Originally published on September 27, 2013 at 10:47 pm
(Please note, I will attempt to keep this as spoiler free as possible, referring to plot points that are readily available on the dust jacket. However, if you don’t want to know anything, read the book first and then come back for the review.)
Stephen King celebrated his 66th birthday on Sept 21 by giving us a belated gift a few days later: his sequel to The Shining – Doctor Sleep. It’s hard to believe that in a career which spans over 40 years, this is only his second sequel (the first being Black House, a sequel to The Talisman, both co written with Peter Straub. The Dark Tower books were always meant to be seen as one story so they don’t qualify as sequels), and what a follow-up it is.
It’s important to note that while you don’t need to have read The Shining to understand what happens in Doctor Sleep, lots of little tidbits will be lost. King makes dutiful reference to the original on a very regular basis, to the point this could actually be a standalone novel. Another thing to keep in mind, forget the movie. This is King territory we’re in, and not even Kubrick’s ghost can take that away.
Doctor Sleep begins a year or so after the events of The Shining and brings us through Danny Torrance’s life as at a brisk pace. We watch in dismay as he follows in his father’s alcoholic footsteps, witness his drug and booze fueled bottom (in a scene so well written, it nearly brought me to tears), and ultimately the beginning of his recovery and redemption.
As interesting as this is, there wouldn’t be much of a story if it were just Danny, and King brings in some new characters, including Abra, a young girl who’s own powers dwarfs Danny’s; his AA sponsor Casey, a no nonsense type who gives him his first job on the road to sobriety; Bill a groundskeeper and miniature train driver with a bit of shining as well. Perhaps most interesting of all are the True Knot, a roving band of motor home driving, middle aged vampires. Not vampires in the blood sucking sense, but certainly vampires in their own way (with none of the tropes and rules to hamper their behavior).
When we meet them for the first time, they’re in the process of inducting their newest member in a scene told in horrifying and creepy as hell detail. These are people you don’t want to mess with. To keep their strength (and long lives), they seek out children, torture them, kill them and absorb their essence. Each member of the True Knot has their own sort of ability, and they’re all guided by the tough talking, beautiful, and nastiest of them all, Rose the Hat.
As is bound to happen, Danny and Abra are destined to meet and go toe to toe with Rose. That’s about as much plot as I’ll give away, and if it sounds like a familiar journey, it is. However, as the old saying goes, it’s the trip and not the destination that matters. And King manages to take us on a memorable trip.
If it was simply the trip, and seeing Danny as a grown up, that would be one thing, but King has other things on his mind. Life, death, regret, and sins of the father being passed onto the son. Unlike previous novels where King got a bit preachy, his ideas seem a natural extension of the characters and story.
King frames a lot of this within the context of Danny’s recovery and the rooms and meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. How you feel about the buzzwords and nearly cliché sayings may very well have an impact on how you enjoy the book. As someone who’s been involved with 12 step programs for nearly 30 years, it gave me a coming home feeling.
King can create believable, sympathetic characters like no one else. You can relate to everyone, and develop attachments to them, and King does it better in Doctor Sleep than he has in many years. As a long time reader, I’ve not always liked everything he’s done. Some of his later works it seems he’s tried too hard to write and not enough effort in doing what he does best, telling a story. Whether he’s been writing to ensure a legacy, I’m not sure, but make no mistake; Doctor Sleep is a novel that would fit very nicely among some of his best works.
At 500 plus pages, it moves at a good clip, with very little downtime. You’ll be propelled to the next paragraph, the next page, the next chapter.
Is it perfect? No, I do have some minor qualms with a few things towards the middle, and you’ll see some of the twists a mile away, but Doctor Sleep is so damn emotional and well done, they can be forgiven and perhaps forgotten.
King has thrown some seeds in the garden, and while you may know what the crop is, it’s never tasted this good.