Review – Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

It makes sense that Danny Torrance, the supernaturally gifted kid who barely escaped his father’s rampage at the Overlook Hotel, would grow up to be an alcoholic. When desperation eventually leads him to Alcoholics Anonymous, he embraces the conventional fatalism that it was destined to happen. But the family history is also there, and he certainly suffers from an innate sense of otherness and extreme sensitivity that is common to those in the rooms of AA. There was no other way the story could have turned out.

That’s the real hook to Doctor Sleep, not as a sequel to The Shining, but as a story about Dan’s struggle through recovery. King uses the standard AA share format, “what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now,”  to recount Dan’s journey from a scared kid, to a self-destructive adult, and then to man who’s just trying to be of service. In Dan’s case, being of service involves easing hospice patients into the afterlife and helping a young girl with the shining escape an illiterate cabal of carnival rejects, but the traditional beats are there.

Given the thorough cultural reappropriation of The Shining, it would be impossible to make a sequel scary, and King doesn’t really try. The ostensible threat, a roving band of psychic vampires called The True Knot, is described as utterly evil, but King shies away from depicting them doing anything more vulgar than polite kidnapping. The one time The True get grisly, King executes a quick cinematic cutaway. Generally feeding off the collective despair created in the wake of national tragedies, The True only take action against children with the shining. So unless you’re a child struggling to conceal your own latent telekinetic abilities, they’d probably just leave you alone.

The only unsettling aspect of Doctor Sleep is that tone of parental exceptionalism: “Someone could be after our child because they’re special.” It’s a grandparent’s fairy tale, inspired by sensationalized news stories and told at enough distance that you don’t see anyone get hurt. This is exacerbated by King’s folksy tone, which fits perfectly with the characters Dan meets in AA, but is insufferable everywhere else. Doctor Sleep is stepped in the vernacular of late career King, written with enough shit-eating sugariness  to make anyone but the most dedicated Constant Reader take the next few books off.

Yet for all its recycled dark fantasy elements and cutesy tone, Doctor Sleep doesn’t feel unnecessary. King has been trying to rewrite the public perception of The Shining for years, and while the True Knot’s a joke and the plotting is a mess, he finally accomplishes that here. King intended The Shining to be a story about an alcoholic pushed over the edge, and he returns to that interpretation effortlessly. The strain to come up with an equal supernatural threat shows, or perhaps it’s just indifference. But the depiction of Dan’s life, the what it’s like now, rings true. King’s success has always been attributed to his ability to blend the supernatural with the mundane, and while that balance is certainly off, Doctor Sleep gets the surreality of recovery right.

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