Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Everything Old is New Again: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
Reviewed by Derek Harmening

“We never really end...I don’t know how that can be or what it means, I only know that it is.”

The words of Dan Torrance, once a boy outrunning his crazed father’s swinging roque mallet, now a man outrunning the demons he’s inherited.  And fitting words for Stephen King’s return to a world that’s haunted readers for more than thirty-five years.

I’m guessing more than a handful of Constant Readers—myself among them—were dubious about a sequel to one of King’s most terrifying, visceral masterworks, no less because the project came about at least partly as the result of a website poll.  But as King himself so often says, life is a wheel.  One way or another, everything comes back around to where it began.

Doctor Sleep has fans in its thrall from the first pages: we get a snapshot summary of the days and months following the events of The Shining, of young Danny and his mother Wendy drifting about the country, trying to settle down and begin again.  Easier said than done, since Danny is still visited nightly by The Overlook Hotel’s residual spirits.  But a conversation with good old Dick Hallorann (the Overlook’s head chef, who possesses more than a touch of the shining himself) reminds Danny that his mind is an object of extraordinary power, with the ability to confine undesired forces as well as to conjure benevolent ones.

For those first few pages, it feels as though we’ve never left The Shining at all.

But seasons change, and so do people.  The years have been unkind to Dan Torrance; he’s inherited his father’s proclivity for the drink and his life is one hell of a mess.  After hitting rock bottom, Dan takes to the dusty trail and ends up in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire, finding work as an orderly and using his clairvoyant powers to ease the dying elderly into the next world.  It’s only after making a comfortable existence for himself that Dan begins receiving mental transmissions from Abra Stone, a feisty wunderkind reminiscent of Firestarter’s Charlie McGee.  Abra’s shining has troubled her since infancy; she has a prescient sensitivity to impending tragedies, and it’s one of these—the murder of a young boy—that finally draws her and Dan together.

Of course, it’s usually not a true King novel without some sort of villain, and Doctor Sleep has them in droves.  They’re a delightfully quirky band of RV wanderers who call themselves the True Knot, and they survive by inhaling the “steam” produced by torturing children who shine.  Their ringleader, a gorgeous temptress called Rose the Hat, senses just how much sustenance the prodigious Abra can provide them and makes it her business to harvest the girl at any cost.  Like the best of King’s foes, there’s something strangely sympathetic about the True Knot.  They don’t see themselves as evil; they’re just doing what they gotta do to get by.  “You know nothing about us,” Rose scolds Abra in one particularly empathetic scene.  “What we are, or what we have to do in order to survive.”

The storylines all converge into a kind of psychic, cross-country battle royale, at which point I couldn’t help leaning back, throwing my feet up on the desk, and just enjoying the ride.  A decent chunk of this book takes place entirely in its characters’ minds, and King juggles them all with good humor and dexterity.  He is as compulsively readable as ever, and while the trajectory of his career has produced some shaky plots, it’s his yarn-spinning abilities that always keep us slavering for more.  It’s also why he’ll probably never stop writing—his pleasure at cooking up a good scare is still so strong it’s palpable.

But this feverish churning has its drawbacks.  In the past decade, Stephen King has written so emphatically that he’s sacrificed wholly unique characters in favor of plot.  I’d argue that the adult Dan Torrance is nearly indistinguishable from Jake Epping of 11/22/63 or Under the Dome’s Dale Barbara.  The trusty Equal-Parts-Righteous-Charming-Clever-and-Mysterious Protagonist Formula has become underwhelming.  And Rose the Hat will never induce the nightmares brought on by, say, the description of Randall Flagg’s dusty bootheels clicking on the pavement, or the raspy voice of Pennywise the Clown drifting up from a sewer drain.  Nonetheless, the characters are fun, and they populate a plot that chugs along at a perfectly serviceable clip.

Another of Doctor Sleep’s draws is how much of an homage it is to his past works: we’ve got a chessboard of characters with powers of telekinesis (think Carrie), mental persuasion (Firestarter), premonitions (The Dead Zone), mental offices stocked with files and lockboxes (Dreamcatcher), and minds manifest as weapons more lethal than any machine gun (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, The Dark Half, hell, just about anything King’s ever penned to paper, really).  The young and disenfranchised are of particular interest to King, especially those who possess powers beyond their control and understanding.  It gives them a stage upon which to exercise their morality, to place them squarely on par with the gods and force them to decide to what extent they’ll exact retribution.  You can be sure that neither Dan nor Abra get to the end of this novel without first having to confront themselves and their own great-power, great-responsibility quandaries.

Perhaps it’s just important judge this book on its own terms.  Part of the author’s note reads:
      There has been at least one brilliant sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Mick Garris’ Psycho IV, with Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates), but people who’ve seen that—or any of the others—will only shake their heads and say no, no, not as good.  They remember the first time they experienced Janet Leigh, and no remake or sequel can top that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the knife starts to do its work.
      And people change.  The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kickass story.  I enjoyed finding Danny Torrance again and following his adventures.  I hope you did, too.  If that’s the case, Constant Reader, we’re all good.
This is the 53rd Stephen King book I’ve read.  Somehow I keep coming back for more.  So yeah, I’d say we’re all good.

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing.  He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago.  His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review spot on commentary on Mr. Kings recent output...well done!