Book Review: Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep”

Doctor Sleep BookcoverSynopsis

Doctor Sleep begins when eight year old Danny Torrance is visited by Mrs. Massey, who hails from the haunted Overlook hotel, which burned to the ground in a boiler accident. Frightened (though not entirely surprised) to discover that the Overlook’s ghosts have followed him to his new home, Danny becomes withdrawn and refuses to speak until his mother Wendy calls Dick Halloran, Danny’s friend and rescuer from The Shining, a man who shares Danny’s psychic abilities.

Halloran teaches the boy how to lock these spirits away in the back of his mind, so that they can never bother him again.

Fast forward. Danny is now Dan, a man who’s made some bad decisions. Like his father, Dan is an alcoholic with a raging temper. It isn’t until he hits rock bottom, lands in Frazier, New Hampshire, and scores a much needed job at the Teenytown Railway that he begins to piece his life back together. He admits to his boss Kingsley that he has a problem, begins attending AA meetings and vows to give up drinking.

One day, Dan’s old childhood friend Tony appears and leads him to a hospice, where he’s able to use his abilities to provide comfort to the dying. It’s here that he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

The years following are good to Dan. Though he’s haunted by past sins, he now has a roof over his head and a purpose for his life. It’s during this time that Dan begins to receive telepathic messages on a blackboard in his room from a little girl named Abra Stone, who, unbeknownst to him, has befriended Tony. Like Dan, she has the shining. For a while, the messages are light-hearted in nature, and Dan contents himself by making the occasional reply.

One day, a thirteen year old Abra suddenly has a vision in which a boy with a baseball glove is tortured and murdered. She sends a frantic message to Dan, saying, “they’re killing the baseball boy!” A while later, a flyer for missing children comes in the mail with his picture. She places her hand on the image, closes her eyes and casts her mind out to where the murder took place, hoping that perhaps she can somehow send information to the boy’s family to help them find closure.

While looking, Abra inadvertently enters the mind of Rose the Hat, leader of the “True Knot.” The True feed on “steam,” the psychic energy possessed by children like Abra. Trading places, Rose finds herself abruptly shunted into the girl’s body. Shocked by her power, Rose decides that she must be hunted down soon, both for her steam and because she knows too much. Realizing the trouble she’s in, a frantic Abra reaches out to Dan for help.

After meeting with her in secret and talking about the shining as well as the murder, Dan enlists the aid of Billy, an old friend and ex co-worker of the Teenytown Railway, and John, Abra’s pediatrician as well as a fellow member of AA. Together, they concoct a plan to deal with the True before they can deal with Abra.

Plot

Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining leaves off, creating a seamless transition from the latter to the former. Doctor Sleep stands on its own and doesn’t rely on The Shining to tell a complete story, but the two share a profound connection such that both books find their fulfillment in each other.

For a while, it seems as if the details about Danny’s childhood following his experience at the Overlook are disjoint from the rest of the story, and that they serve solely as a bridge into his adult years as Dan Torrance. But these early events, most notably the creation of mental lock boxes into which Danny traps the ghosts from his past, come back to play a major role in the novel’s conclusion, making it an integral part of the whole.

Doctor Sleep unfolds in a world that is far more advanced than the 1970’s in which The Shining takes place. When Abra and Dan begin communicating, they not only use the shining, but ordinary email, making for a perfect blend of technology and magic, a theme that King has explored before.

In the final chapters, we come full circle, to the land where the Overlook once stood. It’s now owned by the True, and it’s here that Dan and Abra fight for their lives. The conclusion is unexpected, and is (not unpleasantly) atypical of many of King’s books.

There are three surprises, each more shocking than the last. The first comes about three quarters of the way through the book, and concerns both Dan and Lucy, Abra’s mother. The second is a ghost from the past, and is related to the lock boxes we encountered in the first few chapters. The third and final revelation comes at the very end. It’s another ghost from the past, one that ultimately plays a critical and unexpected role in Dan’s and Abra’s final showdown with the True.

There were a couple of problems.

First, the True’s infection with the measles, which came from the baseball boy’s steam, was a little far-fetched. Measles is a physical ailment transmitted by an airborne virus; I fail to see how such a disease could be transmitted through a spiritual medium.

Second, there were a few anachronisms in King’s description of the internet that, as a technical person, I found a little annoying. In particular, he used the terms “IMing” and “screen names,” both of which are relics of the nineties and early two thousands and are rarely used today.

Characters

In the first few chapters, Danny, though he’s only eight, seems much older, in both the language he uses and the way he thinks. I suppose this is understandable, given his ability to read minds from a very early age as well as his traumatic experience at the Overlook, both of which forced him to grow up very quickly.

Unfortunately, like Jack, Danny inherits a propensity for drinking as well as a temper, and wastes most of his young adult life in a drunken stupor. When interviewing for his job at the Teenytown Railway, Dan wonders if his experience is like his father’s, when he interviewed at the hotel after losing his teaching job due to out-of-control anger. He even uses the words “officious prick” during his initial encounter with Kingsley. Like father, like son.

Yet, we have hope for a good ending, because unlike Jack Torrance, Dan has not only the will to overcome, but also additional help from his AA meetings. Despite Dan’s initial impression of Kingsley, he goes on to befriend the man, who is himself an alcoholic and who becomes Dan’s AA sponsor. Dan’s care for his patients, and later his love for Abra and his desire to protect her, both give us hope that his own story will turn out better than Jack’s.

The revelation that Halloran was forced to endure sexual abuse as a child at the hands of his uncle was heartbreaking, paling in comparison only to the childhood experiences of Andrea Steiner (nicknamed Andi Snakebite), a member of the True Knot who, before her Turning, was repeatedly raped by her own father.

What’s fascinating about both cases are the different ways in which Halloran and Andi reacted to a similar upbringing.  While Halloran purged the demons from his life and went on to do good, Andi allowed herself to be consumed by hatred for her father, and by extension hatred for all men. Though tragic, it’s no surprise that Andi would eventually be inducted into the True Knot and become one of the bad guys.

Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the transformation of Abra from a sweet innocent girl to a teenager who has witnessed torture and death, who has seen what no child should ever have to see. She is forever tainted by a desire for revenge. It’s one of many scars, both physical and psychological, inflicted by Rose the Hat.

Style

The writing in Doctor Sleep is just as lucid and dreamlike as that in The Shining, yet more structured and tightly controlled, especially in flashbacks and dream sequences. You can see that King’s writing, like Danny himself, has grown and evolved over the past thirty six years.

King writes from an omniscient point of view. It’s difficult for a narrator to wield so much power without crushing the unique points of view of each character, resulting in a read that falls flat and dry. But King is a master of the craft and pulls it off remarkably well. He manages to delve into the thoughts and perceptions of each character, despite the mostly detached nature of the narrator’s voice. An omniscient narrator also has the power to jump backward and forward through time, yet King only ever steps beyond the strict bounds of the present to foreshadow or add depth to the story, which only adds suspense.

While King has mastered the omniscient point of view, I will level against him one small criticism. The narrator necessarily keeps his opinions mostly to himself, and serves primarily as our eyes and ears, our window into the thoughts and actions of the characters. But on occasion, this transparent voice rises up to express its own unique political opinions in the same detached style, as if they were well established and objective facts. We read sarcastic comments about Bush’s “spectacular war in Iraq” and Ronald Reagan’s “distrustful smile.” These would be fine if they were the thoughts and feelings of the characters themselves, but are inappropriate when expressed as the opinions of an otherwise objective omniscient narrator. With the power of omniscience comes the responsibility to remain a neutral observer.

Other Thoughts

Like many of his books, King makes connections to other stories. While driving out to retrieve the baseball glove that belonged to the boy who’s murder Abra telepathically witnessed, Dan begins to explain the shining to John:

“[…]If you think the shining begins and ends with paltry shit like telepathy, you’re way short.” He paused. “There are other worlds than these.” (Page 300)

Of course, “there are other worlds than these” are the famous last words uttered by Jake Chambers in the first book of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, shortly before plunging to his death in an abandoned mine.

The consumption of steam by the True is reminiscent of the demon Tak from The Regulators, who feeds on the life essence of those he kills.

There’s a scene where Dan helps a dying patient named Charlie cross over. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if it was just the beauty of King’s words, the fact that I also share some of Charlie’s fears about death or both.

Conclusion

Stephen King is a remarkable writer. The lucidity of his vision and the prosaic nature of his writing has me head over heels every time I read one of his books. I was ecstatic when I discovered that King had written a sequel to The Shining after thirty six years, though I was also trepidatious, fearing that the second book would be incapable of doing justice to the first. I am pleased to report that Doctor Sleep is a worthy successor.

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Author: Jeff Coleman

Jeff Coleman is a writer who finds himself drawn to the dark and the mysterious, and to all the extraordinary things that regularly hide in the shadow of ordinary life.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep””

  1. Thanks a lot for commenting on my post about the Dark Tower series yesterday. I agree with you, Stephen King is indeed remarkable and more versatile than many non-readers of his work might think. I love your review for Doctor Sleep and will keep an eye on your blog from now on. 🙂

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