In the Author Notes of Doctor Sleep, the extremely belated sequel to The Shining, Stephen King writes diplomatically about nostalgia, fan expectation and the legacy of his wildly successful third novel, The Shining (and its iconic Kubrick-helmed adaptation). King knew publishing Doctor Sleep would be a largely thankless job. The Shining holds a special place in many hearts. It’s iconic, a certified classic. Building on the momentum of his preceding novels, it cemented King’s reputation as a master of the genre and was revered by generations of readers.
Judging by his notes, King is acutely aware of what was at stake with this endeavour. He even expresses reservations. Appeasing everyone was inevitably impossible. That’s the case for any book, but it’s especially true for Doctor Sleep, a novel with so much baggage it’d go bankrupt with extra airport charges. Yet King rose to the challenge, breaking his unwritten rule about follow-ups and putting himself in an unenviable position. Why? Apparently it’s because he’s always wondered what became of little Danny Torrance. Hard to fault someone who approaches projects so sincerely.
Despite my forthcoming criticisms, I can say with conviction that I don’t doubt that King had pure intentions with Doctor Sleep. The Shining has a potent universe, so it’s not like there wasn’t room for additional stories. This is no cheap cash-in and King emerges with his integrity intact. That said, Doctor Sleep is weak, half-baked, a disappointing composite of ideas. It shows King isn’t creatively bankrupt – this novel is enjoyable if not particularly nourishing, like a Big Mac – but its screams for an intervening editor are deafening.
As a late-career Stephen King book it’s serviceable, I suppose, but as a sequel to one of the most defining horror novels of all time? Piss poor. There are some cool ideas at play here but, despite King’s aforementioned admission, I don’t believe the necessary care and attention went into this. I can say with surety that this is not King firing on all cylinders. This feels like just another of the four-a-year novels he routinely churns out. Nothing more or less. The Shining, and its fans, deserve better.
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Doctor Sleep opens with remaining Torrances, Danny and Wendy, grappling with everything that occurred at the Overlook Hotel. Danny, now a couple of years older, is still burdened with the ability to shine. Wendy, on the other hand, has all but shut down after the breakdown and subsequent death of her husband, Jack Torrance (immortalised in a manic Jack Nicholson performance). The telepathic chef Dick Hallorann cameos early on to teach Danny his ‘mental lockbox’ trick, which is used to trap negative spirits.
In the years following the events of The Shining, Danny and his mother are struggling to even eke out an existence. The psychological trauma they’ve endured has had a heavy toll, leaving them scarred. Doctor Sleep’s opening has a nice continuity, and learning what became of these characters after The Shining’s curtain dropped was a great novelty. King handles it well – nodding to the past as necessary, but never overdoing it.
Even the spirits of the Overlook make appearances. An early scene depicts Danny being routinely terrorised by Mrs Massey, the malevolent bath-dwelling spirit of the Overlook’s infamous Room 217. Whether they’re literal apparitions or manifestations of Danny’s memories, the Overlook spirits are able to visit Danny because of his shining. They can even cause physical harm, which raises the stakes exponentially. These scenes are tense, visceral and reminiscent of The Shining. I enjoyed the opening and wouldn’t have minded one bit if we’d dwelled a little longer in Danny Torrance’s childhood. The only issue I had with this early section was the blithe dismissal of Wendy Torrance, now more footnote than bonafide character. Something of a missed opportunity, I think, but minor, as it turns out.
Doctor Sleep soon takes several leaps through time. The first leap takes us from childhood Danny to middle-aged Dan. Dan Torrance is living a stilted life. He’s trying to outrun his problems with drink, and has subsequently avoided laying down any roots. At night, he is tortured by demons, both figurative and literal, and uses alcohol to blot them out. He’s also inherited his father’s predilection towards violence. (As an aside, I liked the suggestion that Jack Torrence may have also shined, albeit unknowingly. I like the way this recontextualises his alcoholism, too.) King didn’t wimp out in his portrayal of Dan. It is bleak. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, this sad junkie was once that bowl-cutted kid zipping around the Overlook on a tricycle …’ Dan’s issues culminate with him stealing money from a coke-addicted single-parent during a one night stand. The guilt follows him to his next destination: idyllic Middle America, where it festers until he gets help.
This approximately encompasses the first third of this near six hundred-page epic. Its pace was sluggish, but fitting. Dan’s addiction is interesting and handled sensitively. Despite how reprehensible he’s become, one can’t help but root for Dan. Clearly he is still guided by a moral compass – just one with a bent needle. Following his recovery, Dan finds employment as a janitor at a local hospice. It’s there he finds an earned, if unsteady, inner peace. Using his abilities, Dan assists terminal patients with moving on, earning him the nickname Doctor Sleep. King crafts some stellar passages in this section, summing up patients’ entire lives with crystalline precision.
Unfortunately, this is where the book starts to drag. Halfway in, Dan’s arc is entirely resolved and he morphs into a homogenous everyman. Page time becomes split over various perspectives, and none of these are as interesting as Dan’s. Through plot contrivances, Dan comes to know Abra, a precocious young girl who’s gifted with the shining. Her parents don’t understand it – don’t care to – leaving her to send telepathic messages out into the abyss. Dan soon becomes her surrogate father figure. The angle King is pushing here is that life is cyclical: adult Dan is now fulfilling the role Dick Hallorann filled back at the Overlook Hotel. This is a solid premise, but Abra is pretty flat and irritating. Her presence dominates the second half of the story, relegating Dan to a bland supporting role.
This is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with Doctor Sleep: it has too many contrasting ideas. Why would a book purported to be about Dan Torrance suddenly cease to be about Dan Torrance? Why does it jump arbitrarily across time and space? Instead of emulating The Shining’s intense, suffocating scares, Doctor Sleep becomes this bloated roadtrip thriller wherein the only thing at stake is the fate of an annoying little girl with whom Dan shares next to no connection.
That’s not to say I’d have preferred a blind rehash of The Shining. Doctor Sleep has its own angle, and that’s great. For better or worse, it’s in no way interested in rekindling its predecessor’s claustrophobic atmosphere. So I suppose it’s unfair to criticise it for failing to be something it never attempted to. Doctor Sleep is many things: a coming of age story, a meditation on alcoholism, an exploration of paternal bonds, a study of domestic abuse cycles, and a sprawling road epic. But none of these elements gel. It has supernatural leanings, but can barely be classified as horror, as the villains – the True Knot – were oafish and inorganically implemented.
The True Knot were an interesting idea clumsily executed. They’re a band of vampiric creatures who enjoy immortality and live on the fringes of society. They draw sustenance and eternal youth from steam, a psychic energy sourced by terrorising and murdering children. I enjoyed the True’s customs and methods of operation, their unassumingness and sheer banality; how they hide in broad daylight, disguised as back road-drivin’ retirees in RVs. However, they never feel like much of a threat. As events transpire, the Knot haemorrhage members – mostly through disease or their own ineptitude – and grow collectively weaker. When their steam supplies dwindle, the True set their sights on Abra, whose abundance of psychic energy could sustain them for a long time. At almost every step, though, they are undermined by this inexperienced, happy-go-lucky girl with inexplicable power. And since naïve Abra consistently thwarts them, it’s difficult to take them seriously.
The True are flimsy antagonists whose shallow agenda fails to hold up to scrutiny. They desire immortality simply for the sake of it. In a sense, they retain some of their humanity: they have grieving rituals and genuinely care for one another. They aren’t portrayed as particularly sinister and live by a weird, ill-defined code. They disdain society (‘the rubes’), but generally leave them well enough alone. Torturing children seems a means to an end – I doubt they’d bother if steam came some other way – however, they show willingness and are unbothered by some of the depraved things they do. They have no moral qualms about torturing children for their own selfish ends, which, since they were otherwise pacifists, felt oddly incongruous. I would’ve preferred it if they were pure evil, or if they wrestled with morality. They also adorned silly nicknames – Rose the Hat, Steamhead Steve, Baba the Red, Bent Dick, Greedy G, Barry the Chink, Snakebite Andi – and King’s usual jarring colloquialisms. We’re supposed to believe the True Knot have ‘endured’ for centuries, that they’ve eons of life experience behind them, and began as European nomads. I didn’t get any sense of that. None of their idiosyncrasies hinted at such a history; they were completely comfortable in the modern age, with no distinguishing habits or speech that might suggest their history. Their vernacular, unjustifiably current, jarred; it was very much like that of an average small-town American. I would’ve preferred it if they’d had their own language, or some sort of distinguishing ritual (other than sex), though cynical me doubts King could’ve deftly pulled this off. Considering their age, they’re also startlingly lacking in wisdom; they’re some of the most incompetent villains King has ever cooked up.
I might’ve found the True Knot frightening if I wasn’t privy to every inane detail of their operation. It’s frustrating: with a different execution, they could’ve been much more. Take, for example, the gypsies in the Bachman book Thinner. They were similarly innocuous but were handled delicately, so felt far more malevolent. Having said all that, I wouldn’t have minded if the True Knot was stripped from this book entirely. It’s not that psychic vampires aren’t interesting, but I’m not sure their inclusion was right for this book, since it is otherwise very cerebral. The True Knot ultimately wear out their welcome. They are uninteresting and detract from an otherwise beautiful meditation on alcoholism and self-acceptance.
Dan’s story, however, is brilliant, and I would’ve preferred the book remained in his point of view, rather than alternating, as it does, between that of his, various members of the True Knot’s, Abra’s and her parents’. I’m convinced there’s a good book in here – possibly a nice literary slow-burner, like From a Buick 8. If only some brave editor had addressed the sluggish pace and haphazard structure. Everything about Doctor Sleep feels indulgent. Whole swathes of passages could’ve been removed without consequence. The one thing I found interesting – Dan’s stint in rehab – is glossed over. There’s a litany of inconsistencies, namely to do with the aforementioned True Knot. Dick and Wendy are discarded, like they held no significance in Dan’s history. Dan spouts A.A. platitudes, but even this is incongruous because his wholehearted embrace of the A.A. code feels bogus. He never falters; his addiction is no longer a narrative factor once Abra takes the stage. I’m not sure I even understand how A.A. can even work for someone like Dan. How could he have accepted his past and conquered his demons when he doesn’t openly share them with even his closest friends until the last third of the book? How can one come to terms with their struggles and be held accountable if no one else knows about them? Isn’t the harbouring of secrets counter-intuitive to the whole healing process? This is the one instance where King’s supernatural metaphor for alcoholism fails him.
The mythos of the shining is explored deeper here than it was in The Shining. Its applications are far-reaching, particularly for Abra, who is especially gifted. It’s interesting; though this understanding of the shining’s mechanics compromises much of the mystique. Dan’s shining dominates his early life, and it is nice to see its applications extend beyond simple telepathy. The psychic warfare that transpires between Abra and the True Knot is overlong, but well realised and epic in scope. King’s written representation of the mind is interesting, too. I sense the passages where Rose the Hat infiltrates Abra’s mind will make interesting scenes in an eventual movie.
Despite my reservations, I enjoyed elements of Doctor Sleep. It has many interesting ideas, and is a satisfying continuation of little Danny Torrance’s story. It even features some of latter-day King’s nicest prose (the aforementioned hospice scenes are a definite highlight). Unfortunately, I’m left baffled by most of King’s stylistic decisions: the True Knot is far more interesting in theory than practice, and the book is far too long, with many unnecessary changes in perspective. Given the inconsistency of King’s latter-day output, I suppose we should be grateful this wasn’t a complete bust. But it’s a sad state of affairs when not terrible is cause for celebration.