Spoiler content: probably nothing you couldn’t get off the flap copy of both Doctor Sleep and The Shining
I finally got a chance to finish Doctor Sleep, the much-anticipated story of what happens after The Overlook, while I was on vacation. Here we find Danny Torrance all grown up and, surprise surprise, a drunk. We’re to blame this, it seems, partly on the shining and his need to dull it, although not so much that it’s a cop out. While dealing with his own inner demons, Danny also has to help some old people die (but only the ones the cat tells him to) and save the world’s shining children from a group of shining-sucking-vampire types led by one of the better villains Stephen King has written in a while. It’s a tall order, but luckily for him, he’s got some help besides the aforementioned cat.
King says in the author’s note that he was a bit hesitant to write a follow-up to The Shining, and I don’t blame him. Bad sequels always seem to tarnish the original, and when the original is as good as The Shining – the book, mind, not the Kubrick movie – it’s hard to justify messing with it.
For the first twenty pages I thought: maybe he should have listened to his instinct. After that I thought: wow, this might actually be better than The Shining.
It is and it isn’t. King has written dozens of books and won a National Book Award between that book and this one, and it shows. The writing is better. And it’s a more well-rounded story. Whereas the Overlook Hotel was Evil Just Because, the villains in Doctor Sleep are real, developed, honest-to-goodness characters. Mostly you hate them, sometimes you almost feel sorry for them, but all the while, you understand them.
But The Shining has a keen, unforgettable emotional resonance that this book can’t match. (In fact, the closest it comes is during the inevitable return to the site of The Overlook, and I won’t spoil that for you, but. Have tissues.) Jack Torrance – again, book-Jack, not here’s-Johnny-Kubrick-Jack – is a complicated, heartbreaking character, and his descent into madness is horrible to behold. His desperation not to let his family down, combined with the inevitability of his doing just that in gargantuan proportions, make him almost Greek in his tragic brilliance.
Dan Torrance, while also complicated, hasn’t got the same sort of struggle. No matter the mistakes he makes, no matter the occasional red-seeing, there’s never any doubt that he’s basically a nice guy. Toward the beginning of the book, he does the worst thing he’s ever done, the thing that will haunt him always (or at least for the duration of the story). Contrasting that thing with his father’s worst things makes Danny’s fear of the monster within almost laughable. He just hasn’t got the capacity for evil that Jack had, so the story hasn’t got the same heartstring-pulling, can-he-fight-it-or-can’t-he tension.
The comparisons dispensed with, Doctor Sleep is, on its own, just a straight-up good book. It’s got everything you’ve come to expect from King: compelling characters, memorable images, creepy moments, funny moments, and some really good scares. Danny’s struggles with his past (sometimes actual physical struggles) mix with the troubles of his present in ways that are satisfying and, with one possible exception, rarely feel contrived. The pacing is mostly spot-on.
I did miss the mastery of setting that you so often get from King. When you read a Derry or Castle Rock story, or ‘Salem’s Lot, or Bag of Bones, or several of his other books, where is inextricable from what and who: the story simply couldn’t happen anyplace else. Here, the setting feels like it could easily be swapped out for a dozen others without it affecting the story much. It’s the kind of thing I notice because immersion is so important to me, but overall, it’s a minor complaint. In the end, this is still just a really good yarn. Which is what you’re buying a King book for, no?