I am not a Stephen King fanatic.
I know many fans who are avid readers of his work and seem to know more about his books than he does. I am not one of these people.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy King’s work. I do. A lot.
In fact, pretty much every time I read one of King’s books I like it immensely, and some of my favorite books have been written by Stephen King, but King has written so much, and I read from so many different genres, fiction and nonfiction alike, I just haven’t been able to keep up, which is why I say I’m not a Stephen King fanatic. I don’t know his canon of work inside out. I just read his books and enjoy them. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed with anything he’s written.
I say all this because as I write this review of King’s latest, Doctor Sleep, I want you to consider the source, me, someone who doesn’t know the ins and outs of all of King’s fiction. I just read ‘em and move on. For instance, Doctor Sleep is a sequel to one of King’s most popular novels, The Shining, a book I haven’t picked up since it first came out back in 1977.
So for me, the experience of reading Doctor Sleep was as simple as learning about what happened to young Dan Torrance from The Shining, and what his life was like now as an adult. On this level, I found Doctor Sleep enjoyable.
As did a lot of other people, as Doctor Sleep won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel. The Bram Stoker Awards are awarded each year by the Horror Writers Association, a professional organization for horror writers, of which I am an Active Member. In fact, it was shortly after I joined the HWA that I had my first short story published back in 1998, so I can personally say that good things come from being part of this organization.
But I digress. Back to Doctor Sleep.
Doctor Sleep begins with “Prefatory Matters” in which we learn the details of what happened to Dan Torrance, his mother Wendy, and heroic chef Dick Hallorann shortly after the horrific events inside the hotel Overlook in the conclusion of The Shining, as well as what happened to them in the years following these events. We are also introduced the character of Rose, a witchy woman belonging to a race of beings known as the True Knot, who go around doing some not-so-nice things to some “special” children.
The novel then settles upon Dan Torrance, now an adult, and like his father before him, he’s dealing with alcoholism, a battle which up until now he had been losing. Dan finds himself in a small New Hampshire town where he meets a man named Billy Freeman who runs a small attraction, the Teenytown Railway. The two men strike up a friendship, and Dan soon finds himself working for Billy’s employer, Casey Kingsley, who eventually leads Dan to AA in order to help him take ownership of his alcoholism.
Dan also works at a nursing home where due to his ability, known as the shining, he is able to assist those elderly residents who are dying, helping them making the peaceful transition from this world to the next, an ability which earns him the nickname, “Doctor Sleep.”
During this time, Dan is contacted by a young fourteen year-old girl named Abra, whose own powers are remarkably strong and dwarf Dan’s. In fact he’s never met anyone with the ability as powerful as Abra’s. Abra sees a horrifying vision, a young boy with powers like herself, a boy she calls “the baseball boy” being tortured and murdered by a group of people led by a one-toothed woman. Abra reaches out and asks for Dan’s help. She knows these people kill children like herself, feeding off their essence, or their “steam” as they call it. Abra wants to get these people for killing the baseball boy.
These people are the True Knot, led by Rose, who also senses Abra and realizes that if they had her essence, the most powerful she has ever felt, they would be amazingly strengthened. And so the battle lines are drawn, as Dan and Abra and their friends work to take down Rose and the True Knot, while at the same time protecting Abra from Rose, a determined powerful woman in her own right who wants nothing more than to kill Abra.
Really, all you need to know about Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is that it tells a good story. That’s always been my favorite part of King’s work. He can tell a story better than anyone, and Doctor Sleep is no exception.
I was drawn in immediately to Dan’s story and wanted to follow him on his road to redemption, as he beat back his alcoholism and helped Abra. Abra is a fascinating character, my favorite in the book, and King nails the 14 year-old persona. Rose is also a formidable villain, and the True Knot are a nasty group of baddies that you really enjoy rooting against.
Doctor Sleep isn’t really all that scary, nor even all that suspenseful. It works best as a drama, a tale of a man tackling both the demons of alcoholism and his new role as a mentor to a younger and more powerful version of himself, young Abra.
One drawback is as the tale goes along, it become clear and apparent that in spite of the ruthlessness of Rose and the True Knot, Dan and Abra and their friends really have the upper hand. While I feared for their lives somewhat, I really had the sense that they had things under control, and it was Rose and her friends who were in trouble.
As always, the writing is top-notch, the dialogue real and flawless, and the characterizations impeccable. I love the way King captures the way people speak, the dialect, accents, and personalities.
Like a lot of his recent works, Doctor Sleep is a hefty read, filling 531 hardcover pages. Not all of them are compelling, and there are slow parts, especially in the beginning, but I urge patience, because the story builds and the payoff while not completely unexpected is definitely satisfying.
My favorite sequence in the book isn’t even from the main plot, but a key event early in Dan’s adult life, where he’s sleeping with a young woman after drinking with her and doing drugs, and he wakes up and finds her young son in diapers reaching for the drugs which he thinks is candy, chillingly calling it “canny” – again, King nailing the dialogue. Dan shoos the kid away from the drugs, but since he’s struggling for money, he takes cash from the sleeping woman and her child and leaves them there. This act haunts Dan throughout the story, as he knows it was a selfish and awful thing to do. It’s the one event from his life that he can’t bring himself to talk about. It’s a brilliantly written scene, and King continually returns to it throughout the book as it’s a moment in Dan s life that won’t leave him alone.
King also makes Dan a very likeable character. I was eager to follow him on his journey throughout the book. The most compelling character in the novel however is young Abra, and she could have a novel written just about her. As a 14 year-old, the age when most young women are extremely volatile to begin with, combined with her powerful ability, she makes one potent adversary for the aged and seasoned Rose.
Doctor Sleep is not a perfect book. It’s long, and for a horror tale it’s really not that scary, but it is a very entertaining story from beginning to end, a worthy successor to The Shining, because it succeeds in answering the basic question— and really, it’s the reason we all wanted to read this book in the first place,— and that is, whatever happened to young Danny Torrance?
Now we know.