Book Review: Stephen King, “Doctor Sleep”

Written by Book Reviews, Books

In his sequel to The Shining, Stephen King explores the prices paid to break the cycles of the past, and scares the hell out of you too.

When I first heard that author Stephen King was revisiting the world of The Shining for a sequel, I groaned. It was one of those combinations of groans, part guttural pain and part cynical eye roll, because the last thing anyone needed now was another sequel in another medium. Well, sort of.

Doctor_SleepPiled onto that, word leaked out that this was going to be more than just a sequel to The Shining and, in fact, was going to draw on aspects of Salem’s Lot (vampires) and The Stand (supernatural combat). These are true, sort of.

There was a lot to process, right there in a tiny space of a printed declaration. I think I read it in the news summaries on IMDB, and there was the brief sense of having that solid 100 year old bridge you crossed each day suddenly shudder and shake. The solidity you had counted on, being master storyteller Stephen King’s autonomy as an author to do as he pleased, seemed to quiver. So, the vampires are here to feed on the audience for the Twilight books, and the conceit of returning to little Danny Torrence is just a sop to a marketplace addicted to the crack of pre-sold properties and easy marketing? That could not possibly be right I, and I assume many of King’s readers, thought. He has been, over the past couple decades, somewhat inconsistent in that there have been a few books that slightly thrilled and delighted in the long run, interspersed among better stories that have lingered in my head for a good, long time. But the point is that I never got to the moment where I put the book down midway through and said, “What a waste of time, I’m done.” Even at those times when I’ve felt King wasn’t giving me his all, I knew he was giving me enough, and I hung in.

That’s saying something. I don’t have the time to read like I used to, and if you’re going to feed me the weak sauce, I’m more inclined now to throw it away than I used to. But where does that leave Doctor Sleep, the book in question based on the spurious premise that King should go back after all these years and reacquaint with one of his classics? Curiously, it leaves the book in a particularly good place because after the fact, it seems inevitable.

The rundown: having survived the terrors of the Overlook Hotel, Dan Torrence, now a middle-aged man, has had to fight more than just the demons that attached themselves to him. He also had to fight “becoming” his dad by falling into the despair of alcoholism. His powers of the Shining are intact, and as he works on his anger issues and addiction one day at a time, he has also found a calling. With the assistance of a preternaturally gifted cat which seems to know when the residents of the nursing home he works at are on the verge of passing, Dan eases their pain and help them transition.

His empathy will be necessary as he becomes the surrogate guardian for young Abra Stone who possesses the most powerful presence of Shining he’d ever encountered. That’s bad news because she is like a homing beacon for a traveling cult or sect known as the True Knot. They are an ancient bunch, and the secret to their longevity is to feed off the souls and power — they call it the “steam” — of children who exhibit the Shining. They are, in a sense, vampires.

I hesitate to say any more because you’re going to read the book. If you haven’t already purchased it, you’ve been thinking about purchasing it. My advice is to give in and read it for it is, in fact, the right book at the right time. How so? During the 1970s when King was riding his first hot streak as an author, he was able to write the character of Jack Torrence from a much different perspective. There was a separation from Jack as he terrorized his wife and child, submerging into the depths as an angry drunk, and as the Overlook eventually burned. It was at the tail end of this hot period where King wrote Cujo, a book that he has claimed he never remembered writing because he was so wasted at that time. Many decades, many stories later, and with a couple near-death experiences of his own under his belt, King can approach the topics of fatherhood, the grip of alcoholism, and the closeness of death with much more empathy. Where The Shining could be approached as a helzapoppin’ descent into madness, Doctor Sleep has a better grasp of the bit players in the story, and in the end King is only now equipped with the life-experience it takes to present this particular tale.

I won’t say Doctor Sleep is necessarily a better book than The Shining. It has its own issues, particularly at the few moments where the story feels like a sequel as act of will and not because it is a natural extension of that first story. In other words, the sequel sometimes feels like 95% of the sequels ever made. Thankfully, that sense of forced retrofitting is not a major component and does not spoil your appreciation of the book itself. It still has moments of wincing brutality that are hard to stomach. The primary victims of the piece are children, after all. Time has not blunted all of King’s fangs, but in this case I think he has a better sense of the consequences of using them…sort of.

So with all that being said, it is October, the month where supernatural occurrence is fresh in the minds of many. People are in the mood to get their cage rattled a bit, and Doctor Sleep will do that for you effectively. Of his 2005-2013 offerings, it is one of his better efforts and worth your time. If that isn’t a rave where sequels are concerned, I’ve no idea what is.