Saturday, November 14, 2020

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep is Stephen King’s follow up The Shining. Though I recently reread The Shining, this was the first new -  for - me  King novel that I have read in decades.   I thought that this book was an excellent horror tale. It included a compelling plot, good writing and some in intelligent action and suspense elements. The book also played with some interesting themes. Some of the characters were somewhat complex, however, this book was not the deep psychological study that The Shining was. This was first published in 2013.

My post on The Shining is here. Early on in this book we learn about the future of Danny, Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann, who were major characters in the first novel, in the years that followed their escape from the horrors of The Overlook Hotel. This story chronicles how Danny, who still has psychic powers, had fallen into a life of alcoholism and violence in the 1990s. However, in the early 2000’s he settles down in a small New England town, where he quits drinking, cleans up and makes real and reliable friends. There is a lot here about Alcoholics Anonymous. King is a recovering alcoholic so I assume he knows a lot from experience. 

After his reformation, Danny gets a job as an orderly in a home for the dying. There, he is known to comfort those in their last hours so well, he gets the nickname “Doctor Sleep”. Over the years Danny also established a psychic connection with Abra Stone, a young girl who also shows strong psychic or Shining powers. The reader is also introduced to a traveling group of nomads known as The True Knot. These are nearly immortal, vampire - like characters who travel America in motorhomes as they kidnap and torture children. The children’s dying agonies release something called “steam” that The True Knot feeds upon to maintain their powers. This group is led by a charismatic woman known as Rose the Hat. Abra eventually psychically tunes in to one of the True Knot’s grisly murders. She begins to poke into more of their doings with her mind. Rose begins to also  psychically poke into Abra  and eventually decides to start hunting her. Danny is drawn into protecting Abra. Psychic and real life confrontations between Danny, Abra as well as their allies and The True Knot ensue. Eventually a final battle is fought at the site of the now destroyed Overlook Hotel. 

The book is full of observations about human nature, life death and all sorts of other things. There are themes floating around that involve responsibility, guilt, mortality, etc. All this is fairly typical of King. This is not there deep psychological dive that The Shining was but there are  some interesting things going on with the characters. Abra in particular  is somewhat complex. She is mostly an intelligent and likable teenager. However, she has a temper. At times she enjoys  using her powers against The True Knot a little too much. While this group engages in monstrous behavior and is out to kidnap and harm her, she begins to revel when using her powers to hurt its members. She also occasionally lets her temper drive her power in other situations. At one point Danny comments to her, 

No lecture and no moral. Just blood calling to blood. The stupid urges of wakeful people. And you've made it to a time of life when you're completely awake. It's hard for you. I know that. It's hard for everyone, but most teenagers don't have your abilities. Your weapons. 

Despite some issues, the reader is left with the impression that Abra will take a virtuous path and not allow the dark aspects of her personality to dominate. 

The True Knot and Rose are also interesting. When dealing with humans, the group are a bunch of monsters. They torture and murder children. Their actions are sociopathic. However, among themselves they behave morally and ethically. They also exhibit genuine, warm emotions between themselves. Rose is actually a good leader. She does not lead by using fear. Instead she leads mostly by persuasion and charisma. She feels compassion and love for the other members of the group. This connection between members is not cultish but resembles the emotional bonds between old spouses and friends. 

After a gunfight between men Danny and his allies and members of the True Knot, one of the group, named Snake, lays dying. He comments,

“ We didn’t choose to be what we are any more then you did. In our shoes, you’d do the same. …

“Your people slaughter pigs and cows and sheep. Is what we do any different?”

Perhaps King is saying it relates that otherwise good, seemingly balanced people can tolerate and participate in bad actions? This was a factor when it came to slavery and the Holocaust. Is King suggesting that current day people might be engaging in a little of this?

There are multiple references and call backs to The Shining. For, instance at one point Danny is on a job interview and wonders if his father ever did the same thing. It turns out that the earlier novel began with a job interview for Jack Torrance. Over the course of the interview there are parallels with that earlier interview. There are lots of such references to the earlier book. It all cumulates in the end when the ghost of Jack Torrance plays a decisive roll in the final battle against The True Knot. 

This novel is expertly written within the bounds of popular literature. King is very good at writing horror, intelligent action and portraying characters with enough complexity to retain interest. 

I thought that this book had a few flaws. In several points of this novel, Danny, Abra and their allies fight The True Knot both physically and psychically. The evil group seems to lose in most of these encounters and ultimately does not seem to be all that formable. A more effective group of antagonists would have strengthened the story. We also see the ghost of Dick Hallorann at one point delving out some simplistic but satisfying philosophy. The novel would have benefitted with more of him. 

There is a film version of this that was made a couple of years ago. Though King did approve of the movie, the film was a sequel to the film version of The Shining. This novel is a sequel to the novel The Shining. Thus, there are some fairly major differences between this book and the film, especially towards the end. 

While not quite up to The Shining, this was an exceptional horror book. King is a skilled writer and knows how to craft a story that works in many ways. There was some depth here as King freely shares his observations on all sorts of issues and plays with some interesting ideas. The characters were also mostly interesting and engaging, I would recommend this one to anyone who enjoyed The Shining.