It’s over 20-years since the Torrance family ended their fateful stay in the Overlook Hotel, and the youngest member of the tribe, Dan (formerly known as Danny to most, and Doc to those who mattered most), is still carrying the demons left behind. I suppose I might be speaking metaphorically. Then again, this is the sequel to The Shining, so you never know.
If you haven’t read The Shining, you should start there. For all its strengths, Doctor Sleep would be a far less effective book without the history of its protagonist. Plus, The Shining is one of King’s best. I might even go so far as to say it’s one of the best, period. You’ve got time – go read it, and then come back. And don’t cheat by watching the movie. That’s not the Torrance family you will need to know if you want to understand our disheveled and wandering hero in Doctor Sleep.
Assuming the rest of us are on the same page, now, and carry young Danny Torrance in a soft place in our hearts, where we root for him and wish him nothing but peace after the hell he went through when he was five, let’s talk about this new story of his. I like to keep spoilers to a minimum in my reviews, and that includes over-description of plot, so we’ll keep it simple.
As his twenties lead into his thirties, Dan must face the fact that in spite of all reason, and in spite of the best efforts of his mother, Wendy, he has become an alcoholic – just like dear old dad, Jack Torrance before him. He has no relationships to ground him, few friends, and mediocre references, in spite of his unique skills when dealing with the sick and dying (he still shines, after all).
He does find a place that feels good to him, however, and some friends who encourage him to hop on that wagon for good, with the help of AA, in New Hampshire. And right around the time his mind begins to clear, somewhere nearby, a little girl named Abra is born, and makes herself known to him by using her own shining to a dazzling degree. And, of course, she eventually finds herself in trouble. You see, in this world not all big-bads are ghosts. There are plenty of living, breathing monsters who would love to get their hands (and their terrifying teeth) on children who shine.
Doctor Sleep is a story of the friendship that develops between Abra and Dan, and the ways in which the battles they must fight bring them both to an understanding of the powers and the pitfalls of their particular psychic gifts. More than that, though, it is the story of a damaged little boy becoming a damaged man, and the perils ‘demon in the bottle’ brings with it, if it is left to go on too long.
King spends a lot of time on Dan’s alcoholism, and a lot of time discussing AA – the meetings, the sayings, the connection the members have with each other. This is not a bad thing– far from it. By far it is the development of Danny Torrance that works best in the story. King deftly uses just enough flashbacks and references to the events of The Shining to remind us of that terrified little boy, without falling into the trap of using the scares from that novel to spice up this one. Of all the characters the novel, Danny is the only one who feels totally real, but he is enough.
There are times Doctor Sleep falls a bit flat when it comes to the other characters, even the baddies (who are really quite bad). They serve their purposes well; it is fun to get to know Abra, and watch her powers grow; there is even a bit of humanity to the semi-human-at-best group called the True Knot who binge on the essence of psychic children, which provides some depth to the story. Perhaps it is because the reader has so much history with Danny, or perhaps it is because that is who King himself loves most, but most of the characters around him feel like they are filling in slots needed in the plot more than anything else. King is a master-writer, so this isn’t too much to worry about. You won’t be bored. His cookie-cutter characters are still better than most you’ll get from other writers, particularly ones so prolific.
Doctor Sleep also isn’t nearly as scary as The Shining – it won’t keep you up at night, checking behind your shower curtains and under your bed. But, here’s the thing, before it starts to sound like I was disappointed by it: I wasn’t. Danny is enough. The semi-full characters around him are enough. The horror that isn’t as scary as The Overlook Hotel is enough. Doctor Sleep works because almost everything King writes works – he knows what he is doing. It also works because in Danny Torrance, King has one of his best, mostly fully-fleshed and -formed characters. By the end of the novel, we feel as though we have known him his whole life; we understand where he has been, why he behaves the way he does, and why he deserves any and all happiness the world can give him.
This novel feels heavy with King’s own past, which he has openly admitted involved alcoholism. That weight provides a peculiar and powerful kind of intimacy to it. While we are rooting for Danny, we are rooting for King too, a man who has been fighting his own demons, sitting in front of his typewriter, for over three decades.
Finally, there is a really great website, with a syncing-to-your-phone element, for the novel here. It’s a sweet little teaser, and may give you more information about the plot of the novel, if you want it. It’s really cool.
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