Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long-awaited follow-up to The Shining. It reads like a breeze. And yes, both books are about alcoholism, only the sequel is less scary and more sobering.
Skip any recitations of the plot. The boy with the shining, Danny Torrance, is a man now. In The Shining, his daddy succumbed to drink and the haunted hotel they cared for one winter. Doctor Sleep answers two questions: What happened to Danny after the Overlook burnt to the ground? And how does he handle the addiction and guilt his dad left him? The shining is, of course, a burden, bringing with it a great responsibility. Generational transference may be locked, but this damaged boy’s demon-purge can change the narrative that other people (including you, the reader) may have written for him.
As you expect from King, the heroes and villains are cleverly drawn and easy to root for or dislike. Borne out of these characters (Momo is my second favorite behind Danny), the conflicts do not come cheap and they turn the pages. The horror is on the nose, as is the sentiment. When it comes to painting the fond shorthand that exists between middle-class Americans, King, like Steven Spielberg, has the touch. In Doctor Sleep, there is a fair amount of cuteness between the good cast and the bad cast — and King leavens it with some vulgar, by-the-lapels Horror. However, any moments of unadorned Horror are few and far in between. The book is wistful, sweet. Readers who come for bite will stay for the warmth.
Permit me a theory. Doctor Sleep might be King’s way of redressing, and embracing, the public perception of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining (which had to be reckoned with, if King was to pick up the story again). As a result, King accounts for his own growth as a reformed alcoholic. Danny always seemed to counter-pose his dad’s Oedipal insecurity, his dad’s innate albeit untapped shining, and his dad’s struggle with spirits of more than one kind. In Doctor Sleep, Danny allows King to atone for, and report unflinchingly on, his own experience as a drunk. The nasty hangover, the trips to AA — the tinged embrace of a newly sober life: King describes these things in detail, as well as if not better than anyone I’ve read. Within the confines of horror fiction, Doctor Sleep is a masterly tale of survivor’s guilt and redemption. Within the confines of literature, the anti-King contingent won’t give a sh*t. King claims that Doctor Sleep follows on the true history of the Torrances, but Wendy, Danny’s mom, is given short shrift here; and, in contrast to her arguably shrill presence on-screen, she was a heroine that should have had more than a passing presence in this book. (Some readers may feel she is the sweet side of Danny that lets him persevere, a simplification to which I don’t entirely subscribe.) If King seems (to me) to suddenly treat Wendy as a bit of a sad footnote, he does at least situate an external evil in more than one source — a) too much booze, and b) soul-sucking road dogs — without suggesting a metaphorical link between the two, or on ghosts as some kind of self-generated trauma — while Kubrick’s version of The Shining leaves much open to interpretation. Everyone in Doctor Sleep feeds on a different lifeblood, be it al-ki-hall or a hard-won faith in the unconditional kindness of other people. This humanism, this sense of personal choice as something of event-shaping importance, is conspicuously absent from the Kubrick film.
My chief criticisms:
1. Rose the Hat is a great villainess; yet her tribe is mostly a group of faceless walk-ons with uber-weird names. At each and every point I came into contact with them, King walked up to me and said “Hi!”
2. The climax involves the Overlook Hotel. This feels pat, no matter how resonant it may be to King and others who read the book.
3. King has mellowed. No longer is he the wild, overly pessimistic rock & roll star he once was. This, I know, is a needlessly selfish poke at a great writer. Still, Doctor Sleep is NOT a white-knuckler; and apart from Insomnia I’ve ignored his work from 1990 on — I assume he’s yet to capture the mojo of yore. (I recently bought his more recent novels, so I may have to take that back.) I know he was in pain when he wrote The Shining. He was drinking and coke’ing when he wrote a great many of those good, if not great, books in the 70s and 80s. I don’t care. Obliterated or not, he’s an old man playing a young man’s game. Doctor Sleep is one-half too sweet. The other half tries too hard to scare. Both sides butt each other uncomfortably.
Having said that, Mr. King, could you blurb my first book? Please?