I read the new Stephen King novel, Doctor Sleep, a few weeks after I read Night Film, another recent and highly promoted (at least by Random House) thriller. There are a lot of superficial similarities between the two books and at least one major theme that they had in common. Why then, I wondered, was one so much more effective than the other?
The reason has to be more substantial than the fact that Mr. King is an old hand at weaving complex and devious plots that touch the deepest fears in all of us. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to his 1977 horror classic, The Shining, and some of it is set upon the same unholy ground where the Overlook Hotel once stood before a boiler explosion reduced it -- and its ghostly menagerie of occupants -- to ashes.
It has to be more than our pre-programmed affection for Danny Torrence, the menaced 5-year-old in the first book, even if we suspect that Stephen King is probably not prone to bestow happily ever after endings upon his characters, no matter what ordeal they may already have endured. And indeed, the years since he and his mother escaped from the clutches of the Overlook haven’t been kind to Danny. He has led a rootless life, drowning all the horrific memories in alcohol. He finally settled in a small town in New Hampshire, joined AA, and took a job at a local hospice. They call him Doctor Sleep there because he uses his special talents to ease the fears of people embarking upon their journey into the next world.
Danny has never lost his gift for shining. He is going to need it to survive the onslaught from the evil crew that awaits him in Doctor Sleep. The group calls itself the True Knot. For all the worthiness that the name suggests, however, they are a band of murderous, human-like things (I fumbled for a better word, but couldn't come up with one), that draw sustenance from extracting the essence (called steam) from extraordinary people like Danny. The steam can be stored in canisters for the time when members of the True begin to cycle (Kingspeak for fading in and out out physical existence. It’s very painful and, if it goes on too long, all that is left is a pile of rumpled clothes).
The True Knot is led by a vengeful entity called Rose the Hat. A top hat is her trademark, like a sweater was for Mr. Rogers. Rose is gorgeous to behold, but she has a temper that would put Krakatoa into perspective. She is the unchallenged shepherd over a flock that includes the Crow, Steamhead Steve, Bent Dick, Apron Annie, and Silent Sarey among other (here is that word again) things.
Anyone who is familiar with Mr. King’s work will not be discouraged from reading his latest foray by ludicrous character names or a feeble attempt to describe the labyrinthine plot. If Doctor Sleep lacks The Shining’s sense of grandeur, it is not constricted by the walls of the gigantic, creepy mausoleum. King loves to place a child on the edge of the abyss and he gives the reader a memorable one in Abra Stone, whose powers for shining cast even Dan’s into the shade.
Dan Torrance had a traumatic childhood and so did the deceased daughter of the profoundly eccentric filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova in Marisha Pessel’s Night Film. Most of the lengthy novel is concerned with a journalist's attempt to uncover the actual circumstances surrounding the premature death of Ashley Cordova. Ms. Pessel trods a path that coyly skirts the realm of the supernatural -- Mr. King’s home ground -- but allusions to it are plentiful. The fact that she aspires to a more self-consciously lofty literary plateau doesn't lessen her obligation to stock her thriller with thrills. It is in this respect that Night Film is so markedly inferior to Doctor Sleep.
Try and imagine the two novels as a pair of gleaming jet airliners, both filled with interesting passengers. The planes are poised at the end of a runway, ready to whisk them away to exotic (read thrilling) adventures. While Night Film, minimally fueled for the long, bumpy ride ahead, barely manages a lift-off, Mr. King’s book streaks down the runway and soars into the stratosphere of his readers’ imaginations. It isn't all that surprising given the fact that the pilot at the controls has an instinctive knack for avoiding prolonged stretches of hot air while he is serving up his chills.