Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s latest novel, is a disappointment. King set himself a high bar in writing a sequel to The Shining, one of the most famous horror novels of our age. Unfortunately, he fails to get over this bar, or to even get anywhere close to it. The book suffers from multiple flaws, including a dull protagonist, a wasted villain, and an unsatisfying climax.
There’s a reason for these flaws: I think Stephen King needed to write this book for himself more than for his readers. King’s real interest in this book is healing of past trauma and recovery from addiction. All of the fantastical plot elements that he surrounds it with (mental powers, ravening ghosts, predatory vampires of psychic essence) merely serve as scaffolding. Unfortunately for me, I showed up expecting a complete edifice of the fantastical.
Dan Torrance, the protagonist, is remarkably dull. I say “remarkably” because Torrance is a rage-filled alcoholic with telepsychic powers who is haunted by the evil undead. You’d think those traits would make for a compelling lead character, but all the sharp edges of Torrance’s persona are sanded smooth by his earnestness.
Torrance is a sinner trying hard to repent, and a significant portion of the book tracks his journey of healing and recovery. And he needs healing. On top of a difficult childhood with a hard-drinking parent, Torrance suffered serious physical and psychological harm, including murderous ghosts, carnivorous topiary, and a father who went insane and tried to murder him and his mother. Dan has some shit to work out.
It’s easy to read Stephen King’s own struggles with alcohol in the character of Dan Torrance, and it seems to me that this influenced the way King wrote the character. King wants Torrance to become a better person because it’s the story King wants to tell about himself. It also offers hope for those who struggle with addiction. This is a laudable aim, and if the book helps someone in need, that’s great. But as a selfish reader who wants thrills and chills, the healing journey fails to satisfy as entertainment.
Part of the problem is that King gives Torrance a Dark Secret to bear (that is, a Dark Secret other than alcoholism, telepsychic powers, ongoing torment by decaying corpses, and all of the hideous experiences he endured at the Outlook Hotel).
This Dark Secret concerns some unsavory behavior after a drunken binge. Torrance definitely acted like an asshole, but as Dark Secrets go, it doesn’t at all measure up to the horrors that we’ve become accustomed to in other fictional characters (Walter White, Dexter, and so on).
However, Torrance rattles around with this Dark Secret through the bulk of the book, as if it weighs on him like Marley’s chains. He ponders his Dark Secret as he skulks dark autumn streets. He’s haunted by images of it. He all but swoons on a divan, one hand clapped to his brow, in Byronic misery.
He refuses to unburden himself of this secret, even though it’s part of the Alcoholics Anonymous protocol, and even though he hears other AA members talk about much more terrible things they’ve done. Oh reader, will he ever be able to reveal how this one time he acted like a scumbag?
Yes, he will. And none of the people he cares about give a shit. So why did we readers need to spend some much time with him as he moped around with it? It’s merely a device to demonstrate the character’s transformation, and it’s pretty lame.
As for the villain (or in this case, a troupe of villains), King concocted an interesting race of mysterious creatures that prey on psychic energy. They’re nomads who call themselves the True Knot. They wander the country in search of victims (usually children). They capture and torture their victims to release the victims’ psychic essence, which the True Knot inhales. The True Knot are hideous and despicable and you can’t wait to see them get their asses kicked.
However, King only gives us a little taste of the True Knot. I would’ve loved to have learned more about them. Supposedly they’ve been around a long time (hundreds if not thousands of years), and more backstory would enhanced their menace.
Only one member of the True Knot, Rose, gets any significant authorial attention, so the overall effect is a group of interchangeable bad guys with quirky nicknames, whose only role is to get picked off, one by one, until the final battle.
The True Knot fix their sites on a girl named Abra, who happens to have enormous psychic powers. The True Knot want to capture Abra and drain her of her psychic energy. Abra connects with Dan, who becomes the girl’s mentor. When Abra and Dan become aware that Abra is in danger, they plot together to fight the True Knot.
This leads me to the climax. Torrance must face Rose, who also has mental powers, in a telepsychic duel. A duel sounds great! The True Knot have survived for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, snatching victims all along the way without ever getting caught. They have amassed a great fortune and computer hacking skills. They have psychic powers. They are pure predators and will not hesitate to kill. You’d think they would be wily, clever, and formidable.
However, the True Knot are outwitted by a few silly tricks and maneuvered into a position of stupid vulnerability. Dan and Abra exchange a few psychic punches with Rose on a wooden platform at the top of a mountain, and then Rose gets knocked off a cliff. Game over.
In the afterword to Doctor Sleep, King acknowledges the challenge he set himself, and admits there’s no way this book could match the memories people have of being scared by The Shining.
I think that for his own personal reasons, Stephen King wanted to guide Danny Torrance to a peaceful shore without rocking the guy’s boat much more than he already has. I think King wrote this book with his own needs in mind rather than those of his readers.
If that’s the case, I won’t hold it against the author. Stephen King is one of my favorites, and his work has provided me with much joy (and terror) over the years. If this book was for him more than me, well, he’s earned it.
That said, if you’re a hardcore King fan, get Doctor Sleep from the library or borrow it from a friend rather than pay for it. If you’re a casual King reader, this is one to skip.