Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King | Scribner, 2013

It took me a long time to finally sit down and read The Shining. The Shining is a multi-layered tale about hauntings both in the ghostly variety and in the sense of the past and how its influences, its echoes, stay with us through the present. The Shining is Jack Torrance’s story through and through as the Overlook hotel’s ghosts and the ghosts of his own past conspire to send him spiraling down the path to madness. Doctor Sleep is Danny Torrence’s story. While in The Shining Danny serves a vital purpose in helping build tension while simultaneously providing a means through which we can get a glimpse inside both Jack and Wendy’s heads he doesn’t really take center stage. In The Shining Danny Torrance is an innocent caught up in the whirlwind of his father’s madness. Doctor Sleep deals with the natural progression of those elements and we see Danny stepping into the shoes of his father as he desperately fights the ghosts of his own past and the strain his abilities place on his conscious.

Doctor Sleep is a broader novel than The Shining. Where The Shining  is a fairly intimate portrait of a family’s disintegration Doctor Sleep takes a much more detailed look at the Shining itself and the responsibilities, and as we quickly learn, the threats it thrusts upon its recipients. The introduction of the True Knot, a truly horrific group of psychic vampires who feed off the pain and suffering of individuals who have the Shining, is an interesting one. One particular moment, as the True Knot sits across the river from New York breathing in the “steam” from the many victims on September 11th solidifies how their immortality (and the means through which they achieve it) has cost them their humanity. Dan has fallen far from the child seen in The Shining using alcohol and drugs to dull his abilities; his addiction is further complicated by the inheritance of the Torrance anger.

Doctor Sleep is also very much about addiction and recovery. In an interview with NPR King states that: “The other thing that sort of interested me was that Jack Torrance never tries Alcoholics Anonymous. That is never even mentioned in The Shining. He does what they call “white-knuckle sobriety” — he’s doing it all by himself. I wondered what it would be like to see Danny first as an alcoholic and then see him in AA.”  As a result the novel leans heavily on philosophy of AA as Dan begins his journey towards sobriety. Its a very different path than his father took and the clarity of mind that Dan seeks (and achieves) as a result help him at least in a small part to accept the abilities he has spent his whole life with. Dan’s history with the Overlook and its deceased denizens has granted him a certain familiarity with death and it feels somehow fitting that a child so terrorized by ghosts grows into a man who spends his days (and nights) help ease the sick and elderly into a peaceful death.

Despite taking place in a rather sprawling hotel there is a certain amount of claustrophobia and oppression that permeates The Shining. While Doctor Sleep certainly plays on our fears, thanks to Dan’s troubled past and a roving group of immortals who camouflage themselves among us to prey on our children, it lacks the cloying fear and surreal elements of The Shining. As a result Doctor Sleep feels completely different from The Shining; a difference reflected in the ways Dan and Jack respond to their own addiction. There is a loneliness to The Shining that is absent in Doctor Sleep and the sense of connection that Dan has as a result of his support structure lends the novel a refreshing feel and holds at bay the bleakness that permeated Jack Torrance’s experiences.

Jack isn’t the only paternal figure into whose shoes Dan steps. Dan’s life was almost equally influenced by the presence of Dick Hallorann in his life. With the introduction of Abra Stone, a girl very strong in the Shining, Dan finds himself stepping into the role of mentor in much the same way that Dick did for him. It is Abra Stone who draws the attention of the True Knot, much as Dan drew the attention of The Overlook, and much as Dick helped Dan with the Overlook, Dan helps Abra with the True Knot.  If it isn’t glaringly obvious Doctor Sleep is very much a novel about things coming full circle and looks at the past less as ghosts haunting our present selves but rather more like road signs on a journey. It isn’t a novel about forgetting the past, or even moving beyond it, but one about embracing the past despite its pain and horror so that one can be a complete and whole individual in the present. It’s a powerful message and one that King tells admirable and without any saccharine sentimentality. Doctor Sleep feels like a welcome and natural conclusion to the Torrance family’s trials and tribulations. If you enjoyed The Shining reading Doctor Sleep is a definite must.

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