Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most well known books. The Shining was about Danny Torrance staying with his mother and alcoholic writer father Jack in an empty hotel in an isolated Colorado hotel. Jack had taken a position caretaking the hotel and to finish his book. Neither of them know Danny has the “shining”, a psychic spark that gives him certain powers but also draws out the spirits of the hostile dead that dwell in the hotel. Those same spirits draw out the dark side of Jack. I reviewed The Shining a few years ago, and couldn’t get past them choosing to stay in the hotel in the first place, considering the father’s alcoholism and history of abuse. I never cared for the 1980 Kubrick film version either–mostly because I thought Jack Nicholson played Jack Torrance as a caricature. The 1997 miniseries version that had Steven Weber in the role of Jack Torrance worked much better for me.
In Doctor Sleep (published in 2013) Dan Torrance is grown up now, and he’s struggling with alcoholism just like his father did. He hits rock bottom and joins Alcoholics Anonymous, finds a small town where he can settle down and work at a hospice and try to make a real life for himself–and it’s there that he takes the titular nickname Doctor Sleep.
Over the years a young girl named Abra Stone, who also has the shining, connects with Dan through their shared gift and they get to know each other a little bit. In 2013, she is thirteen years old and they find out that there’s a nomadic group of bad people who call themselves the True Knot are after her. The True Knot are a community of vampire-like creatures that draw their sustenance by eating the shining as they murder children who have the gift. Now, they’ve discovered Abra, who has a more powerful shining than anyone they’ve ever heard of.
Doctor Sleep has the strengths and weaknesses of a typical Stephen King novel. On the plus side, King almost always has interesting, relatable characters–once the story got into full swing it was easy to root for Dan and Abra and friends. King’s villains are the kind you love to hate and the speculative premise is weird and interesting, particularly the community of shining-eating vampires.
The negative side is all tied into Stephen King’s seat-of-the-pants writing style. He has said before that he doesn’t do much pre-planning, is a seat-of-the-pants writer rather than an outliner, and in stories like this, it shows for the worse. The first half of the book covers Dan’s history of alcoholism as he hits rock bottom and begins attending AA, and also Abra’s childhood as she manifests all kinds of different abilities from the shining, but the story doesn’t really take off until past page 200, almost 50% of the way through the book. This was definitely important back story, but if it takes up half the book there are balance issues. It seemed like this first stretch was King writing to discover his characters but neglecting to trim it back before the book was published. If the author were anyone but Stephen King, I would’ve set the book down long before the book really took off. I am a big fan of concise, powerful writing like Rowling, Leckie, or Connolly, and this is not that.
King’s seat-of-the-pants writing style is also very clear in the ending. Most of the book is spent reinforcing the gargantuan power of the villains. Everything about the book implies that the climax should be epic with big losses on both sides, so when, after all that buildup everything resolves too neatly, too quickly, it undermines all of the buildup that came before it. It seems like King wrote himself into a corner and then just slapped a too-tidy ending onto it for lack of better ideas.
The book could’ve been amazing, but with the overlong backstory and the weak ending it was merely okay. However, if you don’t mind these quibbles (and longtime King fans probably won’t), the journey was enjoyable and filled with interesting and suspenseful moments.