The Shining and Doctor Sleep

Last night, I finished Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. There were a lot of things to like about it, chief among them being it’s the sequel to The By God Shining, one of the scariest novels I’ve ever read.

Most of the books I read when I was a kid were probably too old for me, and Stephen King’s The Shining was at the top of that list. I read it at the age of thirteen, and as you might imagine, it scared the stuffing out of me, but in a good way. It didn’t traumatize me, at least not permanently and no more so than a good horror novel should. At any rate, I regret nothing.

Doctor Sleep, though, is certainly one of those can’t-put-it-down novels, but King’s books are always like that for me. On top of possessing other important writerly skills like a unique and compelling style and an interesting vocabulary, King just knows how to tell a damn engaging story, especially when it comes to his characters. They’re messy, clumsy critters, and he isn’t afraid to throw them into nasty situations and make them do things that will shock and disturb you. Yet he’s still able to make you love them, enough so that when he lets bad things happen to them—and come on, you know he’s bound to do that—he’ll gouge your heart out in the process.

Doctor Sleep is no exception. The Shining‘s grown-up Danny Torrance, now known as Dan, has lived a life similar to that of his dad Jack, the wrecking ball at the center of The Shining. Even if you haven’t read The Shining, just imagine that scene from the Stanley Kubrick film where Jack Nicholson bashes through the door with an axe and multiply that by a thousand. That’s Jack Torrance in the book. (In the book, by the way, Jack’s weapon of choice is a roque mallet, and in King’s hands, it makes Nicholson’s axe seem downright precious.)

Like his father, Dan is an alcoholic with an anger issues. Unlike his father, he still possesses the shining, an array of supernatural abilities that allows him to see and communicate with dead people. The power goes way beyond that, but if you want to know more, you should really read the book.

Even though Dan is a sometimes surly drunk, King still makes you love him, and then he tosses in a handful of other characters you’ll eventually come to care about. They’re an unlikely, mismatched group, thrown together by happenstance and necessity. One of them is Abra, a young girl who has an even more potent form of the shining, and she becomes Dan’s “co-tagonist” in the story. Rounding out the novel is the cultish group the True Knot, mysterious, nomadic folks who subsist on the psychic energy given off by kids like Abra.

There are only a couple of drawbacks to this novel. I already wrote about one of them a couple of days ago, so I won’t go into it in much detail here. The short version: Here, King falls into a pattern I’ve seen elsewhere in recent fiction, using a narrative technique in which characters develop and discuss a cunning plan, but they do so “off-page,” where the reader can’t see or hear what they’re discussing.

The other thing that bothers me about Doctor Sleep is how King humanizes the villains, the True Knot. I don’t mean he makes them likable. I mean he actually makes them seem downright human, physical–you know, corporeal, vulnerable. No, they’re not like us, but by the time the story ends, a significant part of their mystery has been stripped away. Don’t worry—I’m not going to spoil the story for you.

These are probably my own issue, and they’re also not really even problems. If this were anyone other than Stephen King–the guy who managed to make us afraid of Saint Bernards and 1958 Plymouth Furies–it probably wouldn’t even matter. It’s just that he’s done so many impossible things in his writing that, in his hands, the normal seems a little pedestrian.

Despite these minor shortcomings, however, Doctor Sleep is still a fine read. Bottom line: If you’re a Stephen King fan—and especially a fan of The Shining—you need to read Doctor Sleep. If you haven’t read The Shining—and you aren’t averse to losing a good amount of sleep for a few nights—read The Shining. Then read Doctor Sleep. Then let me know what you think.

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