Stephen King. What can you say about an author who was literally your first imaginary friend, via his characters and Wordsmithery? As a child growing up in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I envisioned a 1958 Plymouth Fury as my first car, whether it be possessed or not! I dreaded my first Prom (mind you I was like, 11 or 12 at the time of reading) based solely on my imaginings of how bad Prom had gotten for Carrie. I was CONVINCED this was the real “High School” deal waiting for me to grow into at that time (Incidentally, my first Prom date was exceptionally stunning and not at all telekinetic). And the Shop? The Shop spawned my first feelings of angst towards the government for picking on such a neat kid as Charlie, even if she could start fires and blow stuff up like nobody’s business. What can I say? Well? A lot actually…especially about Stephen King’s new release, Doctor Sleep, his long awaited sequel to The Shining.
As an old-timer, like so many of his fans are, I often wonder how much longer it will be before Stephen King runs out of stories to tell, ideas to bend and archetypal fears to absolutely shatter (Pet Cemetery was a parent’s worst nightmare in a very visceral way. Apparently Tabitha wasn’t too keen on it either, making him shelve that manuscript for quite some time). And, like so many, I never cease to be amazed at how much creative mojo this Bangor gentleman still has in the tank. Doctor Sleep, the tell-all-tale of Danny Torrance, that cute yet creepy lil boy most people associate with the finger talkin’, three wheel drivin’ psychic kiddo from the big screen version of “The Shining” is nothing less than remarkable, an epic ending to a very nefarious and pessimistic beginning, especially for us Alcys who like stories that talk about…well….US!…Us as heroes instead of villains!
Spoiler Alert! (Not too much spoilage, actually….and nothing vital. You will have to put in the face time to get the skinny on the good stuff, which there is plenty of)
The story begins with Danny (now using the handle Dan) as he follows in his father’s nefarious footsteps, the footsteps of an angry drunk man. Many of the themes used throughout this novel are themes taken directly from the surliest, smokiest, down to earth “real life in action” 12 Step meetings ever to take place, steeped in old timer philosophy as well as newly sober rebelliousness and of course, hopelessness. Dan has spent years and years drinking away his life in an effort to run from the Shine, or if you are a recovery hard liner, in an effort to excuse away his propensity to drink alcohol, in extremely large quantities.
One thing of importance for your reading of Doctor Sleep is this; Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the novel The Shining and not a sequel to the movie “The Shining.” There are a couple of major differences in the book that, for those who have only experienced “The Shining” on the big screen, will be somewhat confusing when these details appear in Doctor Sleep. It is easy to figure out, however, as they (the literary details in question) make a quick showing in the first chapter.
So….So we find ourselves at the beginning of the story, in an accelerated synopsis of the growing up of Danny into Dan. We learn about his character, his “rock bottom” and his entry into recovery. We also learn that many of the ghosties and ghoulies which haunted Dan as a child have followed him to Florida, where he and his mom have set up shop following the disaster at the Overlook Hotel.
Wendy (Danny’s mother) is convalescing from injuries received during that fateful ending to their stay at the Overlook with her husband, Danny’s alcoholic father, who succumbed to the evil of the Hotel, driving him insane. The first dead embodiment to reappear after the Overlook is Mrs. Massey, the woman from room 217. She makes her presence known to Danny in the opening salvo. In order to deal with these types of gory visitations (they leave behind gooey parts of themselves), Danny is given a few “tricks” of the Shine “trade” by a mentor. Afterwards, he sets off into the world somewhat equipped, but not really ready, to deal with the undead still haunting him, and possibly find some rhyme or reason to his existence as the son of Jack Torrance.
Dan, now grown, knows he is not alone in his possession of the unique talent known as the Shining, but it still continues to be rare and his only confidants are no longer available. This leaves him living a very lonely life. Enter in Abra Stone, a highly gifted, late adolescent girl who happens to possess one of the strongest Shine talents ever.
The term “Shining” comes from the John Lennon song “Instant Karma” and the line…we all shine on. Within the scope of the novel however, Shining could be summed up as an extrasensory perception, but that wouldn’t exactly cover it. Throughout the story, we meet other characters uniquely gifted under the umbrella of Shining with talents that aren’t exactly sensory let alone extrasensory. We see insidious persuasiveness, hypnotic suggestion, telepathy, spatial travel, telekinesis, possession and various other “skills” employed by various characters, nefarious as well as goodish. Abra Stone is gifted with many of these as opposed to just a singular persuasion, unlike all other characters who seem to maintain just one specific Shine talent.
Dan, who is Doctor Sleep by now (though I won’t tell you why), and Abra begin a cautious yet enjoyable Uncle/Niece type of relationship centered on protecting Abra from the bad girls (and a few token bad guys) known as the True Knot. The True Knot is a conglomeration of individuals transformed from Shine possessing rubes (those not associated with the True) into members of the group through a painful and sometimes forced conversion, bodily as well as mental. The True Knot is essentially a loose family made of quasi-immortal vampiric (not vampires but vampire like) beings who travel the world feeding off the souls (steam as the True call it) of Shining children as they die…painfully and brutal.
The True Knot, championed by Rose the Hat (murderess in chief), have wandered gypsy-like for centuries, caravanning around while hunting, feeding and bottom dwelling well below the proverbial radar of anyone who might actually be looking. Death is not something they experience often, at least among their own members, which gives them a certain kind of hubris, a specific type of arrogance over the non-True rubes of the world. Rose and company do not however, have any compunction about accomplishing the death of rube children in a violent and horrific manner so as to feed their dark and greedy vitality. And of course, they are obsessively on the lookout for quality nourishment, the strongest Shining rubes first and foremost, hence Abra Stone.
These are the major players of Doctor Sleep. The journey and eventual battle between goodish and evil takes us all over the continental U.S. including many of the old haunts depicted in The Shining. There is a deep father/son connection (through Dan’s mind) that exists from the first book, but not overly so as to make this novel a rehashed version of The Shining. In many respects Doctor Sleep, more specifically the ending, is the ending that could have been if King had so chosen to write The Shining at this point in his career. Why do I say this? Well for starters, King seems to break free of his own pattern and becomes a bit of an optimist, a dreamer so to speak, especially concerning Abra Stone.
Take for instance, this…
“She (Abra) saw them and jumped to her feet, waving. At that moment the cloud cover, which had been thinning, broke apart and a ray of sun spotlighted her. It was as if God had given her a high five.”
Now, in any normal King novel I would have expected him to write something like this…. and then commence to thoroughly dismantle the image over the next three chapters by destroying any innocence Abra Stone may have possessed, and then tell us that God has a dark sense of humor. Not so in Doctor Sleep. Stephen King…the author who penned the wickedness of Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel, the author who dreamed up the vindictive and elusive Randall Flagg, the not so romantic writer who completely shattered Susan Delgado (another fundamentally innocent and most memorable heroine) in Wizard and Glass (incidentally I quit reading his novels for a year after Charyou Tree)….chooses not to rip our hearts out and stomp on them with steel toed boots as it concerns little Abra Stone. I was waiting for it. Believe me, I was braced. Yes indeedy.
No. Stephen King, the author of so many other horrifically emotional scenes, is not the same guy as Stephen King the father who wrote Doctor Sleep. It is clear in this story how family has taken center stage for him. There is plenty of classic Stephen King twists, don’t get me wrong, however the way he treats the parent/child relationship shows an advanced maturity beyond anything King has previously done. Doctor Sleep is first and foremost about the legacy between daughters and mothers…sons and yes….fathers…more specifically Dan’s father. There is a legacy at work, a generational curse so to speak, that King flirts with in a most appropriate and Karmaic fashion that is intensely refreshing, highly gratifying and yes, even a bit jerky around the tear ducts when everything is all said and done.
The story, surprisingly, maintains a certain amount of, oh…how shall I say it…optimism. Yes. That is the right word. There is an optimism to this story that is refreshingly different from all other King stories I have previously wandered lost within.
In conclusion I would like to add this…
It's a keeper.
Doctor Sleep is as fine a read as any Stephen King has graced us with in quite some time. His writing, as always, is impeccable. The story telling is classic King yet maintains a certain freshness to it that was, in all honesty, a most welcome surprise. This may be the first Stephen King book I have read where the monsters were undoubtedly NOT the center stage. Nor were they present in order to define the protagonists. The protagonists defined themselves. And the human element? That of both little Danny and Dan the grown-up along with Abra Stone and her parents? They are strong in their own right, strong because they are real, and they feel. Strong because they think and they care, despite their vulnerabilities. They are connected in ways that go beyond sight, sound and touch. They are connected by that word that is so often cast aside for other pursuits and only explored when all else fails…family. It is Abra’s theory of Relativity.
This may be my first finished book from Stephen King… that I would actually consider a family book. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I have…and for all you Alcys out there who may need a lift up or a story to laugh at while you are hittin’ a meeting? Er…before you hit a meeting?
Shine on. You got this. We all Shine on...