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Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor_Sleep cover

The summer before 7th grade I read ‘salems Lot. I have always been a strong reader and this wasn’t my first adult book. However this was the first book that absolutely terrified me. I clearly remember sitting in our screened in sun porch, sweltering in the hot July Indiana summer, and shivering as all manner of hell tore the sleepy town of Jurasalem’s Lot to pieces. From that point I was a horror hound and hooked for life. Like all long time Constant Readers I have my favorite King books and they tend to pull from his 70’s and 80’s work. I’ve long said my favorite King novel is The Eyes of the Dragon. The folksy way that King unspools that story as if he were telling it to you around a campfire is absolutely captivating. However scare for scare page after page I have to give the crown to The Shining. The tragic story of the Torrance family one infamous winter in Colorado has drawn me back time after time. At this writing I’ve read it three times and I’ve been thinking about going back for a fourth. The Shining is a masterpiece of not only unrelenting claustrophobic supernatural horror but the very real horror of addiction and how the stress of that addiction can tear a family apart.

Unless you count The Dark Tower series Stephen King has never written a sequel to any of his stories. Of all of his works The Shining is not the one that immediately jumps out as a viable candidate. I approached Doctor Sleep with a lot of trepidation. Despite my long term fandom, King has been hit or miss for me lately. For every Joyland or Full Dark, No Stars there has been the truly godawful Under the Dome and the  forgettable gore-fest Cell. Despite my love of the source material I stayed away from Doctor Sleep until my brother happened to get me a copy for Christmas (along with a very cool mug from the real Stanley hotel inscribed with Room 217 on it). Now I had no more excuses and when I got home I started reading.

For those that have never read the book but saw the Kubrick movie you need to understand that the book and movie are radically different. While I love Kubrick’s movie it’s not because it’s a faithful adaptation of a book I also love. The two are so different that other than the setting and the characters very little of the book remains in the movie. For the story Kubrick was telling this works to his advantage but it changes considerably the themes and events of King’s original novel. It is the novel that Doctor Sleep is a sequel to and continues the themes and spirit of the iconic first while being a completely original story.

Doctor Sleep starts a few months after Wendy Torrance and Danny have escaped the Overlook. They are now living in Florida close to Dick Hallorann. One night Danny is drawn to the bathroom in their small apartment and he learns the ghosts of the Overlook have followed him. With Dick’s help he learns how to defeat the ghosts once and for all and begins to gain control of his incredible psychic ability, called shining. The first quarter of the book recounts Danny’s struggle (now just Dan) against alcoholism as he drifts from place to place and job to job before finally hitting rock bottom and robbing a one night stand in front of her toddler son. Riddled with guilt he runs again and ends up in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire where he ends up getting clean and sober with the help of his boss and co-worker. While in Frazier he learns he has the ability through the shining to help those close to death to cross over. Dan’s co-workers at the hospice refer to him affectionately as Doctor Sleep.

Around this time same Abra Stone is born and mere months old she reaches out to Dan and he feels the touch of a shining far more powerful than his own. But that shining attracts a group of psychic vampires, called the True Knot, that torture and kill children with the shining in order to drink their essence, called steam. Abra is the Atlantic Ocean of steam and she becomes the target of the True Knot’s leader, Rose. It is up to Dan and a few others to protect the now 13 year old Abra from the True Knot and stop them forever.

While the story is completely different from The Shining, the themes of family and addiction are still front and center in the narrative. Dan is struggling with his sobriety and a realization that he is more like his father Jack than he would like to think. Abra is forced to hide her shining from her family and friends for fear of being ostracized. In Dan she finds an ally and someone who knows exactly what she is going through. On the flip side of this you have the True Knot. A rag-tag family of quasi-immortals that are far stronger together than apart. The True Knot each possess some shining themselves and are fiercely loyal to each other while being merciless to the “rubes” outside the True Knot. In their own way this co-dependent family are also working through addiction and it is that addiction, in this case to the steam from children that shine, that inevitably leads to their downfall.

Stephen King’s own struggles with addiction, specifically cocaine and alcoholism, are well documented. It is no coincidence that the protagonist of The Shining is an alcoholic writer as King was working through his own problems as he was writing the story. Doctor Sleep is the story of a man trying to come to terms with his past and the legacy of his family and desperately trying to redeem himself for his transgressions. Far from the “epic war between good and evil” that the book jacket proclaims, Doctor Sleep is a character driven thriller that keeps the action mostly low key while cranking up the tension and small scale consequences. The fate of the world isn’t at stake but for Dan Torrance and his unlikely allies the chance to save the life of Abra Stone is enough to risk their lives.

As much as I enjoyed the novel, King’s inability to write a realistic teenager is still glaring. Abra never really feels genuine, and the adults all talk as if they were born in 1950, not the 70’s. I guess at this point it’s not fair to criticize King for this continuous flaw in his characterizations but it’s still worth mentioning and can be distracting. Dan is around 40 in the book but sounds like he’s in his 60’s and uses the phrasing of a typical King baby boomer protagonist. You get used to it after a while but there were a few sections where I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at how unrealistic some of the dialogue was.

For fans of The Shining that shared my trepidation toward the sequel I am happy to say you have little to worry about. Doctor Sleep is a worthy follow up and far from being a sequel in name only it carries the story of Dan Torrance forward while not neglecting what made him who he is. The Overlook may be gone but the evil that was there remains and it is the memories of that place that haunt Dan Torrance and he soon realizes until he confronts them he will never truly escape the Overlook. At it’s core Doctor Sleep is the story of a man struggling with addiction and desperate to avoid making the same mistakes as his father. Where Jack failed can Dan succeed? It is a small battle in the grand scheme of things but for Dan it is the ultimate fight.

One thought on “Doctor Sleep by Stephen King Leave a comment

  1. Finished The Shining a little while ago, and followed it up with Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 instead of Doctor Sleep, to give myself a bit of Shining breathing room. I was also a bit nervous this one would let me down. Glad to hear it’s good! Good review! I’ll definitely be checking it out.

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