It’s been long enough now that most people have put to the back of their minds that we almost lost Stephen King in June of 1999 when a guy in a van with his dog(s) hit King, who was walking along the shoulder of the road. From that terrible experience, King found a renewed source of inspiration and gave us the conclusion to his magnum opus Dark Tower series. He also continued to write great short stories…the kind that sneak up on you. He experimented with other media via deals with Marvel Comics to adapt the Dark Tower and a particularly enjoyable “motion comic” of “N.” A couple of years ago, he asked his fans whether they wanted another Dark Tower book or to revisit little Danny Torrence. Fandom voted for Roland, but King in his generosity gave us both. We just had to wait a bit longer for Danny to return.
For the uninitiated, Danny Torrence was a boy of young years at the Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado when his dad went crazy and tried to kill his mother and him. There are a lot of small details, but suffice it to say most of the world knows this story from Stanley Kubrick’s methodical film adaptation of The Shining. That film is viewed by many (your author included) as one of the scariest films ever made, although King always preferred his original text over the story that Kubrick told with all its liberties. If you are only familiar with the movie, you will be at ever-so-slight a disadvantage, but Wikipedia and the internet are here to fill in whatever potholes might exist on your highway of enjoyment.
The new book picks up not long after the events at the Overlook, which ended in a tremendous boiler eruption that destroyed the hotel with only Danny, his mother Wendy and the Overlook’s cook, Dick, as survivors. Danny is in a bind because one of the…things from the Overlook has shown up in his and his mom’s bathroom. Wendy calls Dick who talks Danny through his own tortured past and teaches him a technique for creating a box in which to trap these rogue entities.
After this prologue, we find (mostly) adult Danny as a raging alcoholic who just blew his paycheck on cocaine for his date. He’s almost-but-not-quite at the bottom when he wakes before she does, opens her purse and steals all her cash (while rationalizing that if she needs money, she can sell the rest of the coke). Dan leaves town and eventually ends up in Frazier, NH, a quaint town with a kiddie train that’s something of a local attraction and a business that has a use for Danny and his shining talent–a hospice. Dan has a profession as an orderly, but he has a particular gift for helping people cross from this world to the next in as peaceful a manner as possible. Danny manages to fight off the urge to drink for a short while, but at the breaking point, he finds help and a sponsor and starts righting some of the wrongs he’s done.
All is well(ish) until around the turn of the millennium when he finds himself scratching the word “Abra” on his notepad during a meeting. Later, he learns Abra is a young girl with a brighter shine than Dan could muster, but an innocence that lands her in the line of fire for a group called the True Knot, an ancient group not dissimilar from stereotypical gypsies, but with powers of their own and a taste for the essence of kids who shine. Suddenly Dan and Abra are headed for a collision with a woman known as Rose the Hat, a woman who thinks that Abra might not just be a meal for her and her people, but a piece of livestock.
Let me begin by saying that I loved the book, but not without some minor reservations. Among the things I like are that the characters are accepting of what they see once they understand there are things beyond what they know. It always frustrates me when characters must be convinced over and over that there are bad things out there that bear them ill will. Dan’s story arc is pretty amazing. Based only on my experience with the filmed version of The Shining, I wanted to know more about this character and see his struggle. Again, Dan makes mistakes, but when he hits bottom, he is ready to do what he needs to for resolution and redemption. Thirdly, there are some really great supporting characters.
This dovetails into my first criticism: Other than Dan and the villainous True Knot, almost every character is King’s typical New England Yankee. You could easily see the late, great Fred Gwynne plucked from his role in the film Pet Semetery and placed in at least a couple of the roles here with no one noticing a difference. I understand that these are King’s people, but there are probably at least a couple of successful people with family lines coming primarily from outside of Europe. There is one character who is written as being black, and his name is Token. As soon as he was introduced, I wondered if he was inspired by South Park.
Less problematic was that other than one pile of ash, I could see every beat coming in the story. There is, of course, a chance that I am just a genius. More likely, the twists are more like curves. This wasn’t much of a problem, but I would have liked more surprises. Lastly, and in a similar vein, I was never scared. King can conjure images in my head that will tempt me to leave a light on in the room. In this story, the deaths are of a more peaceful sort. At the same time, deaths often seem forced in horror fiction. Here, blessedly, there are no forced deaths. The ones that are here have meaning and a real impact on the story.
Is King becoming kinder and gentler as he ages (leaving more grisly stories to Joe Hill)? Maybe so, but I don’t mind. I’d like to sit down with these characters again. Heck, I’d like to see Dan find the Gunslinger and go on another adventure. Who knows? There will always be other worlds than these.