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Book Review: ‘Doctor Sleep’ by Stephen King

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Doctor_SleepOn the second day of December in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground…

Stop.

Stop reading.

If you have not read The Shining (1977) recently or have only seen the movie (Stanley Kubrick, 1980), start by reading (or rereading) the book. There are details in the book necessary for the proper enjoyment of King’s much anticipated sequel Doctor Sleep. Do not re-watch the movie thinking it will properly prepare you for the sequel; there are too many differences. And besides, that’s just plain lazy.

Now, go to any online book outlet and read all of the one-star reader reviews of Doctor Sleep. Disregard these reviews with extreme prejudice. These crack literary critics missed something during potty training… like proper preparation and critical thinking. While King is an indulgent author, he suffers laziness poorly. Even a little effort is well rewarded in a King story, and it is more than worth the effort in Doctor Sleep.

The Shining was King’s third novel, published after Carrie (1974) and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975). He had achieved plenty of his popular traction by this time and was well on his way to stardom. His stories from this early period possessed a solid internal integrity that many of his subsequent novels lacked, no matter how good they were. Was King’s storytelling a round of golf, his drive and approach game have no peer. King’s story start and development have been uniformly excellent, but in some mid-career stories (It (1986), King allowed his plots to disintegrate into the “ravenous particles” of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). But this pitfall was avoided in both The Shining and Doctor Sleep.

Danny Torrance, son of failed writer Jack and wallflower Winifred Torrance, has grown up into raging, unstable alcoholism, a central theme in this story. Scarred by the Overlook Hotel, he kicks around as a hospital orderly for 20 years before landing in a small New Hampshire town as an orderly at a hospice, where he gets sober in AA (another major theme) and claims the moniker “Doctor Sleep” for his ability to help the dying die (with the help of a far-seeing cat who lays with the dying patients, identifying their final hours). During his hazy sojourn to New Hampshire and while Torrance was dimming his “shine” with alcohol, he telepathically connects with Abra Stone, a young girl with a powerful “shine” of her own.

King’s concept of “shining,” introduced in the first book, is fully developed in Doctor Sleep. In addition to the elements of premonition and telepathy are the abilities to sense other shiner’s and to occupy his or her mind, to see through his or her eyes, both ocularly and through the mind’s eye. What Dan and Abra share is a perfect empathic ability where two shining individuals can act in concert with synergistic results. Add an equally gifted antagonist to the mix and things rapidly heat up.

This antagonist is an odd group of variously gifted essence-vampires known as “The True Knot.” The “True” as they are referred to in the story are a group of vagabonds, rootless, modern gypsies moving constantly in search of “steam,” the “essence” of young individuals with the shine. The group takes advantage of natural catastrophes where there is a large amount of suffering and death. Barring that, the group seeks out young and powerful shiners, murdering them slowly (pain purifies the steam) partaking of the essence expelled at the moment of death and saving the excess in canisters for future use.

The True are as aware of the “rube” (“unturned”) shiners as these same shiners are of the True. Doctor Sleep details the inevitable meeting of Dan Torrance, Abra Stone and the True where it all began and the apocalyptic ending that ensues. No spoilers here; it remains easy to predict where King is going in a story, not so easy to predict what things look like when he gets there.

King’s strengths remain intact. His character development is deliberately paced, revealing of his protagonists and antagonists only what is necessary to propel the story forward. Jack and Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann are fully fleshed out from The Shining. The haunted Dan Torrance emerges from the smear of his dissolution a cautious and insightful man, regaining his shine and transforming it. The tween-aged Abra Stone, a shine phenom, reveals a nearly unbridled zeal for the destruction of the True, a ruthlessness that somehow works with her young age and developing awareness. King’s depiction of telepathy between Torrance and Stone is natural and believable (as it needs to be).

King integrates The Shining and Doctor Sleep very well, making a nearly seamless transition and incorporation between and of the stories. These are not King’s best books; those remain The Stand (1978), the Dark Tower series (1982-present), Insomnia (1994), and many of his short stories. That said, it is both interesting and gratifying to read of familiar characters over a period of nearly 40 years to see how they turned out. The same is true for King, the author, also.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...