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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Reviewed by Will Byrnes)



Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Stephen King's interview with NPR
Read Stephen King's interview with The Guardian

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: There is a boy (now a man) a girl, a band of baddies with a charismatic leader, a coalition of the willing, battles to be fought, supernatural elements and magical powers. Stephen King was at this long before Harry Potter lived under the stairs. He has a preternatural (not to say supernatural) talent for writing kids, and can keep you turning pages, losing sleep, and getting back late to work from your lunch breaks.

We will presume for the purposes of this review that you have read, or at least seen one version of The Shining. If you have not, read no further, as there are details here that would be considered spoilerish were they to appear in a review of that book. And if you have not read The Shining you should probably do so before taking on Doctor Sleep, a sequel. Ok, everyone here has read The Shining, yes? All right, but we are using the honor system here, and do not want to ruin the fun of reading that one for anyone. So, as long as you’re sure…

At the end of The Shining, three people survive the carnage, Danny Torrance, a five year old with a special gift, Wendy Torrance, Danny’s mother and newly widowed wife of the late Jack Torrance, and Dick Halloran, an employee of The Overlook and possessor of a gift like Danny’s, one that allowed him to hear Danny’s psychic 911 call and return from his home in Florida in time to do something about it. But what happened next?

(from CBC News)

King does not typically do sequels, if one does not count books that are part of a planned series, but:

"Every now and then somebody would ask, ‘Whatever happened to Danny?’ I used to joke around and say, ‘He married Charlie McGee from Firestarterand they had these amazing kids!’ But I did sort of wonder about it." – (from EW)

One of the central features of The Shining was Jack Torrance’s battle with alcoholism. As with the real world, King’s fictional realm notes that alcoholism runs in families. And one of the criticisms of The Shining was that the possibility of Jack considering getting some help from AA is never even raised. If King has ever considered that to have been an oversight, I have not seen that interview. But it is clear that he has given the matter some thought.

 "Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in “The Shining.” He has what they call white-knuckle sobriety. He’s doing it all by himself. So, I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic, and then see him in AA."– (from an NPR Interview)

It gives nothing away to let you know that Danny is a true Torrance. Not only does he self-medicate to quiet the terrors that still haunt him, he is far from the best person he can be.

 "I knew if I did this sequel I’d have to try to put together some of the same elements, but at the same time I didn't want to make it too similar. I didn't want to make Danny a grown up with kids of his own, and try to replicate that whole losing-your-temper-because-you’re-drunk thing. But I did think to myself: ‘Not only alcoholism can be a family disease, but rage can be a family disease.’ You find that the guys who abuse their children were abused themselves as kids. That certainly fit Danny as I knew him." – (from EW)

All Stephen King novels require a baddie, or a set of them. No disappointment here. King has again succeeded in taking the ordinary and making it horrifying.

 "Driving back and forth from Maine to Florida, which I do twice a year, I’m always seeing all these recreational vehicles — the bounders in the Winnebagos. I always think to myself, ‘Who is in those things?’ You pass them a thousand times at rest stops. They’re always the ones wearing the shirts that say ‘God Does Not Deduct From a Lifespan Time Spent Fishing.’ They’re always lined up at the McDonald’s, slowing the whole line down. And I always thought to myself, ‘There’s something really sinister about those people because they’re so unobtrusive, yet so pervasive.’ I just wanted to use that. It would be the perfect way to travel around America and be unobtrusive if you were really some sort of awful creature." – (from EW)

This wandering band call themselves The True Knot. They feed on the essence of those gifted with the sort of talent people like Danny possess. It provides them with extraordinary longevity, but as with their Transylvanian counterparts, the need is ongoing and the supply is limited. Like right-wing politicians they are more than happy to gorge on the pain of others and are shown here feasting on the spirits set adrift on 9/11. The usual condiments for this substance they call steam will not do. The taste and benefit is enhanced, however, if their victims endure extreme and prolonged torture. Does Ted Cruz drive a Winnebago? King gives the members Damon Runyon-esque names, like Crow Daddy, Steamboat Steve and Tommy the Truck.


By the time you finish reading Doctor Sleep you might have a new image of the top hat to consider next time you are planning a formal night out. We all have one, probably this one (see the guy on the left): But the baddie in Stephen King’s latest is likely to do for the top hat what this guy (the dude on the right) did for the derby. Rose O’Hara, the leader of a group called The True Knot, won’t leave home without it. It adds a nice visual element, calling to mind a certain Caribbean Baron, and making Rosie even more riveting.

And what of our young heroine? Abra is born with a shining of prodigious proportions. (btw, the name Abra was inspired by Abra Bacon, a character in East of Eden) She manages to send out a signal even when she is newly arrived. She’s a good kid, despite scaring her parents on occasion with tricks like making all the silverware in the kitchen take to the air, or causing the odd earthquake when she does a mental Bruce (or if you prefer, David) Banner. Don’t make her angry. You wouldn't like her when she’s angry. Bad-ass teen girl power fuh shoo-uh. But, just as Danny needed Dick Hallorann and Tony, Abra needs help as well. That she and Danny will team up is a foregone conclusion.

As for Danny, the shining never left him, despite his attempts to wipe it out with spirits of a different sort. But he finds the help he needs and manages to put his talent to good use. He works in a hospice, the Helen Rivington House, in Frazier, NH, easing the transition for those near death, with the assistance of a resident feline, and earning himself the name Doctor Sleep, which also serves to remind us of what his parents called him.

 "… It is this moment of transition that Doctor Sleep deals with and the idea, like so many of King’s, came from an incidental story in a newspaper. This one was about “a cat in a hospice that knows when people are going to die. He would go into that patient’s room and curl up next to them. And I thought, that’s a good advertisement for death, for the emissary of death. I thought, ‘I can make Dan the human equivalent of that cat, and call him Doctor Sleep.’ There was the book.” – (from an interview in The Guardian)

King has a bit of fun, naming the cat Azzie, short for Azrael, the archangel of death. Cute. What else do you need, really? Dark vs light, colorful baddies vs our everyman and everygirl. And that is indeed enough. But it is not all that King uses. He gives us a look at how people can really help people overcome, or at least handle their problems. AA figures very large in this story, is central really. And the wisdom one can find in AA permeates the novel, from the importance of recognizing that we need help from others, to accepting our past and dealing with it, a very strong, serious element. When asked, in the NPR interview, whether his AA depictions were from personal experience, King says that the second part of AA stands for Anonymous, so he declined to offer a yes or no, however:

 "You could say, having read these two books and knowing that I was a very heavy drinker at the time that I wrote “The Shining,” and I haven’t had a drink in about 25 years now – you could draw certain conclusions from that… I've done a lot of personal research in these subjects." – (from NPR interview)

King sets the time of the events by referring to external realities, like who the president is, calls on contemporary cultural references, such as a mention of the Sons of Anarchy and a Hank Wiliams Jr song. He also mentions a variety of other writers in his travels, some approvingly, (John Sandford, George Seferis, Bernard Malamud, Bill Wilson) some not so much (the authors of the Twilight and Hunger Games series, and Dean Koontz and Lisa Gardner, although he may merely be playing with the latter two). He also drops in an Easter egg reference to Salem’s Lot and make two references (that I caught anyway) to his son, Joe’s, imagined world from Joe’s book, NOS4A2.

It has been my experience with reading Stephen King that his conclusions sometimes offer a poor partner to the journey one takes in reaching them. That is much less the case here. The ending is not an alien spider disguised as Tim Curry with bad fashion sense or alien young playing with humans in a hamfisted manner. And the journey is indeed fun. But I had some gripes. King gives Dick Hallorann a cameo here, which was fine, and the strongest of those. Tony returns for a look-see but goes alarmingly quiet at crucial moments. We could have used a lot more about Tony other than the weak explanation that is offered near the end. If the True Knot are so bad-ass, how come there are so few of them? There is an explanation offered of prey-predator stability of numbers, but I found that unpersuasive. And why the hell introduce Jack if he is not going to be a part of the action? This is one that actively irked.

Sequels present a danger. One of the things that is stimulating about any book, any story is newness. That is why most sequels are not as popular as their predecessors. It is hard to avoid a been-there-done-that problem when working atop existing material. The next story in line is unlikely to retain the sparkle, the shine of what went before. Given the constraints, Doctor Sleep fares better than most as a follow-on. There is enough distance in the story from the events of the past, and little enough overlap with those characters that the story seems fresh. When events from The Shining are mentioned, they do inform the current action and do not distract much. In fact there could have been more of that. So, in that way, this is a very nice addition.

There is another element involved. Any event, any activity, is a product of the thing itself and of the perspective from which we view or participate in it. I read The Shining many years ago. I was an adult then, in my late twenties, and remember it as a VERY SCARY story. I have not come across much in horror lit that is still scary in that way, in the several decades since. I will not have any nights (on in my case days) of lost sleep because of the images King has proferred. But then, I am getting on, and am looking at those scary things with aging eyes. Someone younger (which would be almost all of you reading this) might find them far more frightening than I did. So while Doctor Sleep might not cause much by way of lost rest, it is good, mainstream Stephen King and thus, hardly a snooze. The Doctor of Horror is in. Wake up!

NOTE: This review was originally posted on Will's blog. Fred Astaire pic thanks to Duluth Trading. Alex DeLarge pic thanks to Film Grab.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Will Byrnes,

I thought your review of Stephen Kings book Doctor Sleep was spot-on: fair, balanced, and with an objective overview. Your review sure makes me want to read it. Thanks for being a credible blogger.


Valerie

cootsreviews.com said...

Thanks Valerie. It is always fun to review King's work, and now Junior's as well.

-Will

Amit Agarwal said...

I am an avid fan of Mr.King and The Shining is of-course one of my favorite books of his, so when its sequel was announced I was very excited to get my hands on it. The book did not disappoint me one bit.I love the fact that it can actually pass off as a stand alone book because some one who hasn't read Shining can also easily understand what's going on. Its a fantastic read with great twists. A must read.

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