Prior to this year, I had never read Stephen King’s iconic novel The Shining, despite being an avid fan of his work. Conveniently, I decided to read it immediately before King’s thirty-years-later sequel, Doctor Sleep, was released. It was an interesting, though not necessary, way to approach the latter. While Doctor Sleep does continue the story of Dan Torrance (the gifted five year old Danny of The Shining) and calls back to the original book in numerous ways, it could also be read as a stand-alone and be almost just as enjoyable. At this point in Stephen King’s lengthy career and devoted readership, if there is any individual who bought Doctor Sleep and hasn’tread it’s prequel, I would be rather surprised.
This book begins by exploring what Dan has been doing for the past thirty years, and what we see at first is a man not so different from his late father. Despite his firmest intentions to stay far from alcohol, Dan eventually succumbs to the same addiction that plagued Jack Torrance. Alcoholism and involvement in AA are heavily prevalent in this book, exploring an interesting theme that people tend to gravitate towards the same habits and struggles as their parents. Dan still has ability to use the shining, but it’s power has toned down significantly as he has grown older. He works as an orderly at a nursing home, and it is there that his nickname ‘Doctor Sleep’ is coined, for he has a special ability to ease the dying through a gentle passage into death.
Before long, The True Knot are introduced: an outwardly forgettable caravan of RV travelers who move together from place to place across America, led by a gangly power-bitch who calls herself Rose the Hat. The only catch: The True are not-quite-living, not-quite-dead, and they require feeding off of human souls to live (a diet that also keeps them looking young and fit). More is revealed about The Knot throughout the book, but I can say with confidence that they make as effective and sinister a band of villains as King has ever conceived. Needless to point out, The True and Dan Torrance cross paths in some interesting ways as the pages roll on.
Another element that stirs up the narrative even further is a young girl named Abra Stone who seems to have shining powers that would eclipse those of the younger Danny. Several states and a thousand miles away, Abra telepathically calls out to Dan (as an infant). Not long after, The True gets wind of this extremely powerful little girl, and that’s when things get really interesting.
King described Doctor Sleep in early promotional interviews as getting back to, “balls-to-the-wall horror,” and what a pleasant return it is. There are more than a handful of clever elements worked into the story, such as each of the members of The True Knot having a specific ‘power’ or talent that helps them succeed as a group. I got a pleasant sense of freshness and excited ideas, reminiscent of King’s earliest work. To avoid spoiling something wonderful, there is an ability introduced between Dan and Abra’s shining power that bears a distant resemblance to such heady concepts as Inception or The Matrix. While what is actually being done with this power would be rather difficult to describe clearly in most contexts, King, master that he is, introduces the reader and establishes the parameters of it with incredible clarity. That description probably sounds quite convoluted… Read it, and you’ll know precisely what I mean.
As a whole, Doctor Sleep is a book that opens with a bang; there are a number of great hooks on both the ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ sides, snagging one’s attention immediately for the first seventy-five pages or so. Likewise, it ends with an exciting, clever, rather curious sort of confrontation. However, the middle narrative tends to drag in places. While the cast of characters is colorful and enjoyable throughout the novel, I found something somewhat lacking in the actual action of the plot. Don’t misunderstand, I’m quite alright with a book taking it’s time and having a slow-build, and I could not even call the middle of Doctor Sleep slow. It simply has a bit of a misguided feel.
That said, I think King wrote the sequel to The Shining that felt right to him, and in that sense I believe that it is probably about the best that it could have been. Does it hold the same un-put-down-able quality of the original? Is it the best Stephen King book I’ve ever read? Not quite. But is it a good sequel that makes sense within the world of the first story? And is it a fun read? Absolutely, and I think in this case, that’s enough.
P.S. As has been King’s habit, especially in recent years, to include some reference or another to The Dark Tower universe, Doctor Sleep is no exception. There’s literally just one sentence (only one that I noticed, anyhow) that ties the book to that world, but for avid fans it will stick out like a sore thumb.