Culture & Criticism Since 2003
I started “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s sequel to “The Shining,” with a certain amount of trepidation. King has revisited child characters from previous novels and caught up to them as adults: Bev, Richie and the gang from “It” also are adults in a timeline some 27 years later in the same book.
In “Peter Straub,” he revisited the child protagonists from “The Talisman” as adults in “Black House.” In both cases, I found it difficult to reconcile the personalities of the children and the subsequent adults—especially when they occurred in the same novel.
Nonetheless, as a writer, I admired King for what he was trying to do. But as a reader, it threw me right out of the story. Imagine if Bill Watterson resumed drawing “Calvin and Hobbes,” only now Calvin is a 35 year old accountant who gripes about kids today, and Hobbes is a forgotten toy slowly mouldering away in the attic. Somehow, just not the same.
I anticipated similar problems here with Danny, the little kid in “The Shining” who is now a hospital orderly – a recovering alcoholic in his thirties who uses his ‘shining’ talent to comfort the dying at the hospice where he works.
However, that discontinuity didn’t crop up here. Danny was just a toddler in the first book who did little more than scream, run, and swipe ineffectually at threats. This role was played by Shelley Duval in the movie, reprising her role as Olive Oyl. Little Danny, despite his central role in the book, was something of a cipher.
In “Doctor Sleep,” Danny grows up. King initiates the process with the usual mix of chaos and inevitability that accompanies the maturation of most people. It’s convincing, and it works – for the reader, it’s easy to see the frightened, but brave little boy become the troubled but determined adult.
Danny is working the Twelve Steps, and King, a member of AA himself, speaks with authority and conviction. There’s always a danger that such material will devolve into moralizing, but King artfully avoids this pitfall.
“Doctor Sleep” isn’t as terrifying as “The Shining.” The world, as King likes to say, has moved on, and I’ve moved with it. It’s not as scary, but it is harrowing in places, and you will find yourself being carried effortlessly along as King’s story gains momentum and a false sense of inevitability as it hurtles to its end.
Readers will note that King’s characters read horror-fiction and know the tropes: Never split up, never assume it’s over in the first reel, and the “totally wrong for her” boyfriend will get shivved or bitten or crushed twenty minutes before the end. King’s vampires have seen “True Blood” and aren’t very impressed. The young heroine knows not to go running off through the woods with something chasing her; she’ll inevitably fall down.
For thirty years, he has written with a knowing wink to his audience. This is not a kindly wink; instead, it’s the wink of that falsely jolly Uncle who is about to do unspeakable things to your young body. King’s self-referential grins become an actual part of the horror.
Going further, King’s fantasy world is quite real – populated with topical references, brand names and places that you can actually find on the map. Only this “real” world is just as imaginary, and made malleable to the “imaginary world” of demons and vampires. Look close and you’ll note certain emotive similarities between James Joyce and King – particularly the notion that reality is a sort of a psychic bean bag chair, adapted by ourselves to comfort us, but with no real shape of its own.
The evil in “Doctor Sleep” grows from a group known as “The True Knot.” They are parasitic and very long lived, sustaining themselves on what they call steam; it’s the element that gives some people the psychic ability called ‘shining’. The True Knot favors young children who have steam, and torturing said children to death results in a finer distillation of steam that they can store and use to sustain themselves until they find a new victim.
That aside, they’re quite nice people: duffers, mostly between about 50 and 70, toodling around the country in their RVs and always with a friendly grin and a kind word for the people they meet. Unless, of course, they’re torturing a child to death.
This, too, is vintage King: He delights in taking evil and making it mundane. In the end, King realizes that in his worlds, the Big Evil can never be banal the way our small evils are. Still, it’s a lot spookier if it LOOKS banal.
I think most readers will finish this book with a small sigh of satisfaction, resolving never to be casually impolite to any older couples in RVs that they may encounter on the back highways.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.