You probably don’t need telling that Dr Sleep is the long-awaited sequel to The Shining. I say ‘long-awaited’ in that it’s been about 18 months since Stephen King let on that he was busy writing a sequel and there has been a fair bit of online chatter about it since then, helped to some extent by King’s well-publicised reading of an excerpt and also the release of the first chapter. Although there are appearances – one might say cameos – from a handful of Shining characters (Danny’s mom, Wendy, Dick O’Halloran, the lady from the bath in Room 217 (not room 237 – Kubrick changed the room number in the movie)), Dr Sleep is not The Shining 2. This is a new book with a new arc, a great many new characters and only a tangential relation to the previous book.
Dan Torrance, for example, is all growed up now and struggling with the same kind of a drinking problem that did to his dad way back when. Having travelled from job to job and place to place, he comes to settle (eventually) in a small town called Frazier where he (eventually) takes on a job in an old folk’s home and gets himself a reputation as ‘Dr Sleep’, a man able to gently ease the people at the very end of their lives into death. There is also a cat called Azzie – referred to as ‘a prescient cat’ on the flyleaf, which made me groan but it’s handled well in the novel (you don’t have to worry about talking animals). In addition to Dan, there is a young girl called Abra who reaches out to Dan within the first few weeks of her life and has dazzling powers (playing Beatles’ songs in thin air, sticking spoons to the ceiling, crying her heart out on the eve of 9/11) – and a troupe of oldish folks called The True Knot, who travel the land in a bunch of RVs killing special children and sucking the lifeforce out of them. King takes a card from TC Boyle’s pack with the True Knot and makes them a fairly sympathetic bunch of monsters, which is quite a trick.
There is a certain amount of temerity in what I’m about to say (after all, who am I?) but the construction of the book was slightly problematic at first. There is an opening section called ‘Prefatory Matters’ in which we are introduced to the True Knot and hopscotch through Danny’s life post-Outlook. For this reader, it would have been better to plunge into the meat of the book, have things open at the care home, introduce us to the adult Dan, learn everything else we needed to learn in flashback. The best parts of Dr Sleep are in the thick of the book, when things get going – about 60 pages in – until just shy of the climax. King ties himself in knots to a certain extent trying to keep plans from the reader, and the Shining device – which is like a faulty torch – gets a bit annoying (Abra and Dan pick up some things but – jeepers, Scooby! – not the key information that would offset a dramatic twist). King could learn a lot from someone like Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan who either subverts expectation to an incredible degree or delivers expectation at a speed that in itself also subverts expectation.
There are some great moments – Dan, Abra and the True Knot are all great characters and their interactions are sparky – and yet Dr Sleep doesn’t feel like a classic Stephen King novel. There is a twist regarding a familial connection towards the end which feels over-egged (a nod to Dickens too far) and the True Knot are actually no match for Abra and Dan, which is a bit disappointing. The climax brings with it the possibility for Abra to return on her todd which might be interesting – but we’d rather see sequels to Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematery and It (all referred to in the reader’s note at the climax) first. If you want to know what kind of a Stephen King book it is, it’s a Black House, a Hearts in Atlantis, a Lisey’s Story – not an essential Stephen King, but not a bad ride either.
Any Cop?: Given the weight of expectation, Dr Sleep might disappoint some of King’s most ardent fans. If you’re only going to read one new King novel this year, you might be better off reading Joyland. If you’re a completist, though (and we all are, aren’t we?), provided you lower your expectations a couple of notches, it’s a not a bad read…