Don’t Be Afraid To Read ‘Doctor Sleep,’ Stephen King’s New ‘Shining’ Sequel, In Public
I groaned when I learned that “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s latest novel, is a sequel to “The Shining.” Was this simple commercialism from a writer who already exemplifies commercial success? Was it a symptom of declining creativity? Most importantly, could it be any good? After all, even the most fanatical Stephen King fans will admit that while many of his books are entertaining and some are genuinely great, they’re not all masterpieces. Some are bad: plodding, joyless, often unintentionally silly. And for its first pinch of pages, “Doctor Sleep” seemed to be heading in that direction.
It starts with Danny Torrance from “The Shining,” still a child, struggling along with his mother Wendy to cope with their near-death experiences at the murderously haunted Overlook Hotel, the place that drove Danny’s father mad and ultimately killed him. The worst is truly over for Wendy, who lacks Danny’s psychic gifts, his “shine.” But the too-real ghosts from the Overlook aren’t finished with the boy; he glows in a way that attracts them like a beacon. Enter Dick Hallorann, Danny’s mentor and savior in “The Shining,” back again to help Danny master the supernatural powers they both share.
At his best, King seems to write effortlessly. Here at the start it’s more like he’s writing without effort. You’ll be forgiven for wondering if you accidentally picked up some Stephen King fanfic as the dialogue between Danny and Hallorann veers from clunky to cringe-worthy. It’s the epitome of awkward exposition. Keep going.
Next we’re introduced to the True Knot, an endearing troupe of psychic vampires who murder certain lucky children and imbibe their spiritual essence. This section is less bad but still not great as it begins with the sentences: “Her name was Andrea Steiner, and she liked movies but she didn’t like men. This wasn’t surprising, since her father had raped her for the first time when she was eight.” Fortunately, this is the novel’s nadir, the point at which you might say “Fuck it, I’ll just re-read ‘The Shining.'”
Don’t, because here is where the switch flips and King the Master takes over. The boy Danny Torrance is now a man called Dan and a drunk like his father. Dan is as brilliantly realized a character as King has ever written. King famously struggled with alcoholism himself, and it clearly helps him here, but there’s more to it than that. Dan is real, you know him, he is you — even if you’re the farthest thing from a clairvoyant alcoholic. Dan is clever but not brilliant, wise but not a sage, kind but not a saint, dark but not bleak. He is neither strong nor weak, neither cowardly nor heroic. He’s just real. You can wear him like a tailored suit — with secret pockets. Yes, Dan still shines.
Finally, the last piece: A child named Abra. If Dan shines, Abra blinds. She’s powerful, but she’s just a kid. She’s the plot’s fulcrum. You can pretty much guess what happens from here (because you know how novels work) so we won’t belabor it. The True Knot wants to eat Abra’s soul-cloud; Dan, struggling to stay sober with the help of AA, comes to Abra’s aid as Dick Hallorann came to his; other stuff happens.
Overall, King the Master stays in near-total control until about 2/3rds of the way in, at which point some readers may have the experience of saying to themselves “Wait a minute, this is silly, I can’t believe I’m reading this in public.” Get over it, Snooty Snobbington. With a few exceptions, it’s still a damn solid book.
Those exceptions: 1) The first few pages. 2) King is really not good at integrating “iPods” and “iPhones” and “the web” into his universe. 3) Throughout, there are places where the dialogue says “Here is a bunch of exposition, I am advancing the plot with the words the characters are saying!” Not too much, but it’s there. 4) The climactic confrontation is slightly lacking. It doesn’t feel as tense as at least one earlier scene, and the ending is unconventional, or it’s conventional, but you don’t expect it? It’s hard to explain without giving it away. Given the book’s themes, though, it works. More or less.
But! Still a damn solid book! King gets a lot of shit for not being a “great” writer, but he is. Yes, he uses cliche. So do you, in real life, which is where King grounds even his weirdest fantasies. He can do tension and terror, sure, but he is also capable of richly textured characterization, surprising, sometimes beautiful imagery, unflinching realism, and inventive use of language. When he’s on, he can control what you see and feel as well as anyone.
For most of “Doctor Sleep,”he’s on. Do re-read “The Shining” though, too. That book was nuts.