“DOCTOR SLEEP” (Book Review)
In mid-career interviews, Stephen King was sometimes asked why he had never delivered a conventional sequel to any of his novels, outside of a few short stories and fleeting cross-referencing of characters and locations, like the fictional town of Castle Rock. King’s deflection at that time was to tease how he would often ponder the possibility of THE SHINING’s mini-medium Danny Torrance and FIRESTARTER sparkplug Charlie McGee growing up, getting married, and discovering just what sort of children might spring out of their union. King would then cut himself off and remark that his muse (or more properly, Fornit) was unlikely to lead him any further down that path, and so it stood for decades… until the release last month of DOCTOR SLEEP, a proper sequel to one of King’s best-loved properties, 1977’s THE SHINING.
Keeping half of the above promise, SLEEP follows Dan (formerly Danny) Torrance in the years since the hellish winter of the Overlook Hotel. It happens that Dan unwittingly carried several souvenirs with him out of the Overlook’s smoldering ruins—the uneasy ghosts of the hotel guests that still clung to him were easy to defeat with the help of his friend Dick Hallorann, while the hereditary propensity to alcoholism welded to his genes proved decidedly more of a challenge to conquer. After regaining control of his life and settling into a small New Hampshire town, Dan spends his days using a waning psychic talent to soothe dying patients at a palliative care hospice. Unbeknownst to Dan, there is a nomadic enclave called the True Knot— psychokinetic vampires who drink the essence of individuals strong in the Shining—roaming the roads of America. This camper-van tribe, led by ageless shaman Rose the Hat, has targeted a young girl living in Dan’s town: a girl named Abra whose ability in the Shining is a volcano compared to Dan’s sputtering candle. Now, to help Abra, Dan must confront family secrets and delve into memories of a certain Colorado resort hotel to match Rose at her own predatory game.
Of course, the most pertinent question that this review needs to answer up front is if DOCTOR SLEEP in any way disgraces the original SHINING—much as did the ham-handed and sugary ‘graduation’ epilogue that King as screenwriter glued onto his 1997 television SHINING remake (and that SLEEP has thankfully ignored). It’s a relief to report that SLEEP does not embarrass the legacy of a horror cornerstone; this is not King’s INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. SLEEP is entertaining, only occasionally scary, and a very different book to its predecessor. While THE SHINING played within the rhythms of a traditional ghost story, SLEEP is the tale of a cowboy showdown, a sort of telepathic HIGH NOON with Rose and her True Knot and Dan and Abra inching inexorably closer through years and geographical distance.
Much of the figurative fisticuffs between the two sides occurs in an intangible psychic dreamscape (at one point Abra fashions herself as a deadly mediaeval warrior queen to combat the more experienced trespasses of Rose), similar to Susannah’s mental ministrations in the later DARK TOWER books, and something which King expertly sketches. And the tensions are just as high here as when the characters finally interact on a physical level. Also very effective is the humbling twelve-step toil Dan undertakes to get, and then remain, clean. The scenes with Dan bottoming out and clawing his way back to self-respect are bolstered by an uncomfortably authentic feel. Whether by intention or not, King’s own publicized emergence from substance abuse heavily informs Dan’s shaky recovery in the book’s early going, just as THE SHINING’s raging alcoholic schoolteacher/writer Jack Torrance always had a whiff of autobiography about him.
Where SLEEP slips is in the page count. As the character of Danny Torrance is resurrected, so is the familiar beef against King that his book is simply too long and too rambling; there are but two cars worth of story occupying SLEEP’s three-car garage. The plot only ramps up in the final third, and it’s too bad after the much heftier 11/22/63 and UNDER THE DOME felt tighter and more suspenseful throughout while weighing in at almost twice the length of the meandering SLEEP.
Not many fans would argue that THE SHINING was a high point for the young King. It was the rare novel to balance drama—the tragic disintegration of a family in this case—with enough gasping frights to freeze shut the valves in readers’ hearts. DOCTOR SLEEP is a far different beast and probably not what fans were anticipating from a sequel, as it posts a few minor scares and mostly a battle of good versus evil told through two very atypical family units at war. King has long railed against Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING film as being cold and detached. To counter that, DOCTOR SLEEP adds something new to bleak perspective posed in both Kubrick’s interpretation and the original novel, something that occurs through the redemption of an emotionally-wounded Dan through his tutelage and protection of the sweet, immensely powerful Abra. That something is a sense of hope, and by now the resilient Daniel Torrance has surely earned a share of it.