Book Review: Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

As far back as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed stories of the supernatural. This, in spite of my firmly established identity as a secular humanist/freethinker/atheist – take your choice of terms, although I think one can parse them quite well and all apply to me. But that’s the subject of some other blog entry I’ll do one of these days. The point now is that I love to read stories of the supernatural.

I should digress for a moment and distinguish “supernatural” from “horror”. In my youth, we often saw considerable overlap between the two. These days, “horror” tends to equate with mass murder, gore, and torture. Frankly, current horror fiction of this type interests me not at all. I don’t mind a bit of it creeping into stories of the supernatural, but chainsaw massacres simply don’t interest me very much.

All of this brings me to the sorts of supernatural stories I like. When I was a kid, I loved an anthology called Ghosts, Ghosts, Ghosts, written for a youth audience and chock full of, well, ghosts. When my daughters were young, I made an annual event of reading one of the stories in the book to them every Halloween: “The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”, by John Kendrick Bangs. The girls loved the story, which of course had a creepy ghost, but no horror in the vein of, say, Nightmare on Elm Street.

My love of supernatural stories has remained ardent over the years, and when Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, appeared, I devoured it. Later, I hated Stanley Kubrick’s movie, with Jack Nicholson’s hammy performance. Somehow, the movie simply couldn’t compare to the mental images conjured in me by the book.

As King, himself has said, it became almost imperative for him to write a sequel to The Shining, one that told the story of Danny Torrance, the son who possessed the powers described as “the shining”. But the need for King to write the sequel arose from far more than just the need to tell Danny’s story.

As those who’ve read (or seen) The Shining know, Danny and his mother survived the explosion and fire that destroyed the Overlook Hotel. Doctor Sleep picks up the story with Danny, now going by Dan, as a grown man, still haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook and deeply alcoholic. As King writes the story, one cannot help but get the impression that Dan is a clear reflection of his own alcoholism, and that writing in extensive detail about it offered him a powerful emotional catharsis. I could be wrong, but I doubt it. As the writer of a fictional work, Zendoscopy, myself, I know that certain aspects of my own character and history (the latter used only as the kernel for some of the tales in the book that take off into large scale fictional riffs) are projected into Sherman, the book’s protagonist. I have every reason to believe that King has done the same with Dan. The descriptions of his alcohol abuse cut simply too close to the bone to be other than based upon actual experience.

The story, itself, concerns not only Dan’s entry into recovery, but his involvement with a young adolescent girl, Abra, also possessing the shining. She reaches out to Dan for help when she becomes aware that a group of vampire-like (but different) monsters calling themselves the “True Knot” have captured and murdered a young boy in order to steal his “steam”, an essence the members of the group require to maintain their immortality. The leader of the True Knot becomes aware of Abra’s existence, and becomes fanatically dedicated to capturing her to harvest her “steam”. There is an additional reason that the True Knot needs Abra, but to reveal this here would be to spoil the reader’s fun, so I’ll refrain. Once the basic setup is created, the remainder of the book is devoted to how Dan and a few allies come to Abra’s aid and face the True Knot.

Is Doctor Sleep as good a story and novel as The Shining. I’d rather suggest that it’s a different animal. In The Shining, Dan’s father goes mad in a haunted hotel where he’s been hired as the winter caretaker. There is no haunting in Dr Sleep, and the evil is material rather than strictly supernatural. Somewhat paradoxically, there is much more reliance upon the shining in Doctor Sleep than in The Shining. The sequel also reveals a significant coincidence with respect to a certain family relationship which initially suggested to me that King had “jumped the shark”. With continued reading, however, the coincidence is somewhat explained in terms that allowed me to accept it, but it still seemed somewhat contrived.

All in all, Doctor Sleep is an enjoyable read. Suspend your disbelief, recognize King’s skillful writing style, and have fun. Doctor Sleep won’t change your life, but will entertain you.

Recommendation: A pretty good read, but it won’t change your life.

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