On Doctor Sleep (2013)

These are some real freewheeling thoughts about Doctor Sleep.

stephen king

Doctor Sleep is one of those weird books that probably shouldn’t exist. It’s a sequel to The Shining, the source novel of the loved Kubrick film, and it came out nearly forty years after the publication of its predecessor. The Shining is a horror novel through-and-through, but I didn’t really know what to expect from Sleep.

It’s a novel about addiction and forgiveness. The plot weaves around those issues for quite a long time, and it ends up beating you over the head with those themes, but it almost runs screaming away from the concepts and tone that defined The Shining. That novel, and film, uses childhood as a way of showing how truly powerless someone can be in the face of a more powerful force. It did that through the double move of Danny’s relationship with his father and through Jack Torrance’s relationship to the Overlook Hotel itself. It’s a highly symbolic novel in the sense that there are moments, relationships, and scenes that operate in a pretty transparent manner — King is commenting on X through device Y and you’re going to get that in the equation.

Doctor Sleep carries a chunk of this through to the present day. Alcoholic’s Anonymous gives us our new share of see-through symbols that give over into greater meaning, and the book is really honest about that, calling bullshit on the metaphors even as it evokes them over and over again. It’s an ambivalence that still, at the end, has a positive feeling.

The book also feels like a strange hodgepodge of other Stephen King ideas re-executed on the framework of The Shining. There’s a strong adult-child positive relationship that hinges on that adult trusting the child to be competent that reminded me quite a lot of both ‘Salem’s Lot and The Dark Tower series in equal measure. This case is exceptional for King, though, because the child in Doctor Sleep is a teen girl (which, as far as I can remember, have barely any presence in his body of work). More or less the novel follows a plot that facilitates her doing things to protect herself with the help of a gaggle of older men who are functionally incapable of action without her; it’s a pretty good flip of roles if flipping roles is what you’re into.

It also has a pretty strong feeling of The Stand. The antagonists in this book are the True Knot, a group of (basically) psychic vampires who want to consume the “steam” of Abra (the young girl)’s psychic powers. Like The StandDoctor Sleep gives us two camps that are oppositional and then shows the asymmetrical knowledge that they have of one another. King is really excellent at showing you comparative perceptions of information, and this is some very strong work in that category (almost as good as Under The Dome‘s inside/outside the dome sets of knowledge).


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