Stephen King’s career reminds me of the career of Kurt Vonnegut in three ways: (1) they suffered the negative consequences of being associated with writing genre fiction, (2) they are often devalued as being too popular to be credible “literary” authors, and (3) as many popular writers are, they are often associated with one work—King with The Shining and Vonnegut with Slaughterhouse-Five. King, as well, has been further marginalized by the stigma that being prolific means a writer can’t possibly be high quality.
With Doctor Sleep, then, King takes on some monumental challenges since this 2013 novel is a sequel of possibly his most treasured work, The Shining, from 1977. King confronts the task of writing a sequel, as well as the weight of the popular film adaptation, in a concluding Author’s Note:
Did I approach the book with trepidation? You better believe it. The Shining is one of those novels people always mention…when they talk about which of my books really scared the bejeezus out of them….
I like to think I’m still pretty good at what I do, but nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare, and I mean nothing, especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable….
And people change. The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kick-ass story. (pp. 529-530)
Like many people, I was first drawn to King’s The Shining after seeing the 1980 film adaptation made popular by Jack Nicholson’s role. While I am certain I read the novel, I also realize I tend to recall more vividly the film version (the culturally iconic “Here’s Johnny!” and “Redrum”), which King warns about in a parenthetical comment in his Author’s Note: “If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter, which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.”
I should also add that I am no fan of King’s primary genres, such as horror, and have not been an avid reader of King over the years. During a couple summers in the early 2000s when I was an instructor in a regional National Writing Project institute, we assigned King’s On Writing, solidifying my argument that King remains a writing treasure as well as a writer’s writer, one who informs what we know and understand about the craft of narrative.
In 2013, I had bought several King novels, deciding once and for all to spend more time with his work because an avid reader I trust deeply is a devoted King fan, but had yet to find one that grabbed me. Then I came across Adam Roberts’s Best science fiction books of 2013, in which he praised Doctor Sleep along with Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam.
Although not intended as a book review, I want to offer first that Doctor Sleep delivers on King’s stated goal, “telling a kick-ass story.”
Dan Torrance is a fully developed and compelling character as a haunted adult, and his new shining companion, Abra Stone, is equally engaging as a child character replicating but also expanding some of the power found in Danny as a child in The Shining. If you are looking for a novel worthy of your commitment as a “ling-distance reader,” this is more than worthy of your time and investment.
But there are two aspects of the work I want to highlight beyond a recommendation.
First, as a regular and enthusiastic beer drinker who knows the horrors of alcoholism among men on my mother’s side of the family, the most haunting aspect of the novel is the examination of alcoholism and the personal yet not idealistic dramatization of Alcoholics Anonymous. At over 500 pages in hardback, the book took several days to read and it bore into my thoughts deeply and pervasively, making me contemplative about even raising a pint of beer with a meal.
The weight and terror associated with the life of alcoholism are rendered far more frightening in this work than the vampire-like threat of the True Knot. For readers, the damage done by alcoholism is real, and the damage done to humans in its wake, including children, haunts Dan and the reader as powerfully as the apparitions expected in a King work of horror.
Many so-called types of genre fiction—such as science fiction, fantasy, and horror—incorporate social commentary through allegory. In Doctor Sleep, King does not hide his examination of alcoholism, however, beneath a metaphorical veneer; instead he pairs the twin demons of alcoholism and the supernatural—resulting in a work that may be more disturbing in the real rather than the imagined.
The second powerful aspect of the work involves the relationship between being a child and also being vulnerable because of that mere status as well as because of nearly debilitating fears that you are alone because you are different.
Much of Doctor Sleep for me is about childhood, itself a scary thing. When Dan as a struggling adult crosses paths with Abra, their shared shining creates a compelling look at how any child and all humans must come to terms with the Self, even or especially when that Self feels or is dramatically unlike social norms or what appears to be normal: “’I’m okay,’ [Abra] said. ‘Really. I’m just glad not to be alone with this inside my head’” (p. 236). You don’t have to have the shining to understand Abra’s relief.
Even as Abra finds solace in her connection with Dan—and their shared shining—she remains a victim of her own anxieties, especially as she feels compelled to hide her differences from her parents in order to protect them.
Abra also has a terrifying connection with a murdered boy—again speaking to both the fragility of being a child in a harsh adult world and the weight of isolation and bonds that are beyond any person’s control. This connection is stunning and, like the focus on alcoholism, haunts the reader:
They cut him up and licked his blood and then they did something even worse to him [emphasis in original]. In a world where something like that could happen, mooning over a boy band seemed worse than wrong. (p. 209)
Abra’s story is more than the narrative of a paranormal girl; it is the story of the collision between childhood and adulthood, and the potential of that childhood and even children being left in the wake. Again, this very real element is somehow much more terrifying than the supernatural.
King’s noting he is a different man than the one who wrote The Shining informs the big picture about Doctor Sleep since this novel of horror has a compassionate and soothing narration to it—the gift of a master storyteller—that keeps the reader somewhere between Abra’s anxiety and the eternal drift into slumber—both the daily ritual of sleep and the inevitable exit from this mortal coil.
Yes, Doctor Sleep is “a kick-ass story,” but it also much more; it will not soon leave you once you’ve returned to, or entered for the first time, the Torrance Family Album.