Book review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

The sequel to The Shining is a page-turner with one eye on the film rights, finds Stuart Kelly
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubricks film version of The ShiningDanny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubricks film version of The Shining
Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in Stanley Kubricks film version of The Shining

Doctor Sleep

by Stephen King

Hodder & Stoughton, 486pp., £19.99

It would not be wrong to describe the sequel to The Shining – Stephen King’s 1977 novel about a recovering alcoholic with a psychic son, filmed and adapted by Stanley Kubrick in 1980 – as “eagerly anticipated”. King has stated that the idea of what happens to Danny Torrance, the gifted child of the original, has haunted him since its publication. Doctor Sleep is a swift and sometimes even more horrific update on the original, and in that lies both its strengths and failures. The Shining, book and film, were claustrophobic; Doctor Sleep is expansive but thinner.

When we meet Danny again, he has succumbed to the same alcoholism as his father. He, however, does have the excuse that seeing ghosts and struggling to keep them locked in mental safeboxes might be a contributing factor in getting routinely blootered. The alcoholic Danny goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, and is aware that he cannot depend on the “white-knuckle sobriety” which let down his father. He behaves despicably, but through the auspices of the 12 steps, ends up sober and working in a hospice, where he uses his “shining” to assist in the final passing of the terminally ill.

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At the same time, he is occasionally blasted by shiny messages, from a person with even more of the gift and curse than he. She turns out to be Abra Stone, a pre-pubescent girl, whose ability to “shine” has alerted her to a threat to anyone with their abilities. These villains are the “True Knot”, led by Rose the Hat, a group of “empty devils” who subsist by devouring those with the shining, releasing their “steam” by torture and murder. As Abra and Danny become closer, they realise they have to deal with these monsters – especially since one of their bases is the burnt remains of the Overlook Hotel of the original book. The joy of this book is that the horror of the True Knot is truly nasty.

It is worth mentioning now that there is something irksome in King’s deliberate insistence that this is the sequel to the novel The Shining, not the film The Shining. All the plot changes, from moving topiary to the boiler exploding (steam, see?) are in some ways integral to the sequel. It sometimes feels as if you have to read the book binocularly: King is addressing the reader and the ghost of Kubrick simultaneously. King’s views about the film are well known – “it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little” – although for me the more telling comment is that Kubrick failed to recognise in the original “the sheer inhuman evil” of the Overlook Hotel. Yet in the sequel King is keen to humanise the evil, and even render it pitiable,

There is no way any future director of Doctor Sleep could make it a psychological horror about breakdown. The evil is real, visceral and as one would expect from King, banal: all those folks in RVs “creeping along at forty when you could be doing a perfectly legal sixty-five”, in “gas-hogs driven at exactly ten miles an hour below the speed limit by bespectacled golden oldies who hunch over their steering wheels”. The idea of the True Knot taps into fears about abduction and ageing, abuse and anger. When one of them “cycles” – slipping in and out of their self, with visible bones, and finally just blinking eyes – I did wonder about how CGI might do it.

This is indubitably a page-turner, but it might not be a re-reader. I was horrified and impelled, aghast and aching to get back to the story. That said, King is not and has never been a wordsmith – there are passages where cliché and easy simile would stand out were you ever to read it again. But that’s not, in many ways, what we are there for. The simple dash of the prose is there because the plot is more important.

King is an ideas writer, not a sentence writer. Some of the ideas here would have been better in their own form, not jumbled into a sequel. Danny’s ability to help those at the transition between life and death is under-utilised until it becomes, for plot reasons, totally necessary. The necessity of explaining bits of “the shining” and “the steam” can be strained. Danny’s helpful encounter with AA leads to some excruciating moralising – “The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser” – and to throw in a bit of unexpected family history for Danny and Abra is closer to Mary Elizabeth Braddon than Bram Stoker. We don’t get the whole history of the True Knot but King appears to imply that those subjected to abuse become abusers, but the shining is a pure genetic inheritance: damage versus destiny. That he comes out on the side of destiny worries me.

Doctor Sleep is a double sequel. We get to know a bit more about Danny post The Shining, but we also get Carrie redux in the increasingly angry and furious Abra (there’s even a scene where she unsettles one villain by claiming to be menstruating). There were moments when I thrilled – they all involve spoilers, so, sorry. There were moments when I winced at clunky plotting, and a too obvious “made for TV” structure. If Chloë Moretz doesn’t play Abra Stone in the soon-to-be-commissioned series, then 
I’m a monkey’s uncle. Despite the fact King hates versionings of his work, this book seems dependent on the idea it will one day not be a novel. Still, I’d read the prequel about Abra.