Book Review: Doctor Sleep

Stephen King’s third novel, The Shining, is one of his most frightening: Jack Torrance, a violent alcoholic, gets a caretaker job and brings his abused wife and his psychic, “shining” son Danny to the cavernous Overlook Hotel. Carnage ensues. Thanks in part to Stanley Kubrick’s loose film adaptation, The Shining has become an irrevocable part of the modern vernacular.

It has also become a part of Stephen King’s sense of himself as a writer both preoccupied by the worlds he has created and governed by his own subconscious (which he refers to as the “guys in the basement” in his book On Writing). As King explains in the Author’s Note at the end of Doctor Sleep, he had often asked himself what happened to young Danny Torrance, and wondered what would have happened if Jack Torrance had tried AA rather than opting for white-knuckle sobriety.

That is how Doctor Sleep was born: an author is haunted by the questions of “What if?” and “What next?” and decides to answer them with a sequel about little Danny Torrance, now all grown up.

While The Shining was “the guys in the basement” alerting King to his own alcoholism, Doctor Sleep is about the processes through which alcoholics, adult children of alcoholics, and other dependents deal with the destruction brought on by drinking and other addictions. Many of King’s recent novels have explored how “the past is obdurate” (to steal a phrase from 11/22/63). Doctor Sleep seems to revise that opinion: as one character says, “the past is gone, even though it defines the present.” In Doctor Sleep Dan Torrance must work through the damage of his past to find peace with himself, his alcoholism, and his own loneliness.

Of course, there’s a supernatural element as well: the baddies are a group called the True Knot (say it out loud) who require the “steam” produced by children with the psychic power King calls a “shining.” The True Knot are—to put it loosely—addicted to it. They’ll destroy anyone who stands between them and their next drink steam, and a young girl named Abra (as in cadabra) is their next victim.

Billie and I both read Doctor Sleep when it came out last week, and decided to do a conversational review about the book. There are minor spoilers below, but nothing more than you’d find in a typical book review:

Josie: You know I have nothing but affection for Stephen King, and I think he’s been firing on all cylinders lately. So I was delighted when I heard about Doctor Sleep and devoured it as quickly as time would permit. My general opinion is that it’s good, not great, and feels rather thin despite a 500+ page count. It’s also not nearly as scary as The Shining.

Billlie: We usually agree and we do this time. The Shining is my favorite novel of King's, and probably my favorite horror novel ever (although let me quickly add that horror is far from my favorite genre). For years, I've wanted King to write a sequel so that I could find out what happened to Danny Torrance, and he finally did. Doctor Sleep was a good read and I enjoyed it, but it's definitely not as brilliant as The Shining. But really, practically nothing is.

Josie: One reason that Doctor Sleep underwhelms in the thrills-and-chills department might be the villains. The True Knot and their leader Rose the Hat seem more like an Excuse to Band Together and Fight Evil than actual evil people with complicated inner lives. In The Shining, the villain was also the main character, and a well-drawn one at that.

Of course, characterization is both King's strength and his weak point. In stories that have many main characters (The Stand, The Dark Tower series, and Under the Dome come to mind), he sometimes strains to distinguish one personality from another, resulting in a bunch of people with repetitive personality tics. But in stories like The Shining, 11/22/63, and Black House, the main character is "Average Joe with Baggage." That is when King excels, because it means the real battle is between the hero and himself. In Doctor Sleep, I don't think Dan Torrance is battling himself. He's battling metaphorical alcoholism. So the victory (over the villains) feels rather blah.

Billie: Yeah, the True Knot just didn't stand out as individuals—even Rose, who should have. And the terrible things they did were so completely terrible that it seemed completely unreal and as a result, unscary. And did King have to go out of his way to insult people who live in RVs? :) I am currently fantasizing about leaving the rat race behind and living in an RV!

But spending a lot of time with the adult Dan Torrance was great, and that's why I wanted King to write this book in the first place. I found the initial focus on alcoholism uncomfortable, probably because I'm the adult child of an alcoholic and it evoked childhood memories that I would rather have left un-evoked. But after I got through the first few chapters, I had a pretty good time. Since I was a big fan of young Danny's relationship with Dick Hallorann, I particularly liked the way King repeated and expanded it with Dan mentoring the girl Abra. Although the "super teenage girl" vibe kept making me think of Joss Whedon.

Josie: This is definitely a book about alcoholics and adult children of alcoholics, since Dan Torrance is both. The first few chapters left me uncomfortable as well for similar reasons, but I thought it was brave of King to portray Dan's “rock bottom” as he did. Doing so makes the character more than just a sainted-but-unlucky guy.

King seems to tie recovery to creating a strong network of support. That is, the network helped the recovery, and the network grew stronger after the recovery. You mentioned that Abra gave you a Jossy vibe, and I agree. But I also loved the adult friendships that King portrayed, even if it sometimes felt like the world the characters lived in only had about a dozen people wandering around.

Billie: Much agreement with the adult friendships. I particularly liked Billy. And Azzie the cat. As a culture, we desperately need better developed feline characters.

Josie: Agreed. I'd recommend this book to cat lovers, especially cat lovers who have read The Shining. Or anyone who is in AA and has read The Shining. I'd recommend it to anyone who has read The Shining, really. But that's it, I think. I'd never recommend that someone try this as their first Stephen King book.

Billie: Again, agreed. Hey, we don't have a psychic link for nothing. It's not a great King book, but it's definitely good. Not to be missed if you love The Shining.

2 comments:

Paul Kelly said...

Initially, I had a really hard time getting into this book. It took me over a week to read the first hundred pages – mainly because I kept getting distracted by an Ender's Game re-read, and the rather girly Beekeeper's Apprentice (bought for 10 pence at a charity shop... aptly one where donations go towards helping wildlife) – but once Abra and Dan started interacting, this book really took off for me.

Despite being roughly the same length as The Shining, I agree that it felt too short. I also agree that the True Knot felt a little underdeveloped -- which is a shame because most of its members were fascinating. The final showdown also felt a little too easy. It didn't feel as though there were enough complications, and what there were seemed too easily overcome.

But it was still a thoroughly absorbing read. I almost, but not quite, wept at the end. I cry as often at happy ending these days as sad. Why I have no idea. Old age. Hormones? Indigestion after that pizza I accidentally ate for supper after mistaking it for a bowl of frighteningly nutritions celery and cress soup? Who knows? But the relationship between Dan and Abra felt as strong as anything King's ever written. Friendship stuff really gets me going. (And probably explains why I adored It so much in my youth.)

I wonder if King will ever write a second sequel? Abra seems like a character rich with possibilities. Assuming King lives long enough. But I agree with Josie that King's firing on all four these days. I don't think he's written a dud for decades. Let's hope his next one isn't a turkey.

M said...

For some reason, I have been OBSESSED with Stephen King for the past few weeks (and with The Shining in particular). I have been planning to read Doctor Sleep, but I was afraid it might be disappointing. I knew it couldn't match the brilliance of The Shining, but I am glad to know it is worth reading.

Thanks for the excellent review and comments!