A Review of Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep”
Wide Awake and Dreaming
I have a whole slew of books on my To Be Read or TBR pile, and I decided to go back and pluck this one for a review as a bit of a break between writing about new books. When I penned my review of Stephen King’s Revival earlier this year, a couple of my friends on Facebook urged me to go back and also review King’s 2013 novel, Doctor Sleep, because they thought I might enjoy it. So, ta-dah! Here are my thoughts. The obvious thing about this book is that it is a sequel to The Shining (and follows the events of that novel as opposed to the Stanley Kubrick movie). It features the boy protagonist of the book, Danny Torrance, now all grown up as an adult. The sequel earned accolades — it won a Bram Stoker Award — but it is very different in tone from King’s earlier work. There’s probably a good reason for that — King was a raging alcoholic when he wrote The Shining and had been sober for decades when he approached Doctor Sleep. As such, in the latter novel, Torrance is haunted by memories of the earlier book and, at its outset, uses alcohol and cocaine as a way of dealing with his supernatural powers. He does find help, though, and goes through the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, which this book goes into fairly great detail about.
Aside from that, I’m not sure how much more of a plot outline is needed for a book that is almost 10 years old now and was so successful that it spawned a movie adaptation. But there are a few other things you need to know walking into this. Torrance uses his powers as an adult as a hospital orderly to help elderly patients reach the life beyond this life in their final moments. He also is trying to help a 13-year-old girl named Abra Stone, who has “the shining,” too, but is much more powerful than he ever was or is. That power has attracted supernatural entities known as the True Knot — a group of somewhat immortal humans who are yet not human who travel around America in RVs, looking for children with Dan and Abra’s special gift to kill and glean power from. However, in my first note of criticism, I must say that the True Knot is not especially terrifying. They’re often inept and fail at their goals (that is, to catch Abra), and — this is a bit of a spoiler, so you might want to come back to this when you’ve finished the book — are dying off from the measles after inhaling “steam” (their term for the soul or powers that escape from the person they’re killing) that was tainted. By the novel’s climax, most of the members of this group are incapacitated, and Dan and Abra are much more powerful — so that means that Doctor Sleep is predictable. It is a thrilling novel, but much of the thrill of the book is rooting for Dan and Abra to triumph over the bad guys, which they invariable will with just a bit of cunning.
However, the real thrill is reading between the lines and trying to suss out how much of King’s own personal life is in the novel. As Dan is someone who can put people to “sleep,” you must wonder how much King’s reported insomnia (have you ever wondered why he’s so prolific?) had a hand in sketching out the plot. And because a good portion of the novel is spent in AA rooms or in discussions with sponsors, you must wonder, too, if King is writing from personal experience here. I’ve heard that Doctor Sleep is popular with recovering alcoholics with its detailed descriptions of how 12-step programs work, and, if true, it’s easy to see why. Doctor Sleep is really, at its heart, a novel about dealing with the past, which is never done with a person, and is also a novel about family — and the familial secrets that might be lurking in the shadows. On this level, Doctor Sleep ranks with King’s best work and is truly illuminating and fascinating to read. It doesn’t hurt that — despite its weaknesses in creating truly evil bad guys — this is a bit of a roller-coaster ride, one that will have you flipping the pages to find out what will happen next.
There’s an interesting subtext to Doctor Sleep in the post-Trump and COVID-19 era, though — one that King probably never imagined when he wrote this book. The True Knot — middle-aged or elderly (though never really growing “old”) — are a bunch of people who would probably support MAGA-style politics in the upcoming years. As such, they believe they can’t get sick due to their powers, which makes them resonate with the “anti-vax” movement of today. After having to endure the Freedom Convoy (I live in Ottawa, Canada), these Winnebago travellers sure have a philosophy that would probably be in line with the so-called truckers who travelled by fleet and shut down a capital city for three weeks in Canada. Thus, it’s intriguing to read a book that was published in 2013 and have it, in some ways, be more resonate today than when it was first released. It’s as though King had a crystal ball or something — or maybe he has a touch of “the shining” himself and just isn’t saying anything.
All in all, Doctor Sleep is a worthy sequel to its predecessor, though I doubt that anyone will say it’s a better book than The Shining (which was taught as an elective in my first-year English class at university). It had a lot to live up to, and the thirty-odd-year difference between the two books reveals a different person as to its author. However, it is still, in King’s parlance, a “kick-ass” book. It does have a problem that is antithetical to King’s fiction — this book looks like it was edited, and things were left on the cutting-room floor, such as how Dan Torrance came to use his powers in a hospice setting in the first place. (We learn how he got the job, but never learn how he came to use his gift or how he came to know that his pet cat was susceptible to knowing when people were about to die.) Still, warts and all, Doctor Sleep is a captivating read, one that might be revealing about its creator, and is certainly worth a look especially considering more recent events. If you’re a King fan but somehow missed this one as I did, it’s recommended reading.
Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep was published by Scribner on September 24, 2013.
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