Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The past always comes back to haunt you. For most of us, this phrase merely expresses the tendency of our actions to have consequences. For Daniel Torrance, however, the haunting is very real. Since the events of Stephen King’s landmark novel The Shining, Danny has grown up. Still, no matter how far he goes or how much time passes, the events of that novel seem to follow. Scarred by the horrors of his past and his constant psychic contact with the living and dead (the shining) around him, Dan has turned to booze to dull his gift.

Following a brief introduction that gives us Danny’s history, we discover him— now going by Dan— at the place where all alcoholics finally find themselves . . .the bottom. Hung-over and broke, Dan makes a decision that will plague him for decades.

After a visit from his childhood imaginary friend Tony, Dan throws away his last bottle of booze and eventually decides to settle in the small town of Frazier, New Hampshire. Assisted by new friends, Dan joins A.A. and gets a job at the local hospice. There, Dan comes to accept his talents and puts them to good use by shepherding the dying across to the afterlife. Word of his late night visits to terminal patients quickly spreads, and he gains the moniker Dr. Sleep.

As the Overlook’s chef Dick Hallorann explained in The Shinning, Dan isn’t the only one with these gifts. Many people possess a spark, and a special few shine like the sun. A few towns over, Abra Stone comes into the world with a light inside of her that makes Dan’s own powers seem like a sputtering candle. This immense power causes her to make a connection with the closest person with a significant amount of Shine, Dan Torrance. While the two slowly foster a relationship based on their shared talents, Abra becomes the subject of someone else’s attention.

The True Knot, an evil group, have existed for centuries, roaming the country’s highways while seeking nourishment and youth in the pain and destruction of those who possess the Shining. When Abra witnesses the True consuming the essence of a young boy, she is not the only one watching. The leader of the True Knot, Rose the Hat notices the unwanted guest. Consumed by desire for the massive power contained within Abra, Rose begins to obsess over the girl and plan her demise.

With nothing but his abilities and a few friends, Dan must protect the young Abra from becoming the prey of the True and try to rid the country and himself of the demons hiding just below the surface.

Let me preface everything I am about to say with this: I enjoyed this book, and thought it was great. Still, I have a few qualms to raise about the book itself and the way it was marketed.

The first and largest problem I have with the book is that I didn’t find it scary. Dr. Sleep was marketed by King and his publisher as, “…a return to balls-to-the-walls, keep-the-lights-on horror…” that the author built his reputation upon. I didn’t find this to be true. Certainly it has scary moments, especially in the beginning, but as I moved to the middle and end of the book, I didn’t feel fear for the characters or myself. At the beginning of the book, I got the sense that Dan is haunted. He constantly sees apparitions that nearly drive him insane. This, combined with the foreshadowing associated with Rose the Hat and her future role to play, made me truly worried for Dan and his wellbeing. As the book moved forward and the “ghostie people” became less common, I began to accept that Dan had things under control. Dan’s control of his Shine was an important point of the novel,  but I wish that Abra could have faced a similar kind of struggle with her own Shining a bit more.

My next complaint is one that I feel plagues many sequels. There was no buildup and ultimate payoff. I felt as if Dan’s abilities were treated merely as a given fact. One of my favorite parts of The Shining was slowly discovering the extent of Danny’s powers and the descent into chaos. I feel that as that story progressed, more and more supernatural things occurred. For example, the Overlook slowly populated itself more and more with spirits over the course of the novel. This buildup is what made The Shining so engrossing. This element combined with a persistent doubt that I had that there were any actual supernatural occurrences. In the original novel, the animal topiaries were never described as moving. Rather, they were simply described as being closer every time you looked back, becoming more and more imposing, closing in on Danny, and blocking him in the playground. This made it all the more terrifying! The entire novel I questioned whether it was ghosts or insanity that drove the story forward. In Dr. Sleep, there is no slow buildup or reveal of supernatural elements, causing what could have been mystery and magic to become predictable and ordinary.

These nitpicking issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The writing is magnificent. The pacing, dialogue, and imagery are all on the level that I’ve come to expect from Stephen King. Further, the vast majority of the characters are genuine and fascinating. The evolution of Dan from haunted drunk to recovering alcoholic was extremely well done, and his coming to grips with his life and gifts were expertly portrayed. This combined with his constant internal struggles made Dan my favorite part of the book.

 I also enjoyed the supporting characters. Chief among these are the amazed Dr. John, the fatherly Billy and the witty Concetta. I also thought that Rose the Hat was a great villain. King allowed Rose to express a full spectrum of emotions that elevated her from thing-going-bump-in-the-night to a well rounded, yet despicable monster. Accompanied by a crew of less abominable yet useful attendants, Rose made the True Knot a truly abhorrent band of villains.

Abra is an interesting case for me. I loved that she was allowed to vary in her internal fortitude throughout the book through a juxtaposition of emotion. She was kind, yet cruel, old-at-heart and childish. These fluctuations in character made her one of the most dynamic characters in the novel. I also appreciated how King wrote her with a common sense of invulnerability that most teens and pre-teens experience. Abra very rarely thinks that anyone else can harm her, and I felt that this added a level of realism to her character. Despite this, I feel that she accepted her own shining too easily. Certainly it would be familiar to her as she grew up with it, but she very rarely questioned the origins of her abilities or the fact that no one else seemed to be able to do what she does. If this had been added, I feel as though Abra would have been a slightly deeper character.

Overall, I found that the plot and its many twists and turns made for a thrilling drama. Some aspects of the ending are a tad overly sentimental, but the basic story is solid. There are many exceptional moments of character discovery and internal conflict. While I have expressed some complaints about Dr. Sleep, I still enjoyed reading it. It is a wonderful piece of fiction, if not a masterpiece of terror. I think it portrays not only the progression of time in the characters, but also provides a glimpse of how Stephen King has evolved over the past 35 years. I miss the elements of the old school King novels, but appreciate the growth this story shows and the legacy it continues. I was surprised to realize that Dr. Sleep does a large amount of world building, which is extremely important considering King’s large multiverse. This refers to characters from other novels (Dr. Sleep and The Shining take place in the same world as King’s son’s book NOS4A2). Altogether, I would recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of King’s work, or has read The Shining and wants to continue with that story. I also think that anyone who read NOS4A2 should read both The Shining and Dr. Sleep, as they are related—The Shining more so in tone and Dr. Sleep in plot. While this is not the classic Stephen King novel I hoped for, it serves as a reminder that King is one of the most celebrated and reliable authors of our time.

Review by Brett Schneider

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2015, 14)

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