My uncle Stevie has always been a very important man in my life. He’s been there for me more often than not since my teen years, always ready to lend some advice on werewolves, vampires, haunted hotels, coming of age with or without killer clowns that morph into giant spiders…you get the idea. Of course, I’m talking about Stephen King, who returned to the scene this week with Doctor Sleep, the literary sequel to one of his most beloved novels, The Shining.
In the afterword of Doctor Sleep, King mentions that the idea of “Whatever happened to Danny Torrance?” is one of hose though bullets that kept ricocheting around his head just like slivers of Under the Dome and 11/23/63 did for decades. (King also still questions the scariness of Kubrick’s film adaptation, but quite frankly this Constant Reader think that horse has been beaten to a pulp. Let it go, man.) As is wont to happen with the author, the glimmer became a glow and time has passed to bring us the story or Daniel Torrance, son of alcoholic and deceased writer Jack (victim of an exploding boiler that also — almost — killed the Overlook Hotel and all of its revenant residents in Sidewinder, CO) as a grown man, still shining.
It should not be too much of a spoiler to let you know that Dan is the Doctor of title, using his psychic abilities to help those dying pass on to whatever awaits us. It’s in these moments that the novel really shines (no pun intended), as scenes of a good man sitting upon deathbeds, bringing peace to those who fear the unknown, resonate the most. For this Reader perhaps its because those same fears creep in from time to time as I consider my own mortality, and find Danny Torrance’s compassion and abilities, along with the possibility that death is a dream-filled sleep (aka NOT the end), comforting.
What MAY be a spoiler is that Dan, despite and in fact somewhat because of his unique abilities, has followed in his father’s footsteps. He is an alcoholic not only because it runs in the family (this will appeal to those of you that fall on the “nature” side of the nature versus nurture debate) but also because it blocks his shining, an escape from some horrific visitors from his childhood at the Overlook Hotel (there’s the nuture part).
Eventually Dan does beat the demons of the bottle and settles in a New Hampshire town to take up his Doctor mantle at a local hospice. Almost from the beginning he is contacted in psychic fashion by a girl named Abra, whose abilities drawf Dan’s, even at a toddler’s age. The two become united in a stand against the True Knot, a band of RV travelers led by the beautiful and malignant Rose, who feed on the essence — steam — of those who possess psychic abilities to maintain their enhanced longevity. (They ain’t immortal, but they last quite a long time via regeneration back to younger days when they satiate their appetite.) Talented people just like Dan Torrance and Abra.
Is this a good book? In most places, yes. It’s a worthy enough sequel to The Shining, as long as you don’t expect it to be as scary or haunting as the original. While it’s worth it to see where Dan has ended up as an adult, the adversarial group of the True Knot isn’t exactly the most memorable…although their methods of operation and ways of hiding under the radar, particularly in these Homeland Security Department-illuminated days, are clever. Still, Rose and her merry bunch of steam marauders didn’t exactly stick the landing like some of King’s other villains, or even his son Joe Hill’s Charlie Manx (who may or may not be mentioned in Doctor Sleep).
Even worse, there is a soapy operatic twist towards the end of the book that, while I didn’t see it coming, I felt was completely unnecessary to the overall machinations. Quite frankly, the characters here, while not being the most deeply drawn, did not need further unimpressive — and fruitless — motivations or characterizations. Doctor Sleep would have stood on its own just fine without any “aha!” moments. Dan Torrance and young Abra are strong enough to not warrant any.
Where Doctor Sleep really works is in its depictions of Daniel Torrance’s struggles and gifts. You root for him as he begins to rise from the ashes and rights at least some of the wrongs from his blackout days. You do root for him as he protects his young charge — you hope he can readily move from student to teacher, just as Dick Halloran was able to help him along the way. And finally, you share in his sad happiness as he attains closure with the events of the Overlook Hotel, and the father who brought him to stay there one disastrous, terrifying winter, so many decades ago.