Scribner • 2013 • 531 pages
A Novel Critique
Thirty-six years is a long time to go missing. It’s a long time to let ghosts accumulate, real and imagined. And it’s a long time to follow up on one of the most well-known and well-regarded novels – horror or otherwise – of the twentieth century.
It would be nearly impossible to consider a novel like Doctor Sleep without considering The Shining, both the book and the baggage that comes with the book. King’s 1977 novel has become a cultural touchstone, a sort of shorthand for the ultimate in horror lit. When sitcoms want to tell easy jokes about scary books, The Shining is what they reference. There’s also the not-inconsiderable behemoth of Stanley Kubrick’s unfaithful adaptation, a movie many people consider the best horror movie of all time (to King’s consternation, according to the afterword). Whether it’s fair or not, Doctor Sleep has a lot of history to contend with, and it’s a hell of a job for a piece of writing that just wants to be its own novel.
Smartly, King addresses the history by plugging the gaps. We catch up with Danny Torrance (as well as his mom, Wendy, and his surrogate father, Dick Hallorann) not thirty-six years later, but a year or so after the events of The Shining. These sequences are immediately effective: Danny is still being haunted, quite literally, by the ghosts of the Overlook. The amplification of his power – the shining – has kept them around long after the Overlook itself has died. Fortunately, Hallorann’s lessons aren’t finished, and he shares some tricks with Danny about how to lock away his ghosts, so they can’t hurt him anymore.
When we next see Danny, he has hit rock bottom. He’s become a drinker and an addict, and is now in a situation in which his inaction puts a child in mortal danger. These ghosts are metaphorical, but no less damaging to Danny. While it’s harsh to see Danny Torrance – who referred to alcohol as The Bad Stuff in The Shining – brought so low, but nothing about his tumble into this harsh life rings false. The fact that Danny has been allowed to play this out in real time gives substance to this history, lending verisimilitude to this unhealthy life lived badly. (One wonders, however, how impactful this history will seem to new readers coming to The Shining and Doctor Sleep fresh; will the weight of those years feel as real and heavy as in a book like It?)
We catch up with Danny, now Dan, in the present, when he’s an Alcoholics Anonymous devotee, getting dry and staying that way. He’s also still using the shining (a refreshing development after Black House, King and Peter Straub’s sequel to The Talisman, in which Jack Sawyer has purposefully forgotten the magic of his childhood), as part of his job as a hospice worker helping the dying cross over gently into whatever worlds lie beyond this one. In this, he is known as Doctor Sleep – a moniker that echoes his childhood nickname; all things come around.
Danny isn’t the only focus of Doctor Sleep. Early on, we make the acquaintance of a young girl named Abra Stone, whose own shining powers dwarf Danny’s. The sequences involving Abra’s early development bring to mind King’s early novels about special people discovering their powers – chiefly Carrie, The Dead Zone, and Firestarter, not to mention The Shining itself – and the sense of wonder that comes with these manifestations. There’s a scene in which young Abra makes all the spoons in her family kitchen hang in the air, almost unaware of what she’s doing; it’s one of the book’s best scenes, underscoring Abra’s immense power in a mild, almost gentle way.
We also make the acquaintance of the True Knot, a roving band of nearly immortal creatures who look like people but are really a type of vampire – instead of blood, they leech psychic ability for sustenance. They call it steam, and for them, the steam is richer and more potent if the person they take it from is in cataclysmic pain. Their leader, Rose the Hat, is one of King’s formidable villains; during one particularly gruesome sequence, we witness her and the rest of the True torturing a young boy for his steam. King doesn’t pull punches here, and the effect feels more Ketchum than King: the torture is slow and cruel, and even when they promise death, they don’t deliver. While King has never shied away from brutality, this scene coming early in what is essentially a gentle book hammers home the stakes: the True Knot are a force to be reckoned with, and have to be stopped.
Soon enough, Abra Stone and Rose the Hat are made aware of one another, and from there, Doctor Sleep’s momentum never really slows. This may not be to the book’s benefit. King takes a long time to establish Dan Torrance as an adult we can believe in, and Abra as a new character we grow to like… and, importantly, feels whole, a real person in a real world rather than a hijacker in Dan’s story. This is crucial character development, and the time we take to get to know Abra and her family, and to get reacquainted with Dan and his friends, is welcome and absorbing. Unfortunately, this deep character work and early leisurely pace (and the fact that, at its core, Doctor Sleep is a quiet book about kind people trying to do the right things) make the last third of the novel feels rushed. More, even though the showdown between those with the shining and the remaining members of the True Knot is meant to feel epic, it falls a little short. Part of the issue is that Abra Stone is simply too powerful for any adversary – even the near-immortal ones here, each with their own smidgen of the shining – to feel like a real threat. But the real concern is deeper: this is a character-driven work, and the showdowns and epic battles sometimes feel like distractions that get in the way of these characters living and growing.
Theme is vital. The triad motifs of addiction, abuse, and recovery are built into the infrastructure of nearly every page. Dan’s inaction as an addict that may or may not have contributed to the death of a child neatly parallels the True Knot’s torture and murder of children in order to collect the steam they’ve become dependent on. Early in the book, we get a long look at a character named Snakebite Andi, whose father’s abuse translates to her becoming one of the True’s child-murderers; later, Dan lays out his alcoholic family history and draws a straight line from his grandfather’s brutal temper to his father’s bouts of violence to his, Danny’s, self-loathing and desperation to hide from the life he’s made. Here we come to what may be one of the book’s most controversial aspects: there’s a startling revelation at the center of Dan’s family history that seems to retroactively contradict events of The Shining, and it’s sure to raise eyebrows of disbelief. Much of the power of Doctor Sleep, however, comes from the weight of its convictions; this surprise revelation seems to challenge readers to be convinced than to reject out of hand.
The revelation ties directly into one of King’s favorite concepts: the cyclical nature of people’s lives, and the way facing old horrors anew can strengthen a person. King has explored this concept notably in It, Gerald’s Game, Bag of Bones, The Dark Tower series, and Dreamcatcher, and he tackles it here to convincing effect. In a climactic scene, Dan Torrance finds himself literally returning to the site of the Overlook Hotel, and forcing himself to face the ghosts he’s kept locked away for decades. One of the book’s more powerful messages is that the worst horrors of your past – the ones you’ve suffered and the ones you’ve committed – don’t define the person you are now, and that facing them can set you free.
When Stephen King first invented Danny Torrance, he was an addict himself. Now, with more clarity, he’s able to reflect on the ways addiction destroys – not only from without but from within. King has been fascinated by the idea of personal salvage in his more recent novels, Duma Key, 11/22/63, and Joyland among them. But Doctor Sleep, for its imperfections, is King’s major statement of recovery and closure, of lives touched by tragedy and terror… and made the better for it, after a while.