Doctor Sleep: A sequel to The Shining

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King Horrible Monday Science Fiction Book Reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDoctor Sleep by Stephen King

I’ve avoided some of Stephen King’s more recent works, like Cell and Under the Dome, because they didn’t look like they would be my thing. Doctor Sleep was a different matter. I didn’t think it was perfect, but it had a lot of the things I look for in a King novel.

In 1977, King published The Shining, a book about an evil hotel in Colorado, and the family it victimized during a hard winter. The father in that family died in the hotel – or, one might say, with the hotel. His wife and son, Danny, escaped alive, in part because of Danny’s gift, or “shining.”

Danny is grown up now, trying to make his way in the world. His gift or “shine” is nearly dormant. It still sparks from time to time, but Danny has come very close to drowning it, and his spirit, in alcohol.

Rosie O’Hara, known as Rosie the Hat, is the leader of a group of nomads, an ancient people who rove America in RVs. You might think they are just part of the hordes of retired people, RVing across the continent, but Rosie’s people, the True Knot, are different. They have formidable psychic gifts, and survive by draining that same gift or essence from psychic people (usually children) that they find. The deaths are not gentle. They involve torture. The Knot calls the etheric energy they “harvest” from the victims of these atrocities “steam.”

When Abra Stone was born with a placental membrane or caul across her face, her Italian-born great-grandmother insisted it was a sign of supernatural gifts. Even Abra’s solidly middle-American parents cannot completely rationalize away Abra’s powers. In the parlance of True Knot, Abra is the most powerful “steamhead” they have ever come across.

The stories of these three characters meander and intertwine over two decades, heading for a collision as Rosie becomes aware of the adolescent Abra, and Danny’s quiet “shining” flares to life.

King has always been a writer who likes to do the narrative equivalent of juggling oranges, clubs, uncooked eggs and a chainsaw. In Doctor Sleep, the chainsaw is the continuum of alcoholism and recovery. King captures with heartbreaking accuracy the fact that alcoholism is often multi-generational. At the beginning of the book, we see Danny reach his own rock bottom. As far as terrible things go in a King book, it isn’t so terrible. Compared to real life it isn’t even all that terrible – Danny doesn’t drive drunk and take a life, for instance. He does something that is shabby. This shabby thing violates his own deeply held values, and King takes us through that moment with an unflinching lack of sentimentality. Throughout the rest of Doctor Sleep, Danny wrestles with his guilt over that moment.

Danny finds his way to New Hampshire, where a kindly city employee and a tough-love AA sponsor help him find his sobriety. Even after years of sober living, Danny regularly meets his sponsor for coffee and a recovery catechism:

“Now tell me why you drank.”

“Because I’m a drunk.”

“Because daddy didn’t give you no love?”

“No.” Although he broke my arm once and in the end he tried to kill me.

“Because it’s hereditary?”

“No.” Dan sipped his coffee. “But it is. You know that, right?”

“Sure. I also know it doesn’t matter…”

AA plays a big part in this book, even to Dan using members of his meetings (the “old drunks’ network”) to help him save Abra. With alcoholism and recovery playing such a role in the story, it isn’t surprising that one of the most suspenseful scenes in the book doesn’t involve the True Knot at all, but follows Dan as he seriously considers stopping at a roadhouse for a beer.

Feeling like a man having an out-of-body experience, he returned to the roadhouse and parked at the back of the dirt lot. He felt good about this. He also felt like a man who just picked up a loaded gun and put it to his temple.

Somehow, though, the book shifts focus about two-thirds in. The problem is that Rosie and Abra are both powerful, compelling characters, and suddenly Doctor Sleep becomes their story. In that case, I wanted the real confrontation between Rosie, a strong leader of an ancient people who were dying and Abra, a powerful, brash but ultimately good-hearted newcomer. I didn’t want what I got, which was the astral-projection version of a middle-school hair-pulling match. I had to consciously remind myself that this story is Dan’s, not Abra’s. As strong and likeable as Abra is, she exists primarily for Dan to save. Saving herself would have made this a different book. The trouble is that throughout the book she seems strong enough to save herself.

I also felt that Dan’s new mission, being “Doctor Sleep” for people at a hospice, while nice, felt a bit tacked on, creating a shaky story frame not unlike the one in The Green Mile. Dan’s struggle is with his own alcoholism and the demons he left behind at the Overlook Hotel, not the least of whom is his father. The addition of a mean orderly at the hospice and that sub-plot’s resolution didn’t seem necessary.

I have to say, though, that there are moments of King’s signature realism here, and one of them is Dan obsessing about how he is going to reach out to Abra’s parents. King lives in our world. He knows that the fortyish, unmarried male town weirdo coming to your door and saying, “You don’t know me, but I have a powerful, nearly magical connection with your thirteen-year-old daughter, and we’ve been exchanging secret messages and e-mails for a while now,” does not go over well with the average parent. If anything, the reason for a connection between Abra and Dan is tied up a bit too tidily, and I’m not sure it was even needed.

Doctor Sleep is a good read with plenty of chills and suspense, more in line with books like The Green Mile and an earlier King work, Rose Madder, than with its “parent” book. I cared about Abra and I cared about Dan. This might be a kinder, gentler King, but it works for me.


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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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3 comments

  1. Matt W /

    Great review; I felt about the same way you did. King writes very strongly about characters and their motivations. When this story was about a recovering alcoholic — and particularly when said alcoholic was previously known to us as a 5 year old boy — it functioned very well. (Though the hammer blow of “Canny. Mama.” becomes pretty dull after over-repeated use.) The sense of helplessness, of lack-of-agency at the beginning, coupled with the human need for systems of support is very powerful. The supernatural elements of the story are a distraction from the ‘good stuff’ just as with Rose Madder, which was a powerful and chilling story about spousal abuse until the supernatural stuff crept in and muddied the whole picture into a dissolute and worthless ending. It’s telling that King’s scariest novel is Gerald’s Game, which has no supernatural element in it, and that his best book-to-movie adaptations were non-supernatural stories from from Different Seasons (Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption.)

    Of King’s recent offerings, 11/22/63 is very good, probably one of the top 10 King books ever (and more sci-fi than horror), while his most recent offering, Mr. Mercedes, is among his worst books ever. But if you’re looking for the tightly constructed supernatural scare-tales of King’s earliest years (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, etc), it seems that his son has taken up the torch: Joe Hill’s N0S4A2 is pretty excellent and frightening.

  2. Matt. W, thanks for you comments. I thought there was a bit too much of “Canny. Mama,” too.

    I haven’t read Hill’s latest, but I loved his short story collection, and his graphic novel LOCKE AND KEY is wonderful. That apple didn’t roll too far from the tree, and it got a lot of loving support while it was rolling.

  3. Love that description of the middle school hair pulling and the arrival on the doorstep of the 13-yr-old! Since I was a huge fan of the shining, I’m going to have to eventually pick this one up, though probably after the time travel one. Thanks for the fine review!

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