In his afterwards, Stephen King points out that he almost didn’t write Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. The trouble with sequels, he points out, is that no matter how brilliant it is, there will always be someone who’ll read it and say “Nope, nope, it’s just not as good.
And he’s right. You can’t help comparing Doctor Sleep to The Shining, and I do think The Shining is the better book by a long shot. But if you can read Doctor Sleep and try to see it on its own merits, as a fun, stand-alone horror story, it’s really enjoyable. And nicely chilling, as any halfway-decent Stephen King book ought to be.
The book starts not too long after the end of The Shining, catching up with Danny, his mother, and the caretaker from the hotel; Dick Hallorann. I know Dick died in the movie (spoilers) but he survived in the book (spoilers!) so King stayed true to his own book, and good for him.
The book quickly jumps forward a couple decades. Unfortunately, Dan’s promise to not turn out like his father didn’t last long. The mental voices he’s heard all his life are way too strong to be drowned out with alcohol, but it’s better than nothing. He’s become the kind of drunk that’s going to end up dead or in jail, and the only reason he avoids jail is because it’s much harder to get drunk there.
My sister had heard the book described as “a love letter to Alcoholics Anonymous” and I think that’s fair. It’s almost like King, who’s fought hard with his own addictions, is making sure anybody reading this book knows that AA is a pretty good alternative to drinking oneself to death.
But if he’s writing a love letter to AA, he’s also putting in a postscript to hospice care.
King knows how to focus on what really scares us. Not just monsters, but the everyday things that we worry about. In The Stand it was a flu that kills everybody. In Insomnia it was the idea of never sleeping again. And in Doctor Sleep it’s watching a loved one slowly die from a disease and being helpless to do anything about it.
Half the book touches on normal, everyday death, and dying, and people in hospices. And King paints a pretty hopeful picture of that too; death is inevitable, but it doesn’t always have to be painful or frightening.
But come on, this is Stephen King. Of course there’s monsters. And painful, frightening death too.
When I first read about the people called “The True Knot” I really liked them. They’re a little like gypsies who travel in RVs. They’re fanatically loyal to each other, they’re incredibly wealthy, and their leader, Rose, is not to be messed with.
Then King shows them doing what they do best, and they’re not so likable anymore.
If you’ve heard the word “vampires” thrown about in regards to this book, forget it. The True are definitely not vampires. No fangs, no problems in sunlight, no allergies to crosses and garlic. They do live hundreds of years though, by murdering children with psychic gifts and draining their essence. And there’s usually excruciating torture involved too, so it’s clear where the vampire idea came from.
And they’ve gotten wind of Abra, a young girl with pretty formidable powers of her own. Dan knows she exists, because she brushed against his mind several times, accidentally. From hundreds of miles away. While she was an infant.
I’m a flashlight. She’s a lighthouse.
Having detected her, the True will never stop looking for her. They know they can kill her and feed on her and it’ll be the best meal they’ve had in a very long time. Or they could just keep her around, tied down, drugged, and torture her slowly, feeding on her little by little. Tricky, but if they can pull it off they can keep her like that for decades.
So yes, the book is pretty dark. But there are a lot of surprisingly light places too. There’s a laid-back cat who hangs out the dying, there’s Abra’s funny mental pictograms, there’s Dan’s AA buddies, and a lot of other sweet moments all throughout the book. Some of then end up in horror and violent tragedy, but not all of them.
(Spoilers: the cat is fine. The cat plays a very minor role in the book, but I know some people won’t read books if the author’s mean to animals, so I promise: nobody hurts the cat.)
All in all, it’s a very fun book, but it definitely has its flaws. King has picked up this habit of mentioning modern technology any chance he gets. He’ll go into detail about the specific item someone’s using. I’m guessing he’s trying to make the story more grounded in reality, but I think it’s a mistake. For one, in ten years the book is going to seem awfully dated. Heck, someone uses a BlackBerry and it seems dated now. (Sorry, BlackBerry users.)
But it’s also annoying. It comes across like product placement. Or like someone shouting “Look! I use phones! I surf the internet! I’m hip!” I think it would’ve been fine to mention that someone called someone, or looked something up on the computer, without going into tiny details about exactly what they were using.
It’s also just not as scary as The Shining. But that’s an unfair comparison, because The Shining was groundbreaking in horror fiction, and I don’t think King ever intended this book to be nearly that terrifying. He had some things he wanted to say, and he wanted to find out what Danny was up to after all these years.
He accomplished both things, and I’m glad I read it. And while this book may not scare you so much you have to put it in the freezer, it’s still a good, scary, Stephen King story.