"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Is 'Doctor Sleep' a Shining Sequel?

Doctor Sleep (The Shining, #2)Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Enough with all this Alcoholics Anonymous chit chat! I want the supernatural scare fest I was promised!” Some part of me wanted to stand and say that to Stephen King while reading his new novel, Doctor Sleep. After all, this story is a sequel to The Shining , a true blue--which is to say green and slimy--horror house thriller.

Having survived the literal monsters of The Shining, Young Dan Torrance has grown up into a womanizing alcoholic with a violent streak. As character reprises go, Torrance is a plausible and well-crafted offspring of his haunted father. Yet as literature, Doctor Sleep is better compared to King’s recent 11 22 63 . They share similar sentiments about individual and collective character. King even recycles my favorite line from 11/22/63. And both plotlines embellish one man’s internal struggle by covering a great deal of country and time. Torrance bottoms out as a 20-something alcoholic. After a period of wandering, he encounters a young girl who also has psychic gifts and is plagued by soul-sucking villains. These catalyze his personal growth.

Ironically, the novel’s chief problem is the extent of its restraint. In contrast to the vivid and sometimes overwhelming savagery employed in past novels, here King errs on the side of minimalism and suggestion. It’s not to say he altogether spares readers horror. But where he does get graphic and macabre, King is relatively brief and to the point. Unlike The Shining, this novel is not unrelentingly spooky.

Doctor Sleep spends most of its ink developing human drama. And herein lies one of the novel’s weaknesses. Most of the characters are not memorable. They may be a cut above flat caricatures, but they fail to transcend their mere utility nature. In particular, the individuals who make up a villainous cult named the True Knot are mostly forgettable.

Still, as a collective voice the True Knot prove intriguing. They are evil but not mindlessly diabolical. They display love, loyalty, and personal struggle in ways that merit some empathy. Their coldblooded killing is more than a recreational pursuit. Motivated by a sense of survival and dependency, they feed on the vitality of younger generations. Holy cow! Am I just now realizing how the True Knot’s self-serving rampage makes an excellent allegory for Baby Boomer politics?

As explored through interviews and author’s notes, King seems mesmerized by real life crises. So much so that Doctor Sleep develops at the expense of the supernatural, rather than by virtue of it. For most of the novel, the protagonist’s chief adversary is not a monster; it is a vice. Likewise, Torrance’s shining protege is predominantly hounded by her own temper, not the villain's.

I struggled in trying to decide whether to give Doctor Sleep three or four stars out of five. No, I don’t wish I could give it three-and-a-half. I’m saying this novel merits either three or four stars depending on how I look at it. As a sequel that adeptly transcends rehash, that provides a thoughtful and entertaining development of an established character, this is a four star novel. However, taken as a thriller it feels patchy.

Still, as I followed Doctor Sleep on his journey I felt myself appreciating the lesson Torrance plays out. The demonic forces we should be most concerned with are not in this or any King story, they are in our souls. It may even follow that some people read Doctor Sleep and decide to give AA, or one of its off-shoots, a try. Yes, one might read a Stephen King novel and be the better for it.

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