Doctor Sleep

doctorsleepI wonder how many readers (and writers) began as worshippers poring over the word of Stephen King? Every September, a thick new book would be published, and the congregation would scramble for the latest gospel. I often tell my students that King made me an English major. I could as easily note that he provoked an abiding obsession with horror not just as escape, but as a complicated and rich genre demanding — and rewarding — study.

Or that he connected on a deep personal level. As the author Sherman Alexie has noted, King wrote about (and to) all of the kids who felt like losers (i.e., just about every kid, except for that one douchebag on the bus). His enormous empathy for his characters — even as, or maybe because, he put them through horrific experiences — shaped my sense of self, relationships, ethics and — no surprise — grief and anger.

What a ridiculous burden King now has to bear, though. Every new novel receives intense scrutiny to see if it captures some glimmer of that readerly investment earned over the course of such a phenomenal career. And, as King himself notes in an afterword, maybe no book of his resonates more powerfully with readers than THE SHINING: “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing.”

And, of course, DOCTOR SLEEP doesn’t. The scares in this belated sequel unnerve most intensely early on, when we’re tracking a still-young Danny Torrance grappling with the aftermath of events at the Overlook Hotel. The ghosts of that violence literally plague the boy, until Dick Hallorann shows him another fancy trick he can do with his mind. But the ghosts don’t go away as much as get locked in. Danny’s safe, but there’s little solace.

After this prologue in South Florida, we flash-forward as he drowns himself slowly in bouts of boozing and rage, picking fights at bars, sleeping with other lost souls. The book is terrifying — in more ways than one, and more on this in a second — throughout the first 100 or so pages. Then Danny hits bottom and begins to climb out of the pit. And as Danny gets sober, the story shifts from the unsettling haunts (of the Overlook and of alcoholism, of a terrifying family violence and the things we do to one another) to a more traditional Big Bad and the pace/plotting of a thriller.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As he settles into a job in a hospice in New Hampshire, helping the residents let go of life, Danny senses — and King shifts perspective to introduce — two other other sets of actors. A child born near him, Abra, first shows her talents with the Shining as an infant, breaking into an unresolvable crying jag in the hours before the planes hit the towers on Sept. 11, 2001. Danny will connect with Abra (and form, in the familiar fashion, a band of misfits) to battle a troop of RV-driving psychic vampires, The True Knot. Led by the fierce Rose the Hat, the True cycle around the country, finding nourishment in the agonizing deaths of children flush with a powerful Shining. (They tend to help these deaths along.)

Cue the battle: Abra is True-bait, as her powers exceed anything any of them (or Danny) has ever seen. And the great bulk of the novel — and, it’s Stephen King, so there’s a great bulk to the novel — is the hunt, the hunkering down to fight, the pitched battle between the camps.

The book has a rich sense of character, although Abra can be a bit precious — where young Danny grappled with his power and events with the confusion of a sophisticated but naive innocent, Abra seems a bit more superpowered and a whole lot less complex. The same goes for Rose — as scary as any of the ghosts at the Overlook, but unable to rivet us the way Jack Torrance did. Still, DOCTOR SLEEP is a pacy read with King’s trademark ability to shape suspense.

It’s just not that scary. Or it externalizes and thus reduces the impact of the scary stuff. THE SHINING had a palpable sense of dread and discomfort, because we were locked in with characters who were locked in: to the hotel, and with one another, and with their own raw confused emotions. The evil imminent in the hotel was also visible in the ways Jack and Wendy and Danny interacted, and … well, it wasn’t the ghosts that terrified me when I read that book. The external threat in THE SHINING amplified the horrors of home.

This occurred most vitally, most unnervingly in the characters of Danny and Jack, both of whom had rich, complicated inner lives that Reverend King traced with enormous empathy. DOCTOR SLEEP, early on, captures such empathic fear in Danny’s self-doubt, his self-destruction — with the way he still feels locked in, unable to escape. As this follow-up opens up — with other characters, and in a cross-country battle — it picks up momentum (stuff happens), but loses a bit of force.

Still, it’d be hard for me to overstate my identification with Danny, then and now. King remains a vivid preacher, most compelling when he traces the way horror lives inside us. DOCTOR SLEEP is a rewarding return to one of his finest, most complicated characters, and for that alone fans (old and new) should gladly line up in the pews. —Mike Reynolds

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Comment by Slade Grayson
2013-11-21 10:51:59

King’s early novels highlight his strengths: he has good story ideas and a talent for making the ordinary, everyday world a terrifying place. His scariest stuff has always been the “what if?” What if your best friend or lover suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty monster? What if a common device (a cellphone, for instance) suddenly became an instrument for the end of the world?

His later novels – and when I say “later,” I’m specifically referring to CUJO and everything after – became overblown, doorstopping bricks filled with pointless scenes. He’s still a master at crafting a short story, but his novels (many of them, anyway) generally feel like short story ideas that are padded out to a thousand pages.

King’s early novels, I think, were edited by someone who knew how to pare his work down. Writers have an innate love of their own voice and sometimes don’t know when to stop. King is no exception. He needs a strong editor. I don’t think he gets that now, maybe because the publisher is more concerned with slapping a cover on it and getting the book out there to recoup their hefty advance. Or maybe the editors these days are afraid to tell the Home Run King (see what I did there?) how to hit.

I generally stick with King’s short fiction these days. I was lured back for BLACK HOUSE because I enjoyed THE TALISMAN and wanted to see where the story went. And again for CELL because I liked the concept of it. I thought both books were too long and tended to lose sight of their original story idea. Recently, I read 11/23/63 because I’m a sucker for time travel stories (and also because someone gave me a copy of the book). Again, I liked the story idea he had, but man, he went on and on and on… There are huge chunks of that book in which nothing happens. Nothing to advance the story. Just pointless scenes where we get to see what the characters are eating or what a jerk Oswald was to his wife, etc.

I’m tempted to read DOCTOR SLEEP because I loved THE SHINING. But I don’t know if I can slog through all those pages to get to the meat of the story.

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Comment by Mike Reynolds
2013-11-22 09:39:11

Good points, all. I sometimes lament that I keep reading King the way I keep buying David Bowie albums…. and with the same diminishing returns. But there’s often more than nostalgia going on. (And, hey!–Bowie’s last album was pretty damn good.)

For instance, I thought Bag of Bones was pretty phenomenal, because it captured a new strength–all that empathy stuff I went on about in the review. I find King less effective at unnerving me, but he seems (at least on occasion) to be capable of really, really moving me.

You might find–as I did–that the Danny-centric stuff in the first 100-150 pages is well worth the time.

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Comment by Ray Kolb
2013-11-22 15:28:00

And, of course, it is all a matter of taste (which is a good thing). I thought Bag of Bones was pretty boring except for the inside scoop on the writing world. The main story fell pretty flat for me. On the other hand, I loved 11/22/63 and was sad when it ended. The late 1950s and early 1960s world he recreated was amazing. I loved It as well, except for the ending, but I wasn’t crazy about The Stand. And I abolutely hated The Gunslinger. Go figure.

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Comment by Jake Arroyo
2013-11-22 18:02:18

The King book that absolutely stands out to me is Pet Semetary. I have great memories of putting on Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy or Soundgarden’s Superunknown during fall evenings while reading through the book. That set the perfect mood for the book. Funny how reading something you loved is as special and warm a memory as an actual event in your life.

King has always been one to overwrite. He sometimes keeps me captivated because he’s so good at characterization. You get a lot of the minutiae of characters’ lives, but it’s not too off-putting because you’ve come to care about them like friends. Other times it’s too much. Many King fans swear by The Stand or It, but they became a slog for me. Not enough relevant substance to justifiy the thickness of the books.

King seems to have disappearred up his own butthole. His writing has become too self-indulgent. He needs to learn how to cut the crap that isn’t essential to his story. He’s become the big name in American literature so that an editor with balls hasn’t been and probably will never be assigned to him. The Gunslinger series started off great and was ingenius. But as far as I’m concerned, the series ended at Wizard and Glass. Everything after that became convoluted garbage that I will not read (I have tried). Too bad, because it had such potential if only he could have brought the whole thing off.

Don’t get me wrong. King is immensely talented. I admire his love and compulsion for writing. He is unfortunatley under a microscope by fans, myself included, who won’t cut him any slack if his work isn’t as perfect, great, whatever, as those books he wrote that they cherish.

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Comment by R
2014-01-07 11:07:11

Agreed about the Dark Tower series. I loved the first one, because it was so different from anything of his I’d read before, but starting with the second one (which in my memory is all about the Eddie character’s drug addiction) started to get progressively worse. By the time I got to Wizard and Glass, it started too feel too episodic and surreal, like he was just pulling genre tropes out of the air and stuffing them in there. I actually skipped the 400-page flashback to Roland’s youth that takes up the middle part of the book. The last three books were a real effort to get through, particularly the last one. I was excited to start it, and end the fifteen-year journey I’d been on, but I actually put the book down at one point for four years before finishing it. Four. Years.

Anyway, last year I read Carrie for the first time and it was much better than I’d thought it would be. (It was probably the only early book I’d ignored since I’d seen the movie.) That got me feeling nostalgic for the first Gunslinger book and I ended up rereading it. (Still good, but not as good as the first time.) Now, I think I’ll eventually go back and read those 400 pages in the middle of Wizard and Glass. It’ll kind of like reading early King, or at least middle King.

Comment by Fletch
2013-11-23 21:10:05

I read every King book from Carrie up to Misery, then stopped. I’ve come back to certain ones since that but none of them came close to being as good. The Shining is one of his very best. It scarred the shit out of me. But a sequel to it is un-necessary. It sounds like a stupid story.

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Comment by J.T.
2013-11-25 08:28:16

I’m with Fletch. When Misery came out I was 100% with him, loved the book. I finished the next volume, Tommyknockers, but it was a struggle. I got 1/3rd through Dreamcatcher, and finished and enjoyed On Writing. I’m kind of interested in picking up Joyland, but in no particular hurry. And that’s about it since finishing his Silver Bullet screenplay in the summer of ’89. I still love his writing… just not the stories he’s telling.

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Comment by Craig
2013-11-25 12:50:59

Great review and discussion of what King’s writing has meant to you over the years. I’ve had much the same reaction to it. I keep reading his books, often to be disappointed (Duma Key, Lisey’s Story), but occasionally to discover some of that original magic (11/22/63). Doctor Sleep wasn’t a scary story, but I was riveted to the page nevertheless, wanting to find out what was going to happen next. And he’s created some pretty empathetic characters in Danny and Abra. The Shining is probably King’s best novel and his most literary and it was probably asking too much that a sequel should come up to those levels, but Doctor Sleep is, in its own way, essential King. Thanks.

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