December 3, 2013

Give Me Steam: a review of Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep"

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
Scribner (2013)
544 pages
ISBN13: 9781476727653

If there is one novel that came out in 2013 with gigantic expectations, it was Stephen King's long-awaited followup to The Shining. The moment the man so much as hinted a few years ago at writing a sequel to what might be his most frightening work, we fans were set to vibrate, practically buzzing with anticipation. I dare say only Justin Bieber's army of feral tweens could rival the level of SQUEE heard from King's readership.

There is a heck of a lot of preamble, at least it feels that way ,before Doctor Sleep can get to the meat of its story. Danny's formative years are highlighted in the aftermath of the Overlook Hotel, until the story finally settles into present day with Dan Torrance as a forty-something alcoholic. He's listless, moving from town to town, and drinking himself into oblivion in an effort to dull his senses--and the shining.

Then Dan hits rock bottom. After one fateful night, he sobers up and finds himself befriended in a small New Hampshire town, working in a hospice as an orderly. Without the booze, the shining returns, but he manages to harness it, becoming known as Doctor Sleep among his nursing home coworkers and the residents there, aiding the dying in their final moments to move on to the great unknown. Things turn sinister though, when he learns of a young girl named Abra who exhibits an even stronger shine than his, and a roving band of killers called the True Knot that feed on people like them.

Where The Shining had a claustrophobic and isolated atmosphere with the Overlook as the dominant setting, Doctor Sleep has a vagabond heart. It encompasses Dan's story, and Abra Stone's, and even members of the True Knot, as they crisscross the American highways until their inevitable showdown.

It's spellbinding work in terms of breathing life into these characters, but as far as providing any substantial suspense, the story falters. As sinister--and even sympathetic--as the True Knot may be, especially their leader Rose the Hat, it becomes readily apparent they are outmatched by the sheer, raw power of Abra and Dan, despite having the shining pair outnumbered. Frankly, I found more dread in Dan's ordeal with alcoholism and battling the skeletons in his closet than with the actual villains of the piece. Heck, even the growing frailty that befalls the baleful bindlestiffs draws its own measure of dread. It's utterly human, and no mesmerizing scene of the supernatural outweighs it on the page.

Despite the winks and nods, despite the blatant callbacks, and despite the shining itself, Doctor Sleep bears little resemblance to The Shining. And that's fine by me. It's been more than a quarter-century. I may not have been on the edge of my seat, but I was definitely captivated. And I think it would have been foolhardy to expect this novel to be The Shining Part Two. It's a different beast, much like its author.

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