The Shining was published in 1977, but I read it for the first time just last year. So while 37 years is a long time between sequential books, Stephen King couldn’t have timed the publication of Doctor Sleep better for moi. That said, I did temper my hopes. The summaries I read made the plot sound like a murky mess – something about little Danny all grown up and fighting a supernatural shining-sucking cult. Uhhhhh, not sure.
Having only read a few of King’s first books recently, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie (couldn’t get through Under the Dome), I wasn’t sure what to expect from Doctor Sleep. After decades of continued success, success that goes way beyond what most writers dare to dream of, I wondered how he could possibly go back. Could King write a novel that stands on its own and yet lives up to the slow burning chills, sustained dread and heart that made The Shining so wonderfully agonizing to read?
Apparently he can because he did. Last fall it seemed like all the world was reading and loving Doctor Sleep. I’m happy to report the book lives up to the hype.
We dive right in, starting at the beginning of Wendy and Danny’s new life in a crummy Florida apartment. Danny is eight-years-old when the woman from Room 237 pays him a visit in the bathroom, skin falling from her body. This is when he realizes the evil at The Overlook Hotel lives on and can find him wherever he is. His old friend Doc teaches Danny how to lock away the bad things that are very real and very capable of harming him.
We don’t spend much time with young Danny because we don’t have to. We skip over much of his downward spiral and meet him at the rock bottom. The few Stephen King books I’ve read have all had at least one really difficult scene to read – difficult not because it’s “Boo” scary but because it digs into some ugliness tha shows a dark spot in a character’s heart. We hit that scene early on. This marks the turning point in Danny’s life, but it’s a wide turn. He’s still a drifter and a drunk when impulse tells him to get off a bus in a small New Hampshire town.
One of the things Stephen King does well is write a slew of scheming characters who all push the plot forward. He flexes this muscle when introducing the True Knot, a.k.a. supernatural shining-sucking cult. The True Knot are led by Rose, a charismatic woman of sorts in a gravity-defying top hat. Rose and her people live off of what they call steam, which only comes from people with some shining. Unfortunately for the shiners, this steam is got through extensive torture that drains their life force and leaves them rotting in a shallow grave.
As it turns out, Dan has settled within mental shouting distance of a powerful little girl named Abra Stone. Abra has a feast of steam, and The True are a hungry bunch.
Danny slowly pieces together a perspective of life as a wheel that comes full circle. The notion is physicalized when a giant wheel is turned between the minds of two telepaths’ when one is ready to be a student and the other is finally ready to teach and protect.
What struck me first about this book is how much heart it has. Like his father, Dan grows up to be a violent alcoholic. Unlike his father, Dan reaches out for help. Once he joins AA his life changes. He’s not only trying to work out a future for himself, but he’s able to look at his past and wonder if maybe his father drank for a reason, and maybe that reason was a having touch of the shining. His new perspective of his father and what happened at the Overlook Hotel creates a live link to the first book. When reading this I almost felt like I was also re-reading The Shining in the back of my mind. That’s partly why this book demands undivided attention. It’s so immersive that you feel a little heavy headed every time you put it down, like coming up from water.
I loved this book. Loved it! The pacing couldn’t be better. It’s a layered thriller that builds intensity while also taking breathers for the quiet, creepy moments that zoom in for an extreme close-up of last breaths. I don’t know if King likes to tease, but he did leave unexplored territory. I hope we haven’t read the last of characters that shine and help the dead cross over. And I really really hope they make Doctor Sleep into a movie, not a mini series.
And if you also happen to be a fan of his author son Joe Hill, the book has a few wink winks to Hill’s recent book NOS4A2.