‘Doctor Sleep,’ by Stephen King. Review by Wickham Clayton

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I actually came to Stephen King through The Shining.  Not the mental ability or the novel, you understand, but the Stanley Kubrick film (1980).  Apart from visual iconography, my interest in horror was minimal, as the genre had a strong, and I felt, unpleasant, affect on me emotionally.  However, after watching A Clockwork Orange (1971) at 17, I was stunned by the previously unseen (by me, that is) possibilities of cinema.  I was determined to view more Kubrick, and was hence drawn to The Shining, despite my extreme apprehension.  The film terrified me, and still does, but I developed an obsessive fascination with the film and the story itself.  I then decided to read King’s novel, and an offshoot love grew from there.

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King’s prose is immersive and insightful, if a bit clunky and hokey at times.  The Shining felt like a sprawling and exquisitely paced potboiler, slow to build and at the halfway point delivering, not just chapter-by-chapter, but page-by-page.  Revisiting it prior to the release of King’s follow-up, Doctor Sleep (2013), I found very little had changed in my enjoyment.  The novel retained its haunting mystique over 15 years after I first read it, seen the film well over 30 times, and even watched the occasionally cringeworthy TV mini-series at least 5 times.

I do love this story.

So naturally I was both excited and wary of Doctor Sleep well before it was delivered to my door.  These mixed feelings continued throughout my reading of this new novel, yet when it came time to press the endboard against the block of paper I had pored over one leaf at a time, I didn’t feel disappointed.

What the book did was precisely what it promised, and what King in his afterword intimated he wanted to do with the book, which was take Danny, the likeable young innocent from The Shining, show, in pieces, his development, degradation, and redemption, before using this to develop a whole new scenario for him to utilise his gifts and encounter others who have them.  And through this template, he creates a compelling and highly readable story that carries you smoothly and eagerly from plot point to plot point.

The story for Doctor Sleep is conceived around the continuing life of Danny in a universe where the shining exists in a small part of the world population to varying degrees.  The novel begins with Danny, still a young boy, a few years following the events of the earlier story.  He still lives with the “shining”, a vaguely defined psychic ability that allows someone to have a keener insight into the thoughts and emotions of other people, as well as the ability to sense things to come, as well as secret but powerful things that have gone.  Danny is still, in a literal way, haunted by ghosts of the Overlook.  His mentor and close family friend, Dick Hallorann, an African-American chef who has taught Danny about the shining, as they share this talent, arrives to help him use his abilities to rid himself of the spirits that threaten him with physical harm.  Following this, the narrative fractures into several strands, but I will stay with Danny for the purposes of a clear summary.

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Danny is seen later, a young man out of high school, and a severe alcoholic.  He takes jobs wherever he can until his alcoholism destroys his life in that location, before moving to the another place.  In Wilmington, North Carolina, he hits something resembling rock bottom, where the incident that incites him to leave town haunts him mentally for much of his adult life.  He gradually moves up to New England where he meets an older man with a bit of the shining who helps him get a job, where he’s introduced to his new boss who sponsors him in Alcoholics Anonymous.  Moving forward several years later, Danny, now ‘Dan’, remains sober, and while the shining isn’t as strong with him as it was as a child, he still uses it in his new job at a hospice where he helps guide the dying peacefully into death.  It is here his story connects with another strand.

Abra Stone is a young girl born just after the millennium.  She also has an extremely powerful shine.  As she grows from infancy into pubescence, she mentally connects and communicates with Dan, without knowing who exactly he is.  As she nears her teens, it becomes necessary for her to meet Dan as he is the only one that can help her with…

The True Knot is a group of seemingly innocuous pensioners and their families, who travel across America in caravans, staying in campgrounds, and always on the go.  However, they also live much longer than normal people, surviving off of “steam”, or, final tortured breaths of people, primarily children with the shining. They discover Abra, and are determined to get her steam, suffering almost any risk.  The True Knot, Abra, and Dan begin crossing each others’ paths, with the book culminating in their confrontation.

Was it as good as, or better than, The Shining?  I don’t think so.  It certainly didn’t make as strong an impression on me.  I didn’t feel quite as engaged with Dan as I did Jack in the first book, and, in fact, it was the lingering power of Jack’s character, who doesn’t make an appearance in Doctor Sleep except in fleeting references to memories, that gives Dan’s character the gravitas it needs to be as rich and compelling as it is.

A friend of mine gets particularly annoyed, with some legitimacy, with King’s repeated use of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope.  This is the theory that certain texts incorporate a non-white character that has few, if any, flaws, that exists within the story to solve problems for the white protagonists.  It often feels as though King seems to consider this empowering in some sense, which, if true, is well-intentioned, but sadly misguided.  This is certainly true of the character of Dick Hallorann, Dan’s mentor in both books, and was even humorously addressed by comedian Paul Mooney on Chappelle’s Show (Comedy Central 2003-2006) in relation to the character of John Coffey in The Green Mile (1996).  While King stubbornly insists on utilising Magical Negro characters, he does prove he can write characters of colour well in the phenomenal The Dark Tower series (1982-2004), through Susannah.

The most irritating sections of the book, most likely to those who have read and are familiar with The Shining, are the almost pedestrian and requisite passages catching the reader up on the story to date.  King certainly doesn’t do anything as obvious as the literary equivalent of ‘Last time, on The Shining…”  However, the apparent recap segments feel clunky and make the narrative disjointed.  They are necessary for context, especially if the reader hasn’t encountered the previous novel, but they don’t integrate quite as smoothly as I would have liked.

But that’s about all I can negatively direct at Doctor Sleep.  As an overall read, it effectively moves on from the previous story, and, instead of aping the narrative of The Shining, King utilises a different storyline that he has revisited throughout his career: two unlikely groups, one good, one evil, and both well-developed, and travelling towards a climactic showdown.  However, King doesn’t entirely divert from the tradition of Doctor Sleep‘s forerunner.

Although King adopts a familiar but different narrative from The Shining, in terms of structure and pacing, he models the earlier book almost verbatim.  It is a slow build, wherein all of the characters are given room to develop and grow.  In some cases, their links are only superficially apparent (spoiler: it’s the shining!) but it seems more like you are engaged in character observation more so than narrative trajectory.  Then, with the help of some earlier signposting, the novel starts running at the halfway mark, almost without the reader realising it has picked up speed until you are well into the story.  And this, precisely, is one of the things I found most fascinating about The Shining in the first place.  Doctor Sleep models this very closely and it is told in a very compelling manner, driving one to avidly move from one chapter to the next.

The characters are also given appropriate attention.  The good guys are flawed, occasionally grotesque, but ultimately likeable, and the bad guys are penned sympathetically with genuine insight and pathos, but their actions are ultimately clearly condemned as evil.  This, in turn reveals tragedy in each victory, and contributes emotional complexity throughout.  However, if you are familiar with King’s work, you will know that this is nothing new.  He is a consummate professional, who loves and excels in his craft, and Doctor Sleep only further solidifies the fact that, even as a one-man popular fiction factory, he continues to deliver, even at his lowest, a high standard of emotional and aesthetic rewards.

Without giving away the ending, I will say that, again, it wasn’t as striking as that of The Shining, but it felt like a satisfying conclusion to both stories.  For the climax, King issues a much-derided literary device, which he manages to expertly wield time and time again: the deus-ex-machina.  He literally employed this at the conclusion of The Stand (1978), and often utilises it to tie up all of the odd, uncanny loose ends of his books.  This device is accused, by critics (and not unfairly), as an example of lazy storytelling.  But with King’s frequent forays into the supernatural, the deus-ex-machina is often necessary to clean up his messes.  That said, King’s versions of this are so inventive and unpredictable, it is difficult to be wholly disappointed with any of them.  He uses this oft-derided device to his benefit more often than not.  King also manages to show the remaining characters, after the fact, and never fails to demonstrate, even for the successful ones, the scars resulting from the events are often deep.

It would be foolhardy to expect a revisitation of the weighty, atmospheric brilliance of The Shining.  But Doctor Sleep is far from a cheap attempt by King to capitalise on former glories.  He seems to care about these characters, long after he finished writing the earlier book, and has given deep consideration to Dan, Wendy, Dick, and all of the new characters that have entered into their lives.  This is not a masterpiece, but it is very, very good storytelling.  And most importantly, Doctor Sleep is lots of fun.

ABOUT

Wickham Clayton recently earned his PhD in Film and TV Studies from Roehampton University.  His thesis addresses the importance of perspective to the form of the slasher subgenre of horror through the Friday the 13th films.  Wickham is a published film critic, and contributing co-editor with Sarah Harman of the forthcoming Screening Twilight: Critical Approaches to a Cinematic Phenomenon for I.B.Tauris.  He is also a contributing co-editor with Bethan Jones of a forthcoming special issue of Intensities: A Journal of Cult Media, focusing on the adaptive relationships between Film/TV texts and board games.  In addition, Wickham has written about fairy tales and adapting narration in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, paranoia aesthetics in Oliver Stone’s JFK, and is developing projects on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the films of Woody Allen.