Book Review: Doctor Sleep

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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What ever happened to Danny Torrance?

Ever since Stephen King’s 1977 novel The Shining, people have wanted to know what became of the little boy with the special gifts and the murderous father. Stephen King himself, in the author’s note at the end of Doctor Sleep, states that he was asked this question at a book signing in 1998, and it’s been on his mind ever since.

And now, finally, 36 years after the publication of The Shining, King’s new novel Doctor Sleep is here to answer the question.

Danny Torrance, for those who need a refresher, is a very special five-year-old at the time of the events of The Shining. Son of an alcoholic father down to his very last chance at redemption, Danny has a remarkable gift — dubbed “shining” by his friend and protector — which include telepathy, precognition, and a talent for seeing the unseen. Danny and his parents head up to the Overlook Hotel high in the Colorado Rockies, where Danny’s father will serve as caretaker during the long winter months when the hotel is snowed in and cut off from the outside world. Let’s just say, it doesn’t go well.

Danny survives, but life hasn’t been easy… and he’s never managed to completely escape from the terrors of his childhood. Now grown, Dan is haunted by the same demon as his father was — alcoholism. Dan has discovered that drinking dulls the impact of the shining — especially the recurring visits from the malicious spirits of the Overlook.

In Doctor Sleep, Dan manages to eventually climb out of his alcohol-fueled darkness thanks to a couple of good men who offer him a place to work and, even more importantly, introduce him to the world of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA is presented here in a practically religious light, and while Stephen King doesn’t typically go easy on pop cultural reference points, he does not portray AA in anything but flattering terms, no sarcasm or dissing allowed.

Dan finds solace and refuge in a small New Hampshire town, where he uses his shining in the service of others. He works as an orderly in a hospice, where the residents refer to him as “Doctor Sleep” thanks to his talent for helping the dying make their final crossing into whatever lies beyond. Dan’s quiet life is rocked when he’s contacted by the precocious Abra Stone, a girl so full of the shining that it manifests itself from birth. Abra establishes a telepathic connection to Dan, but it’s not until danger looms that their lives truly collide.

So who is the Big Bad in Doctor Sleep? Two answers, really. First, there’s the True Knot, a seemingly innocuous band of RV people who travel the highways and byways looking for sustenance. The True Knot feeds off the essence of children who “shine” — the dying breaths of these children, especially when the death is prolonged and painful, produces “steam”, which enables the True Knot to live seemingly forever and maintain their youth and their health.

Stephen King’s descriptions of the True Knot are hilarious, referring to every annoying road trip you’ve ever taken where you’ve been stuck behind slow-moving campers, and the crowds of old folks and their RVs that you encounter at every rest stop across America:

How many times have you found yourself behind a lumbering RV, eating exhaust and waiting impatiently for your chance to pass? Creeping along at forty when you could be doing a perfectly legal sixty-five or even seventy? And when there’s finally a hole in the fast lane and you pull out, holy God, you see a long line of those damn things, gas hogs driven at exactly ten miles an hour below the legal speed limit by bespectacled golden oldies who hunch over their steering wheels, gripping them like they think they’re going to fly away.

Well, guess what? Behind the grandma facades are some truly ferocious — and hungry — people, and you’d better hope that you don’t attract their attention.

The second Big Bad in Doctor Sleep is, of course, the curse of alcohol addiction itself. The never-ending thirst, even for those with years of sobriety under their belts, is presented as the most damaging of evils, a nightmare without escape, a force to be combated with one’s whole being. There are many reasons why Dan ends up who and what he is, but it’s clear that the drinking — and the battle not to drink — is what truly defines him.

Doctor Sleep has some disturbing moments, powerful and frightening characters, and mind-bending action sequences, but I wouldn’t say the book itself is scary. It’s a long book (over 500 pages), and the action does seem to sag a bit from time to time. There are early stretches, covering Dan’s recovery and Abra’s early life, that are interesting from a character perspective, but don’t do much to move the story forward.

At the same time, both Dan and Abra are fascinating characters, and I think King strikes a homerun here in terms of their development as fully realized people. We absolutely get Dan’s life and what makes him tick. In Abra, we see a child full of light and power, with a loving family that is kind of freaked out by her. She’s strong and sure of herself, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not still a child to be protected and shielded. When Dan and Abra finally come together to combat the True Knot, their ingenuity and deep-seated goodness are what enable them to fight hard and fight together.

I never really felt that the outcome was in question, but how we get there is inventive, unpredictable, and full of twists and turns. As in many Stephen King books, I felt that the narrative got a little more convoluted during the climax than was strictly necessary — but as always, King is master of his domain and makes it all work out in a way that serves the overarching story as well as each character’s own development and story arc.

All in all, I’d call Doctor Sleep a no-doubt-about-it success. As a sequel, it nicely references the earlier book, stays true to what we know of the characters, and yet moves the story forward in new directions that are engaging and compulsively readable. And as a stand-alone novel, Doctor Sleep convincingly establishes teams of good guys and bad guys and builds the suspense bit by bit until we get to the dramatic showdown.

Should you read The Shining first? Well… yes! Of course you should! I suppose you could read Doctor Sleep on its own and understand enough to appreciate it – but really, why would you want to?

I first read The Shining years (decades) ago, and in the excitement leading up to the new book’s release, realized that my memories of The Shining were dim at best, overshadowed in many ways by the movie version. I re-read The Shining last month, and let me tell you – I’m so thrilled that I did. First of all, it’s an amazing (and terrifying) read. Second, moving from The Shining to Doctor Sleep with only a few weeks in between, I felt so connected to Danny and so invested in his story that it was easy to become absorbed in grown-up Dan’s challenges and struggles. Reading Doctor Sleep was almost like finding out about a little boy that I’d known long ago: I remembered little Danny Torrance fondly, wished him well, and really did want to know what ever happened to that poor little boy who lived through such a terrible experience.

And now I know.

__________________________________________

The details:

Title: Doctor Sleep
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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