Originally published in 2013, Doctor Sleep is the sequel to the classic horror novel The Shining. It follows Danny as he trips and falls into adulthood, as well as a budding new “shiner” in Abra Stone. Although the fair way to review this book would be to consider it independently, the nature of the story compels me to compare it to its predecessor. All shall be explained.
This review will talk about Doctor Sleep, both its merits and missteps, through the usual categories of plot, characters, and narrative, but framed within a comparison to The Shining, and what changes King made to the world of shiners and haunted hotels. There will be some spoilers.
In the prologue we catch up with Danny Torrance, who is now somewhere in between his late twenties and early thirties. The years have not been kind; he has followed in the footsteps of his father, becoming an alcoholic and casual drug-user. His story starts off at a particularly low point in his life: he wakes up in bed with a stranger, steals the cash out of her wallet as compensation for buying the cocaine the night before, and leaves her and her toddler kid who is wearing nothing but a jersey and a full diaper. Later he learns the girl committed suicide after her brother killed her kid. This incident convinces him to sober up, and without the alcohol masking the effects of his shining, he comes into contact with a powerful new shiner, Abra Stone, and a group called the True Knot who hunts down shiners to kill them and suck up their energy.
This is the biggest difference between The Shining and Doctor Sleep: the plot of the former was contained in a single location, while the latter takes place in the outside world. The consequence of this is that there is a dramatic change in tone, moving from a deeply personal and intimate story of three family members to a bigger cast, which also necessitates a switch from a microcosm of relationships and anxiety to that of full-frontal confrontational, violence, and action. The threat this time isn’t an alcoholic father and husband losing control of himself, but a gang of “vampires” who feed off of the suffering of those who possess “the shining”. Though King does a great job making the villains sympathetic, Doctor Sleep is indeed a stereotypical good vs. evil type of story, and lacks the mysterious and emotional tension of The Shining. We care about Abra Stone, but The True Knot (the vampire group) isn’t as intangible and imposing as Jack Torrance and the Overlook. The True Knot are a group of humans, and so they are knowable; the Overlook was something beyond this physical world.
As such, while the plot is definitely riveting and is indeed a page-turner, things are more predictable and the dread from the first book is keenly absent. While this doesn’t necessarily mean Doctor Sleep is inferior, it does mean the plot is more familiar and of standard fare. “Stop the bad guys” is less interesting than “Stop your father” or “Stop the malevolent ghosts who have manipulated your father”, after all.
Abra Stone is the new psychic kid on the block. Her powers transcend even that of Danny’s, extending to telekinesis, though she seems to be lacking Danny’s precognitive abilities. She is the main target of the True Knot, who are led by Rose the Hat, an evil lady full of charm and good looks.
Abra is twelve years old when the main action takes place, and she is a completely different character from five-year-old Danny Torrance. Aside from the knowledge of contemporary trends and technology, Abra is more willful than Danny. She takes an aggressive and active stance against her antagonists, and is more willing to fight. This is great, as it makes Abra stand out while at the same time making her more believable. Carrie had to be humiliated to the extreme before she exacted revenge on her bullies; Abra knew from the get-go that the True Knot had to be eliminated, and that they deserved it for all the kids they tortured and killed in the past.
Rose is one of the better villains ever written in an action-horror story. She genuinely cares about the people around her, and her motives are more complicated than boring old aspirations of immortality. She wants to take care of her community, and in the end it is her excessive pride that is her downfall. From another point of view, this story could’ve easily been a tragedy with Rose as the flawed protagonist.
Finally, I wanted to talk about Danny, and why his grown-up persona was a disappointment. The problem is this: in The Shining he was a scared little kid; his fear of his parents not loving one another anymore was palpable, convincing, and epitomized childhood innocence. The first scene we get of him as an adult is as an out-of-shape man with a hangover, who leaves a kid in a pig-sty of an apartment where drugs are easily within reach. Though it’s interesting how Danny became Jack in a way, and that he needed alcohol to suppress the negative aspects of the shining, the contrast between Danny the kid and Danny the adult was jarring, sudden, and ultimately out-of-character. It felt like this was Jack 2.0, but it’s a completely different story, and although I’m taking this for granted, I assumed that Danny would’ve learned from his father’s mistakes. Near the end he attains reconciliation with his father, but he never really thought of Jack much throughout the story, except in connection with the Overlook. It didn’t seem as if he had ever really hated his dad, so the touching little moment near the end, while nice, is rendered empty. It was also a disappointment how little he thought of his mother and Dick Hollorann also. Although this is completely subjective, after going through the events of his childhood, I would’ve expected Danny to become a different person than how he turned out. For the rest of the novel he helps out Abra and there really is nothing surprising or inspiring about him. He is a generic hero with a chip on his shoulder, and though he is likable, we do not get invested in him as much as we did when he was running around the hallways of the Overlook hotel.
There is a little “plot twist” near the end concerning Danny and Abra’s relationship. It felt cheap, because the story would’ve still worked if it didn’t exist. Perhaps King felt that there needed to be a more convincing reason for why Abra has the shining, but it wasn’t necessary at all. The idea of two strangers discovering each other would’ve been more picturesque than what was given. Though it is a small thing, it felt like blotch in an otherwise fine painting.
Not much to say here. King is in top form once again. He easily gets you to believe in his characters, even when they’re using astral projection and reading people’s memories. The prose is clear and straight-forward, the descriptions chilling and funny as the situation calls for, and the metaphors are novel and often quite clever. As this blog has reiterated in the past, King is one of the best storytellers of our time, not just in what he says, but how he says it.
It’s iffy. If you’re a hardcore King fan you’ve probably read it already. If you like King and have read his more famous works, than this one will not be up to par. This one can be safely skipped whether you’re a King fan or not. Though it is an interesting story, it pales in comparison to his other works. Half of it is indeed the disappoint of how Danny’s character was treated, the other half being that the story is definitely more generic than The Shining. Sometimes it can be a great thing to see where a character ends up years later, but in this case it may be better to imagine they lived happily ever after with no details required instead.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.