions about aberrant sexuality that this evoked.
So when I first heard that King was contemplating a sequel to one of the most iconic horror novels ever written, my initial reaction was one of sceptical wariness. Why? Had King finally succumbed to the particular literary disease exemplified by writers like Robert Heinlein, who (unsuccessfully) attempted a Grand Unified Theory of His Own Fiction? King had already embarked upon such a course of self-deification with his Dark Tower magnum opus; maybe Doctor Sleep was a first tentative step in corralling all the loose ends remaining from his earlier fiction.
Having said all that, Doctor Sleep is easily one of the best books that King has ever written. It contains some of his most memorable villains ever, the True Knot (or the RV People, as they are disparagingly referred to). And Dan Torrance’s story of sacrifice and redemption echoes King’s own extraordinary journey: of writing those earlier iconic novels in an alcohol and drug haze, how his family intervened to save him, and the later near-death experience when he got ridden over while taking an afternoon amble. It is a story of the power of love and the miracle of faith — faith in oneself, and faith that the world itself has meaning and purpose.