Book review: Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

The much-anticipated sequel to 'The Shining' loses its way with dull redemption theme

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 2013, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 October, 2013, 11:22am

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
2.5 stars

Sequels are notoriously tricky beasts. For every The Empire Strikes Back there is a Jaws 2. And just when you thought it was dangerous to watch Jaws 2, there is a Phantom Menace to make even that plastic sharky disaster look not so bad after all. So when Stephen King announced that he was writing a sequel to The Shining titled Doctor Sleep, many of his followers oscillated between the thrill of excited anticipation and that of anxiety.

After all, this is Stephen King's The Shining, one of three or four genre-defining novels that contend to be literary horror's masterpiece. A portrait of the artist as a de-generating psychopath, it narrates how Jack Torrance falls prey to alcoholism, isolation, his frustrated literary ambitions and something darker in that haunted building. King turns ideas of hospitality, family and luxury on their head to form a story so unnervingly good that not even Stanley Kubrick could mess it up.

This is a novel driven by character arc rather than gripping suspense or well-crafted plot

Millions of King's readers have since dreamed of discovering what happened to Danny Torrance and his mother, Wendy, once they survived the Overlook Hotel. What ratchets the hype still further is that Doctor Sleep arrives during a golden age for King's fans. Whether he is advancing his ever-increasing literary ambitions with Lisey's Story or the brilliant 11.22.63, or kicking it old school with Cell, it seems there is nothing he can't do.

The stakes could not be higher, so it's depressing to report that sequels might be an exception to that rule. Like its brothers in bathos, Jaws 2 and The Phantom Menace, Doctor Sleep could probably never live up to the optimism surrounding its release. But the anti-climax is made more poignant by the novel's opening which promises so much.

We rediscover Danny and Wendy not long after the Overlook Hotel burned to the ground. Danny is still besieged by phantasmagorical visions (including the old faithful, "redrum"), but learns to lock them away with the help of Dick Halloran, the hotel's caretaker who recognised Danny was possessed - in all senses of the word - by supernatural gifts.

As Danny grows up, he finds other ways to repress the painful memories of his childhood and the insights imposed upon him by his eerie second sight. Tragically, he follows in his father's footsteps - not by becoming a writer, but by becoming an alcoholic. King describes the degradations of the habitual drunk with stomach-churning vividness. Having vomited into a blocked toilet bowl, Danny looks in horror at a "turd, probably his own, rising towards the pee-slashed rim … on a sea of half-digested bar-snacks".

This material squalor comes with its emotional and psychic counterparts. Whatever moral sense Danny inherited from his mother is compromised by his addiction. Having been conned into spending his pay on cocaine by the latest of his one-night stands, he exacts revenge by stealing a few dollars clearly intended to feed her young son. The sight of the boy mistaking the white powder for candy not only chimes with Danny's raw past, it pursues him throughout his future in the novel.

Danny hits rock bottom soon after, only to be rescued by several soon-to-be interwoven plots. There is the sort of genial, blue-collar American town that King describes so well, where he finds a life-saving AA group. There is a job of noble public service: Danny works in a hospice, where his "Shining" ability helps dying patients shuffle peacefully off this mortal coil. Finally, he becomes a mentor: to Abra, a psychic young girl who is to the Shining what Luke Skywalker is to the Force.

Then, all hell breaks loose - not in the plot so much as with King's plotting. Enter the True Knot, a band of RV-driving nasties who view Abra as a lifetime's supply of food (or Steam). Dressed like cast-offs from Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour, the True Knot members are, one supposes, meant to turn the pages. But they are so fundamentally unscary that Abra has probably faced greater threats choosing which socks to wear every morning.

In his author's note, King vows to tell a "kickass story". Yet, kicking narrative ass seems low on Doctor Sleep's priorities. This is a novel driven by character arc rather than gripping suspense or well-crafted plot. King's higher power in this is not his literary guide, On Writing, but Alcoholics Anonymous. This shapes Danny's cyclical journey of redemption and the teacher-pupil (sponsor-addict) relationships that propel its characters.

The central pairing of Danny and Abra proves especially unconvincing. In one section, King isn't focused on pedagogy so much as paedophilia, fretting nervously about middle-aged Danny's encounters with a lively adolescent. Their alliance, which begins with hints of grooming, albeit of the psychic variety, soon shifts to the apparently safer ground of secret internet liaisons and furtive meetings by the town library. King seems to be curiously uncertain about his characters.

The pair spends much of the tensest moments of the novel communing on an astral plane. Literary cliché insists that telling a story is inferior to showing it, but Doctor Sleep doesn't even get this far. Its major confrontations are narrated on wavelength rather than dialogue. King aims barbs at Twilight, but Doctor Sleep is not better at resolving the dramatic confrontations that it creates: see Abra's kidnapping, or the battle with the supposedly dastardly Rose.

Nowhere does King's usually infallible radar malfunction more grievously than in his narrative voice. At his best, King's confidential tone, mixing bad jokes, pop-culture references and home-spun wisdom, has convinced the reader of anything from undead pets to a girl with telekinetic abilities.

In Doctor Sleep, this aw-shucks, fireside persona presides to the point of tweeness. Page 121 staggers under down-home similes: the evening is colder than a "witch's belt buckle. Or a well-digger's tit"; a hospice patient is as "lively as a cricket". Worse still is Danny's sombre conviction that "empty devils" is the most "terrible phrase" he has ever heard - which seems unintentionally truer than he knows.

The novel's well-intentioned tale of redemption through sobriety, work and family seems to have profound personal significance for King. A recovering alcoholic himself, perhaps it is too personal. Critics have already praised Doctor Sleep for its mature pace and themes, as if The Shining's genuinely exciting plot, menacing atmosphere and old-fashioned suspense were somehow dangerously juvenile, or suspiciously enjoyable.

Doctor Sleep's soupy, supernatural atmosphere by contrast reads like horror imagined at arm's length and salvation drawn from therapy. Danny doesn't so much confront his demons face to face, as come to terms with them by revisiting the psychological terrain of his infancy. It doesn't make for gripping fiction.

I won't spoil the major plot twist - its unoriginality does that on its own. Still, there's little doubt that King will be back. Until then, I'm off to read The Shining.