The instantly riveting Doctor Sleep picks up the story of the now middle-aged Dan, working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, and the very special twelve-year old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals.
On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the ‘steam’ that children with the ‘shining’ produce when they are slowly tortured to death.
Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him and a job at a nursing home where his remnant ‘shining’ power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes ‘Doctor Sleep.’ Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival …
Ah, Stephen King.
There’s a sense of familiarity to a new King novel that I’ve always been fond of, in an odd sort of way, like stepping on the same damp bathroom rug for the fiftieth time. Not pleasant exactly, just familiar.
Doctor Sleep is as Stephen King a novel as there ever was. It may in fact be the most Stephen King novel ever published. All the charming old foibles are there- the book starts 150 pages before the story does, there are way too many viewpoint characters and we find out way too much about them, endless repetitive internal dialogues are woven into the narrative, Stephen King keeps trying to write about child characters even though he’s god-awful at it, it’s kind of racist in spots. His various obsessions are also fully on display: alcoholic protagonists, psychic powers, curmudgeonly old New England farts who speak in quaint folksy dialects, cancer, 9/11, minor side characters who turn out to secretly be pedophiles for no obvious reason.
By this point King is sort of like the weird old uncle of mainstream literature, the sort of guy who tells racist jokes and comes out with random shit at parties but he’s old and vaguely respected for reasons no one can quite remember so we all just shake our heads and say “Oh, Stephen King.” There are a lot of “Oh, Stephen King” moments in Doctor Sleep, starting right at the beginning when Dick Halloran of The Shining fame tells little Danny Torrence about the time his child molester uncle came back from the dead and started haunting him by waving around his decaying zombie-penis, which he of course has a quaint folksy nick-name for. It might have been his “pecker-doodle”, but I can’t remember. Something like that, anyway.
Other “Oh, Stephen King” moments are nauseating in a less obvious way. King is rightly taken to task for filling his books with pointless violence and gore (and there’s plenty of that here) but I don’t think it’s said often enough how much treacle and glurge finds its way in there as well. Often the two exist side by side, creating a highly unpleasant gloop. In Doctor Sleep this comes mostly in the form of psychic little girl Abra, who we are told over and over again is just the specialist ray of sunshine in the world and because in the works of mediocre writers kids have no setting between “toddler” and “adult” her personality and apparent age veer wildly all over the place from paragraph to paragraph.
Actually, since Abra is really more the protagonist of this thing than Dan Torrence it’s worth going into why she doesn’t really work as a character. I know suggesting that a 66 year old male author might not be the best person in the world at writing a 12 year old girl in a realistic way is kind of a no-brainer, but there it is. Any part of the story where Abra takes center stage- ie most of it after the halfway point- read like descriptions of an alien culture scratched out by a scientist who’s basing his portrayal on vague third-hand accounts relayed by people who may have been asleep at the time. Thus Abra swoons over boy bands and the lead actor of Sons of Anarchy in scenes that appear to have been written solely so King can show that he totally understands the young ‘uns with their One Directions and their new-fangled computer-boxes that can get cable on demand. She also cries a lot, because that’s what girls do.
I kept waiting for the placeholder-sexualization scene, and lo and behold my faith was not in vain. You know how in books written by male authors (Jim Butcher is the patron saint of this) there’s often an obsessive need to clarify that every single woman the hero interacts with is hot and would totally want to do him if time permitted ? Well when we’re talking about a child character that’s not really an option, so instead we get a scene reassuring us that the character in question will be hot and doable when they reach the appropriate age. This varies depending on the sleaze level of the author, which is why I’m surprised King was content to stick with the relatively prosaic “he could tell all the boys would be after her in a few years” instead of something like “she was developing into a young woman in all the right ways [if you know what I mean]” which is unfortunately a real example and not something I made up, although I can’t actually remember where I read it now. Once this existential crisis has been averted we can sit back and enjoy the story, content in the knowledge that our lantern-jawed hero’s young co-protagonist has been safely objectified in an age-appropriate way.
Dan Torrence himself isn’t much better. He’s kind of interesting when he’s being puppeteered through yet another thinly-fictionalized account of King’s drug and alcohol days, but then he starts going to AA meetings and turns into a cardboard cutout with a smiley face drawn on. He has inner torment because he stole some money from a woman during a bender and her and her infant son later died for completely unconnected reasons that he had nothing to do with, which fails to be as compelling a character motivation as I think it was supposed to be. While we’re on the subject, Dan’s drinking is a bit odd. He seems to consider himself an alcoholic, gets heavily into AA and repeats all of the AA mantras about his own alcoholic nature with apparent conviction and sincerity, but also states explicitly that the reason he drank is because the shining gives him terrifying psychic hallucinations and alcohol was the only way to make them go away. But then he goes cold turkey and the hallucinations just stop for no reason. It’s like he’s actually two different characters mashed awkwardly together, and the ugly seams are frequently visible.
There’s a lot of disjointed stuff like this that makes me suspect this book may, despite what King has said in the media, have started out set in the same universe as The Shining but not a direct sequel. The nature of Dan’s psychic powers has changed quite considerably since that book and while his experiences in the Overlook hotel are brought up often, they don’t really inform his character to such a degree that they couldn’t be swapped out with any generic psychic trauma.
One thing Doctor Sleep has going for it is that it’s one of King’s few recent books that’s actually scary…. at first. Dan’s psychic Shining episodes are genuinely creepy and unsettling, evoking the eerie unpredictability and strangeness of nightmare logic to great effect, and their prominence in the opening chapters made me hopeful for a spectacularly creepy novel of the sort that King is famous for writing despite not actually writing all that often.
Alas, this is not the case. The actual threat in the novel comes from the True Knot, who could have been terrifying- the idea of a crew of aging RV travelers who are actually sadistic child murderers is extremely creepy- but King has a bad habit of over-explaining his horror elements to the point that they quickly lose their impact and he indulges in this fully here. We get almost as much viewpoint scenes from the True Knot’s leader as from Dan and Abra, during which we get to learn all about their constant struggle to survive and how they give each other quirky nicknames and crack jokes and have totally bodacious sex after torturing psychic children to death and consuming their power which really should come across as creepy but just seems kind of goofy in the book. It’s exactly the same kind of humanisation in fiction that’s robbed vampires of much of their horror.
For all of its flaws I have to say that I did find it strangely readable. King appears to have tapped into some sort of magic formula for making a novel compelling in a way that’s entirely divorced from its actual contents, and if you’re just looking for a supernatural thriller with occasional really scary bits it will scratch that itch. But could I honestly describe it as legitimately good? No, not really. It’s an unnecessary sequel to a much better story by an author who has transitioned to writing novels solely for himself and the die-hard fans that followed him into the echo chamber located somewhere inside his rectum. That’s not really a place I’m keen on visiting again soon.