Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – A Book Review

Doctor Sleep: Book Cover

Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep: A Worthy Sequel to The Shining

It’s been more than 30 years since readers left Daniel Torrance at the exploded remains of the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, his father–Jack Torrance–a frustrated writer and abusive alcoholic, now dead as the unfortunate victim of the ghosts that haunt the old hotel. Jack was, in his final moments, heroic enough to emerge from his possessed body and warn his son to get away but that was the complicated man’s last bit of strength before tragedy descends upon him and the hotel he was responsible for caring for throughout a bleak Rocky Mountain winter. We are, of course, speaking aboutStephen King‘s The Shining.

Fast forward to 2013 and legendary horror writer King returns with a more than worthy sequel calledDoctor Sleep. It is years later, and the young-moving-on-to-middle-aged Daniel Torrance reappears on the pages as a drifter, an outsider and an alcoholic.

Where Did Danny Torrance End Up?

Danny also continues to be haunted by the ghosts of the Overlook that regularly appear to him despite his best efforts. He does, after all, hold a gift, a “shine”, that allows him to communicate telekinetically with others who have the same gift, see and feel things that others can’t, and, overall, have a special connection to the spirit world. The ghosts from his childhood experience at the Overlook just won’t go away, driving him to drink in a manner few others can claim. Though, as Danny finds out from participating in an Alcoholics Anonymous group in the fictional town of Frazier, New Hampshire, he is not allowed to admit to any cause for drinking (not even because he shines) other than, as all others must also admit, they are simply alcoholics.

As Danny remains plagued by the ghosts of Mrs. Massey and Horace Derwent (ghosts from the Overlook Hotel who viewers of Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining will be quick to remember), he also finds himself confronted by an odd hallucinogenic image of a top hat that means nothing to him. It is, at this point, only one more bit of evidence that the shining has not left Mr. Torrance, one more bit of evidence that makes it all the more challenging not to take another drink.

Of course, the reader, by this point knows to whom the top hat belongs.

What Danny Torrance Is Up Against

You see, there happens to be this clan of not-quite-human vampires known as the True Knot led by this sinister, beautiful and top hat-wearing lady Rose the Hat driving back and forth in their RVs along the highways of America in search of the only form of sustenance that keeps them alive: the steam emitted by those who possess the shining. Unfortunately, the steam is only released upon the demise of the possessors and so The True Knot, under Rose the Hat’s devious leadership, is also quite the murderous clan, as is vividly recounted in their entrapment of a “baseball boy”, a young man named Brad Trevor, who possesses a shine and whom the True Knot tortures to death so that they may indulge.

While Danny Torrance is doing his thing in AA, the True Knot is doing theirs. The True Knot are akin to gypsies who have lived hundreds of years; the members don’t appear old enough to make other Americans suspicious, thanks to the wonderfully cosmetic benefits of “taking steam”. Nevertheless, they are not impervious to the diseases or afflictions of other humans, an aspect of King’s development of the True Knot that I found gratifying. The fact that The True Knot is, therefore, prone to injury and death makes their motives even more horrible and merciless. Their means of survival, therefore, relies on trickery and savagery.

King’s characterization in the first half of Doctor Sleep is impressive. This isn’t to suggest that his art falters in the second half of the novel, but only to demonstrate that he hits on all engines in introducing both villain and would-be hero. Doctor Sleep is obviously burdened with the baggage of The Shining–both book and film–but King does an excellent job of drawing from that earlier work while not getting pulled into too much nostalgia. He has, quite clearly, a new story to tell and does a more than impressive job finding a good balance between the two. Likewise, the True Knot draws well upon a history of wanderers and drifters to present a displaced group with malevolent intentions.

Enter Abra Stone

Abra Stone, of Anniston, New Hampshire, has the shining too. Oh, does she. Tons more than Mr. Torrance, in fact, as her parents find to their dismay as their young daughter regularly demonstrates strange powers that let her make a toy piano play by itself, hang silverware from the ceiling and know many things that she well shouldn’t–except for the fact, that she shines.

As Abra ages into adolescence, she learns to hide her abilities from her concerned parents; those abilities have not disappeared, as David and Lucy Stone certainly hope is the case. Nevertheless, for those who shine (and for those who pursue those who shine), hiding is not quite as simple. As Rose and The True Knot discover the identity of the young woman, they are facing two immediate problems: one, they have no immediate source of steam from which to draw, and two, their taking steam from the “baseball boy” has also infected them with something like the measles. They are in the first stages, in other words, of dying off unless they can find a new source of steam, of strength and of life. In Rose’s first encounter with Abra, she learns of the young girl’s immense powers and realizes this is the child the True Knot needs…as in, right now!

At the same time, Danny Torrance has begun to build a life for himself in Frazier, as a recovering alcoholic with a caring community of others who used to enjoy a drink or fifty, and as an employee at the Helen Rivington House, a hospice of sorts for aging individuals. Danny has developed the skill, enhanced likely due to his skill with the shining, of helping others pass on into the next world. Through his routine and soothing advice to sleep, for those about to die, he has developed the nickname Doctor Sleep.

At the same time that Danny seems to be learning to stand on his feet with a regular job, a regular home and real friends, he also finds himself in touch with Abra Stone. At first, he is not quite sure who this young lady is with whom he is connected via the shining. But once he meets her in person, finds out about the True Knot and the fact that they may be coming for her, Danny has a new role in life–as her protector–that ultimately leads to the final conflict.

Doctor Sleep vs. True Knot, Abra Stone vs. True Knot

One of the other great strengths of Doctor Sleep is that the true hero of the story is ambiguous, though in a pleasant way. While Abra is, ultimately, the one who must stand up to Rose the Hat’s savagery with her own disturbing anger, the Overlook Hotel reappears as a place that breeds evil, the kind of place in fact, that ultimately draws groups like the True Knot. The final conflict, therefore, occurs near an RV park beside the Overlook Hotel and it is back to this location that Danny, now older, must return. By now most of the True Knot has been successfully destroyed through the trickery of Danny and Abra, a fact that unfortunately makes Rose the Hat even more dedicated to Abra’s destruction.

I have read one or two reviewers describe a slight sense of disappointment in the final showdown in Doctor Sleep, though I take that to be the result of some awesome suspense-building on the part of Mr. King. I, myself, found the conclusion satisfying if not overly so. Danny also meets his father–or at least Jack Torrance’s spiritual incarnation–one final time as the lines of good and evil finally sharpen and the foibles to which this failed man became susceptible are finally redeemed by a son’s love.

Similarly, Abra learns the family secret behind her own impetuous anger–the fury that makes her tell a dying Rose the Hat, “I hope it hurts. I hope it hurts a lot”–and what she must guard against in her future, as Danny has had to guard (less than successfully) against the alcoholism that devastated his father.

Conclusion

Many of Mr. King’s earlier novels tap into themes of personal awkwardness, living alone, living outside society and the nasty forces of vile people who actively seek to destroy the good at heart. As Mr. King has aged and matured (and has his writing has done the same), these themes have become less prevalent and his routine shocks and horror have developed into more significantly complex elements of characterization. He finds an excellent balance between the two in Doctor Sleep, a strong and compelling story on its own but, yet again, one that carries the weight of a successful novel published in the late 1970s, and which has since accumulated a significant fan base.

This past summer, Mr. King published Joyland, a mediocre coming-of-age story of carnival life. One feels Doctor Sleep may have been the object of his focus at the time for the novel is a sheer page-turner. It also is the mature sequel to a story written when Mr. King was, himself, drinking quite a lot and in the first stages of what would become one of the most impressive writing careers in history.

Mr. King has not retired, nor should he. If you have not yet read Doctor Sleep, now’s the time.

About Joe Kovacs

I am a writer of literary and horror fiction pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and a proud husband and father. To contact me, fill out the form in the right column and click submit.
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