Wednesday, March 16, 2016

'Doctor Sleep': not bad, but not 'The Shining'

I've just finished reading Doctor Sleep (2013). This is Stephen King's sequel to one of his early novels, The Shining (1977).

There is a lifetime between the publication of these two books, although they were penned by the same author. Think about it: An infant born on the date of The Shining's release would have been thirty-six years old, in early middle age, before she was able to read Doctor Sleep (and, incidentally, older than King was when he wrote the former book).

It was therefore, perhaps, unrealistic of me to expect that the two books would be similar. In 1977 I was nine years old, besotted by a new science fiction movie called Star Wars. As I write this review, my fiftieth birthday is not the abstraction that it once was, but a date a little more than two years in the future. I've certainly changed since 1977. Why should I expect Stephen King to remain the same as a writer in the intervening years?

Readers of The Shining will find some familiar characters in Doctor Sleep, of course. Throughout most of the sequel, Danny Torrance ("Dan" in Doctor Sleep) is an adult who struggles with alcoholism. A few of the other characters from The Shining--Dan's mother, Wendy, and the beloved Dick Hallorann--make brief cameo appearances. But Doctor Sleep is primarily about Dan.

The reader learns that Dan Torrance has led an irregular life since his childhood traumas in the Overlook Hotel. Unlike his alcoholic father, Jack, Dan is determined to beat the bottle. But his addiction and lingering emotional issues result in his being underemployed. When the main action of the book takes place, Dan is an hourly wage orderly in a hospice. There he is known as "Doctor Sleep", because he uses the remnants of his childhood psychic powers to help elderly hospice patients make peaceful transitions to the Great Beyond.

Now for the book's main conflict: Dan comes to the gradual realization that he must rise above his troubled past to help a young girl, Abra Stone, overcome an attack by a band of homicidal supernatural humanoids called "The True Knot". Abra also possesses "the shining", and she initially contacts Dan using psychic means. The details of those communications are best left for your reading of the book, but this is where the ball gets rolling.

The True Knot (or simply "the True") spends most of their time riding around the country in recreational vehicles, or RVs. The True are vampires of a sort. Although not exactly immortal, they live much longer than normal humans. They sustain their long lives by murdering children, from whom they extract a spiritual essence called "steam".

First, the positive aspects of Doctor Sleep: After all these years of writing fiction, Stephen King has retained his ability to create lifelike, humanly flawed, and sympathetic characters who come to life on the page. When you finish this book, you will feel that you've taken a journey with a man named Dan Torrance. If you’re old enough to be the parent of an adolescent, you may also wish that Abra Stone was your daughter.

That said, Doctor Sleep is a very different book from The Shining, in terms of plot, pacing, mood, tone, and atmosphere.

I remember reading The Shining as a teenager in the summer of 1984. The Shining was a book that I simply had to finish, so taut was the storyline and so eerie the chills. (For my money, the bathtub scene in The Shining remains one of the most powerful moments in speculative fiction.)

Doctor Sleep, to put it quite frankly, rambles and drifts at times. Doctor Sleep was a book that I certainly wanted to finish, but not in a white-heat anticipation to find out: what happens next? And Doctor Sleep is not a short book: the trade paperback edition that I read is 528 pages in length.

Part of the problem with Doctor Sleep can be found with King's choice of antagonists. The True Knot, as alluded to above, have both human and supernatural aspects. This in itself is not a problem. The problem here is that King dwells so much on the sexual, scatological, and otherwise human aspects of the True, that they cease to be effective as supernatural antagonists.

Stephen King doesn't work from outlines, and he is highly unlikely to ever solicit my advice. But if I had been involved in the planning phases of this novel, I would have argued for making the True Knot plain old human villains.

I remember reading King’s novel It in 1986. Several reviewers suggested at the time that It was the book in which Stephen King began to tire of supernatural antagonists.

I am inclined to agree. Since then, Stephen King has written some memorable short stories and some very good novels. But his book-length works on the supernatural have never achieved the full power of his earliest works in this vein: Salem's Lot, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and Christine. (Yes, I am among that comparative minority of readers who liked Christine.)

Also (and I am far from the first reviewer to mention this) Stephen King seems to have made a conscious effort in recent years to distinguish himself as a literary author, versus a mere genre author. Whether you like the results or not will depend on which side of the Great Schism you happen to stand: The Old Stephen King or the New Stephen King.

Count me solidly in the Old Stephen King camp: For me, 11/22/63 (2011) is an interesting novel, but it's no Salem's Lot, and it's not The Shining.

Nor is Doctor Sleep The Shining. As the preceding paragraphs suggest, I was a bit disappointed in Doctor Sleep. But I'm a diehard fan of the Old Stephen King, and I wasn't thoroughly disappointed. While Doctor Sleep has some problems, the good in it still outweighs the bad.

I should also note that most readers seem to like Doctor Sleep better than I did: The book is highly rated on both Goodreads and Amazon.com.

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