Saturday, 9 August 2014

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Danny Torrance, the kid in Stephen King’s The Shining, is all grown up. And, perhaps, not surprisingly, he’s a bit screwed in the head. And who could blame him? Hearing voices, seeing dead people, getting throttled by a fishy dead woman, being chased by hedge animals, having to wear those flares (sorry – onto the movie) – poor Danny’s had a rough ride. That’s not even taking his alcoholic, wife-beating, murderous father into account.

Initially it looks like the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. Danny—now Dan—has become everything he hated. A drifter addicted to booze and fights, he stumbles from one car wreck to the next, until he ends up stalling for a while in Frazier, New Hampshire – a sleepy small town where he discovers the Twelve Step Programme.

Add in a young girl, Abra who also “shines” with psychic powers, like Dan’s, and a bevy of vampiric “RV people” who spend their preternaturally long life shuffling across America in a convoy of motorhomes and feeding off kids who shine, and you can see where this novel is heading.

Doctor Sleep is typical fare in many ways. King has always been gifted at grabbing you straight away with detailed characterisation combined with increasingly spooky hints of nastiness to come. It’s generally later that things tend to fall apart (Cell anyone? 22.11.63?). And Doctor Sleep does grab you. That’s probably because King is cruising in his comfort zone. Anyone who’s read On Writing will know about his battles with addiction. Apparently at his worst the guy couldn't even remember writing Cujo, and would just wake in the morning to discover pages and pages he’d produced the night before. So Dan reads, well, very authentic. He’s engaging, you’re invested and there’s even a kind of horrific primal adult scene (no, not one of those) that you know is going to come back and bite him on the behind. Dan’s the "Doctor Sleep" of the title by the way, so called as his shining gives him the knack for ushering old folk in the hospice over the final threshold and into the great unknown.

These sections are well crafted by King, with just the right amount of sentimentality to make them moving rather than cheesy. And then there’s the True Knot--that herd of RV folk. They’re kinda creepy and certainly a bit odd. To keep young, strong and beautiful they must murder young children with the shining in the most horrific ways imaginable and then feed off their “steam”. Their leader is a nubile and alluring woman called Rose, with a freaky single long tooth (that as far as I can work out only appears when she’s feeding. Yummy). The True Knot meander to NYC in all readiness for 9/11 and hang out in Sinatra Park, feeding off the steam. Bleurgh.

I've got to be honest—I was worried when I first bought this book. And let’s face it, Doctor Sleep is a dreadful title (yes I know it refers to Dan, but it’s still abysmal. It sounds like something from the deliberately cheesy House of a 1000 Corpses). But I was pleasantly surprised (well, a little bit). It’s certainly not classic King, but it’s a reasonable length, has solid characterisation, is pacey, has some evocative passages and does tie everything up.

Okay, this ending might be a bit too neat, too tidy and too convenient – with no real sense of danger or urgency. A bit like it’s going through the motions. There’s some unconvincing later scenes with Abra’s parents and it all seems a bit like King is trying to race to the end, while some aspects of the plot that you’re just sure will develop into something, amount to nada. And I'm not sure how much you’d get out of it if you hadn't read or seen The Shining.


But on the whole, Doctor Sleep was a generally enjoyable read, even without being one of his greats. IT WAS OKAY. OKAY?