In 1977, Stephen King thrilled the world with The Shining, a story about a young boy with a special kind of ESP dubbed “shining.” The book was more than a chilling work of horror; it was an oedipal tale.
Danny Torrance (the young boy) is brought to the Overlook Hotel by his parents Jack and Wendy, where Jack has been hired as the winter caretaker. The Overlook, a swanky summer getaway for elites, is located in the mountains of Colorado, and the family of three is left alone at the hotel to shepherd it through the rough winter months. But they are not the only ones there. The Overlook is haunted and wants Danny’s special power. It uses Jack, a drunk and a failed writer, as its medium to try to kill the boy and possess his shining. The subtext is obvious, effective, and classic.
Danny and his mother mange to escape the snowbound and murderous hotel, while Jack is killed. The film by Stanley Kubrick followed a few years later, and is probably more well known than the book. King, never a fan of the movie, got behind a made-for-TV remake in the late 1990s. Though this version hues closer to the book King wrote, cinematically and narratively it is far inferior to the Kubrick film.
Putting aside the two movies, after The Shining’s publication in 1977, the story of Danny Torrance seemed to be concluded—that is until the publication of Doctor Sleep in 2013.
In the book’s afterword, King writes that, many years after the publication of The Shining, a fan approached him at a book signing to inquire what became of Danny. It was a question he had pondered himself but never felt compelled to pursue. The fan’s question reignited his interest in Danny Torrance, which ultimately resulted in Doctor Sleep.
It was this same curiosity about Danny that caused me to return to King, an author whom I hadn’t read in years.
It had probably been twenty years since I’d read a Stephen King novel. In my college days, I eagerly consumed many of his works, mostly horror and thriller fare—from Carrie to Salem’s Lot to The Stand to It. I even appreciated his more elevated work such as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Who would not?
King always appeared to struggle with making the leap from genre writer to serious author (though I’m not sure he wants to be considered as such), and his books of the past two decades have seemed to pine for the latter disposition as opposed to the former. Whether this is the case or not, the descriptions of the more recent King novels have not spoken to me, and I have not indulged him by reading any of them. It was only wanting to reconnect with the character Danny that brought me back to King and what I believed to be his strength: horror.
Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed. Doctor Sleep should have been titled ‘The Shining Part II.’ Though this may sound prosaic, it would have a fairer representation. Doctor Sleep is a meandering, hard-to-believe, 550 pages that nearly ruins the original novel. Much like the second set of Star Wars movies (the so-called prequels), the second installment tarnishes the special quality of the first.
Doctor Sleep is Dan Torrance’s (no longer Danny) nickname as an adult. After wandering the country for many years, trying to escape his experiences at the Overlook Hotel, Dan, a hopeless alcoholic, finds a home in New Hampshire and cleans himself up. He is a gifted hospice worker and is known for his ability to ferry dying men and women to the other side. For this gift, he is given the moniker ‘Doctor Sleep.’
That might have been interesting in and of itself, but this story thread is only a set up to the meat of the novel. Now settled in New Hampshire, Dan Torrance makes psychic contact with a newborn girl named Abra, who has powers even greater than his. He doesn’t know if she is real or not, and years pass, their thoughts intermittently co-mingling, before meeting in person (they happen to live about twenty miles apart). It’s only when Abra –now a pre-teen—learns of the existence (and vice versa) of ‘The True Knot’ that her destiny becomes linked to Dan’s.
The True Knot is some kind of peripatetic band of psychic vampires who feed on the mental powers of children like Abra. They track them down, kidnap them, and gruesomely drain them of their ‘steam,’ which they use to live and to thrive. ‘The True’ has existed for thousands of years, though they find themselves, in present times, in duress. Abra’s immense power is irresistible to The True Knot, not to mention quite possibly its only chance for continued survival.
With Abra in jeopardy, she psychically reaches out to Dan. The two meet and form an alliance, along with friends and family, to oppose The True Knot and destroy it forever.
These parts of the novel are preposterous and confounding. The True Knot itself never feels right. We don’t know where they come from, who they really are, or how they came by their powers. They are said to have billions of dollars and highly placed assets in the US Government. These bits of information are thrown out now and again but only feel like scraps—and not even tasty ones. Put simply, The True Knot and almost everything that relates to it in Doctor Sleep is ham-fisted.
When the conflict between Dan and Abra and The True Knot ramps up, almost every plot turn is convenient. Even in a world that differs so sharply from ours, it is hard to believe half the developments in Doctor Sleep. There seems to be a deus ex machina every ten pages. The True Knot is a devious and mortal threat, no doubt, but when Abra and Dan can so easily come up with some kind of convenient counter every time they need to, the danger of the True Knot feels less potent.
The only thing that kept me going until the end was to see what would happen in the final showdown and how fate would shine or not on Dan Torrance. The conclusion is a let down and yet again facile in every way.
Perhaps if the book had been briefer and less bogged down in the ins and outs of Alcoholics Anonymous, the story could have worked. I understand Stephen King himself has struggled with alcoholism, and it’s natural he would want to insert it into a story, but it never feels organic to Doctor Sleep and it is revisited far too much.
I noted wryly that at the conclusion of the book King thanks several people for suggestions about and edits to the novel. Did not one of them say scrap this story? Perhaps no one had the courage, but I think the story of Dan Torrance would have been better continued in a far different fashion.
There is an interesting dramatic question to be asked about Dan Torrance or anyone else who has a power like ‘the shining’: how do you live with it and the things you can see? What do you to preserve your own sanity when visions come at you left and right? Dan Torrance’s solution is to drink, and King’s impulse to explore this quandary is a good one—and these are the best parts of Doctor Sleep. Unfortunately, the plot he constructs around Dan Torrance and his struggles is simply not up to snuff.
The problem with the plot of the book mirrors the problem with the title itself. Both come off as massive non sequiturs, and you never feel grounded in Dan’s character or invested in his journey. I have immense respect for Stephen King and every artist is allowed a flub or two. I’ve probably read ten or so of King’s novels, and I don’t recall disappointment with any of them on the scale I felt for Doctor Sleep. Let’s hope it’s an aberration in an otherwise legendary career.