This is a review of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep I wrote in September 2013 for the EVENT section of the Mail on Sunday, which very kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.
DOCTOR SLEEP by STEPHEN KING
(Hodder & Stoughton £19.99)
Fifteen years ago, Stephen King started wondering what had happened to Danny Torrance, the kid from his 1977 novel The Shining. What kind of life would you lead after you’d been trapped in a haunted hotel with your father trying to kill you?
With Doctor Sleep, King at last fills us in on Danny’s post-Overlook life, and in the process reclaims the Torrance Family History from Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, which made several major changes to the story. Now we find out what happened, not just to Dan (as we must call him now) but to his mother Wendy and to the chef, Dick Hallorann, who shared a telepathic link with the boy.
There are cameos from a couple of the hotel ghosts, as well. But, unlike The Shining, and despite the ghosts, this is not a ghost story. It’s the story of a recovering alcoholic seeking redemption. In the early pages, Dan is a burnt-out drifter, using alcohol to blunt the edge of his sometimes painful psychic abilities. But then he settles in a small New Hampshire town, makes friends, starts working in a hospice (where he teams up with a cat to bring comfort to the dying) and attends AA meetings.
He also makes telepathic contact with Abra, a young girl in a nearby town whose psychic powers are even stronger than his own. He’s not the only one aware of her. Further south, roaming the highways in their RVs, is a band of golden agers called the True Knot. Behind the banal-looking façade, they are psychic vampires who stay youthful by feeding off paranormally gifted children. These evil nomads are in urgent need of regeneration, and Abra could be the answer to their prayers…
Once Dan makes contact with Abra, King’s interest in him seems to wane. Perhaps Dan should have been a supporting character in Abra’s story, rather than the other way round. She’s a generic cousin to Carrie, but her powers are sketched rather than examined, and her parents (unlike Carrie’s mother) are too good to be true.
The Shining was written when King was an alcoholic, and much of its power stems from its author’s very real fear, as a father, of harming his children. It also happens to be one of the scariest ghost stories of the 20th century, and a hard act to follow. The author is aware “nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare… especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable,” as he writes in his postscript.
But my being no longer young and impressionable doesn’t account for Doctor Sleep being quite so cosy and upbeat. There’s a peculiar lack of urgency, far too much uneventful driving, and at one point the action grinds to a halt while everyone catches up on their sleep.
You never really fear for either Abra or Dan, who unlike his father doesn’t seem in serious danger of falling off the wagon. And from the outset, the bad guys feel like underdogs. Rose the Hat, their leader, is a an oddly ineffectual bogeywoman, with none of the mythic clout of The Stand‘s Randall Flagg, or Pennywise the Clown from It.
It’s a breezy enough page-turner. King is too skilled a storyteller for Doctor Sleep to be anything other than unputdownable, but in contrast to the more satisfying 11.22.63, there’s a sense he has cut corners, even chickened out. There is one upsetting fatality, but the King of 30 years ago would have been ruthless in putting his characters and readers through the mill.
Perhaps Stephen King has conquered his demons. Maybe he’s not frightened of anything any more. I like to think he still has a few genuine scares hidden up his sleeve. But if that’s the case, it’s a shame he didn’t produce them here.
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