Sometimes it feels as though there are two Stephen Kings. The first is the one who lives in the public's perception: the spooky pulp horror-spinner, feared by the literary establishment, bought in thick discount editions in supermarkets and big box stores. This is the King whose home is encircled by wrought-iron gates bearing the image of sinister spiders, the King whose work, meanwhile, is often consumed by adolescent boys; his work is a gateway drug into the world of less abashedly commercial grown-up literature.
This King often obscures the other side of Stephen King—at least in the public eye. This second Stephen King creates prose experiments, like 1992's Dolores Claiborne, a story of marital abuse told in breathless monologue which, though clocking in at novel-length, is without chapter or scene breaks. His books, like Gerald's Game (1992) and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), are psychologically raw and emotionally revealing. Though all iterations of King remain scary, King reveals, in his more literary moments, unsettling truths about the human condition.
At his best, King is able to meld these two identities, as master of commercial horror who seamlessly weaves moments of perfect—and often disturbing—honesty into well-paced narratives with broad appeal. In no other case was this more evident than in 1977's The Shining, which, while ostensibly the story of a haunted hotel which tries to take possession of Danny Torrance, four-year-old psychic, was also the story of his father Jack—a man who, like King himself, struggled with alcoholism, the written word, and, at times, his own violent nature. These dual narrative strands were so well-integrated in The Shining that it's no wonder that King himself decries the otherwise masterful Kubrick adaptation, in which Jack Torrance's surface disguise as a typical everyman, as well as his alcoholic nature, are largely obscured beneath less complex horror tropes. Certainly, one can understand King's frustration with the adaptation’s ending, which lacks the novel's redeeming note of sacrifice by Jack for his son.
And so one might expect Doctor Sleep to offer a similarly unified blend of the commercial and the literary. After all, to release a sequel thirty-six years after one's heartfelt, raw, and very successful magnum opus is, in some ways, the ultimate commercial endeavor. But while Doctor Sleep—the story of a grown Danny Torrance's struggles with alcohol and the occult—hits both literary and commercial notes, it's less a seamless mix and more of an uneven soup, undercooked in some parts, over-boiled in others.
It bears saying that the first half of Doctor Sleep is, in fact, very very good. King follows Danny from a late childhood spent battling the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel into an alcoholic adulthood spent battling the specter of his father. He introduces careful, and carefully controlled, parallels to the earlier narrative, but these plot points are never shoehorned in a coy or winking manner. Rather, King sticks quite closely to an account of events of The Shining as seen through the eyes of four-year-old Danny—now known as Dan. Dan knows his father was alcoholic and homicidal; he doesn't know the more complex demons that lurked within Jack Torrance, up to and including the depth of love he held for his son.
And yet the two men are linked intimately, not merely through their drug of choice but also through the shine, the psychic power which made both vulnerable to the machinations of the spirits of the Overlook. At times, bits of the previous narrative "shine through" into this one. King executes these supernatural moments with deftness; they are invisible to Dan and likely to the uninitiated reader, though those who have read The Shining are likely a little wiser than both. Take the following passage, which parallels a scene in The Shining in which Jack Torrance meets hotel manager Mr. Ullman and repeatedly asserts that he is an "officious prick":
"A philosopher, yet. Well, Mr. Torrance, I think I'm going to take you on. I trust Billy's judgment—he rarely makes a mistake about people. Just don't show up late, don't show up drunk, and don't show up with red eyes and smelling of weed. If you do any of those things, down the road you’ll go, because the Rivington House won't have a thing to do with you—I'll make sure of it. Are we clear on that?"
Dan felt a throb of resentment
But suppressed it. This was Kingsley's playing field and Kingsley's ball. "Crystal." (p. 67)
These glimmers of subtle repetition continue throughout the novel's first half, until fate steps in and sets Dan on a different path. During his tenure as a small-town hospice care worker, he begins attending AA meetings. His life stands as a neat counterpoint to the life—and death—of Jack Torrance. Rather than white-knuckling through sobriety and occasionally (and explosively) lashing out at his wife and child, Dan creates a family of adults who are there to give him the emotional and spiritual support that he needs. And rather than isolating himself from most of humanity so that he can wrestle with his personal and creative demons, Dan lives a life of sacrifice and giving. What he shares in common with his father is that he is likewise a taker of lives; as the "Doctor Sleep" of the title, he uses his psychic powers to help hospice patients pass over into the next world. Descriptions of this work are some of the most powerful in the novel:
Instead of taking Charlie's pulse—there was really no point—he took one of the old man's hands in his. He saw Charlie's twin sons at four, on swings. He saw Charlie's wife pulling down a shade in the bedroom, wearing nothing but the slip of Belgian lace he'd bought her for their first anniversary; saw how her ponytail swung over one shoulder when she turned to look at him, her face lit in a smile that was all yes. He saw a Farmall tractor with a striped umbrella raised over the seat. He smelled bacon and heard Frank Sinatra singing "Come Fly with Me" from a cracked Motorola radio sitting on a worktable littered with tools. He saw a hubcap full of rain reflecting a red barn. He tasted blueberries and gutted a deer and fished in some distant lake whose surface was dappled by steady autumn rain. He was sixty, dancing with his wife in the American Legion hall. He was thirty, splitting wood. He was five, wearing shorts and pulling a red wagon. Then the pictures blurred together, the way cards do when they're shuffled in the hands of an expert, and the wind was blowing big snow down from the mountains in here was the silence and Azzie's solemn watching eyes. At times like this, Dan knew what he was for. At times like this he regretted none of the pain and sorrow and anger and horror, because they had brought him here to this room while the wind whooped outside. Charlie Hayes had come to the border. (pp. 138-9)
Unfortunately, while emotional absolution through Alcoholics Anonymous with a smattering of magical realist moments here and there would make a cracking literary novel, the literary King has his more commercial, darker half to contend with. And so, midway through the six-hundred page tome that is Doctor Sleep, the plot kicks in—and everything goes to pot.
Again, it's not as if King is incapable of creating novels which are both literary and commercial successes. And the core conceit here, that Dan must mentor a young girl who shares his powers, just as he was once mentored by Chef Hallorann, is an intriguing one. But the story goes off the rails in several ways once pre-adolescent Abra is introduced. King has created complex, varied, and thorny teenage girls before; normally, he approaches these characters with empathy and aplomb. But, perhaps because we're largely limited to Dan's lens, Abra is mostly very flat. We're told over and over again that she’s "pretty," and while the fact that she's highly socially functional—even popular—despite having the strongest "shine" encountered in these novels is intriguing, it's never really explored well enough to make her fully fledged as a person. King hints at darker demons within her (anger, acne), but never develops them, and so Abra's personification never rises far above her physical beauty.
It's via Abra that we get the novel's core conflict, including its villains, a coven of ancient psychic vampires who feed on gifted children, travel in Winnebagoes disguised as retirees, and call themselves "The True Knot." Again, conceptually the idea of vampiric war vets and grandmas isn't without merit—but the execution is poor. King telegraphs their eventual downfall (which comes not due to our heroes, but out of happenstance) far too early in the game. There's no sense of real danger with the True Knot; the primary weapon that their leader, Rose the Hat, has against Abra seems to be hurling sexist invectives at her. Rather than leaning on the danger that the True Knot poses to spur the reader forward, King teases us with a return to the site of the now-gone Overlook.
But this return creates logistical difficulties. The bulk of the book takes place in New Hampshire; the Overlook was nestled in the Colorado Rockies. Throughout the climax, our heroes shuffle awkwardly between one end of the country and the other, breaking the pacing and diffusing much of the tension. Not that there is significant tension to begin with—again, King has already signaled to readers that the downfall of the True Knot will come, much like the downfall of the Martians in War of the Worlds, through external forces rather than anything our protagonists will provide. But the textual echoes between the early pages of Doctor Sleep and its predecessor did make this reader wonder if we were in for a similarly explosive ending: an act of poignant sacrifice.
We were not. The novel concludes with an ending—and one big contrived, hackney twist—that feels entirely unearned and much too rose-tinted. By the conclusion, Dan's characterization has become much like Abra's: flat, bland, idealized. He is no longer a man struggling with his demons—which is fine—but he is also no longer a fully fledged human, with a deeper psychology, and complex family history, at all.
He's just a guy. Not an "every man" in the same sense that Jack Torrance was—wrestling with monsters, desperate to be on top—but in the tidiest sense of the phrase.
In truth, I wonder if King made a misstep in wedding the remnants of the Torrance family to this plot. Because, though the story of the True Knot might have been compelling in another commercial horror tale, the characters of The Shining deserved something more powerful, deeper, and psychologically compelling. The monsters in the Overlook were never strictly that. They were, instead, manifestations of a thirst for power, of loneliness, of our baser fears. The Stephen King of the 1970s—master of both literary themes and commercial success—understood that our fears didn't come from external forces, but from ourselves, in our basest moments, when we are alone.
The Stephen King of 2013? I'm not so sure about him.
An extraordinary thought occurred to me during the week I spent reading Doctor Sleep: Stephen King doesn't do sequels.
Make no mistake: this is an aberration. For a genre author who has over the course of a forty-year career written sixty-odd novels—not to mention more than ten collections, a gaggle of novellas, experiments, and any amount of other ephemera—the very idea that Doctor Sleep documents the first time he and he alone has returned to a story that stood solo before boggled my mind a bit.
To be completely clear, King has gone back to the proverbial well at points previously, but the Dark Tower saga was conceived as a series from the first, and Black House (2001)—which is to say part two of The Talisman (1984)—was of course co-written by King and another of modern horror's iconic authors, Peter Straub, whose description of The Shining as "probably the best supernatural novel in a hundred years" (an honor I'd sooner give to his own Ghost Story ) bookends this unexceptional sequel to said.
In any event, Doctor Sleep describes the first time, certainly in recent memory, that King has asked what happened afterwards to the characters and narratives he has crafted in the past.
One can only guess what possessed the author to break his unwritten rule for a sequel as anaemic as Doctor Sleep. You're apt to enjoy some of what King's cooked up if you've ever wondered what became of dear Danny Torrance after the death of his demented dad Jack at the Overlook Hotel, but if you're looking for a fully formed fiction in addition to this, then alas, you're out of luck.
Because the Overlook, as it happens, "wasn't done with [Danny]. At least one of its vengeful spirits had followed him all the way to Florida. Once he had come upon that woman sprawled in a bathtub. She had gotten out and tried to choke him with her fishy (but terribly strong) fingers. If he had opened the bathroom door now, she would finish the job" (p. 5).
In quick succession, the Overlook's other inhabitants come a-calling on Danny—up to and including a tragic new addition to the troupe—but by this stage Dick Hallorann has advised our protagonist on matters of psychic strategy: "he of the powerful hunches" (p. 3) has taught the boy to take his terrors and put them in a lockbox on a high shelf in his mind, a lesson which serves Danny well in the years ahead, as he inevitably follows in his father's footsteps. What haunts Danny, however, is less susceptible to psychic smoke and mirrors than the ghost folk; what haunts Danny—or Dan, once the boy's become a man—is the demon drink:
When he'd been a teenager, every day had been a struggle for sanity. The voices in his head were bad; the pictures were frequently worse. He had promised both his mother and himself that he would never drink like his father, but when he finally began, as a freshman in high school, it had been such a huge relief than he had—at first—only wished he'd started sooner. Morning hangovers were a thousand times better than nightmares all night long. All of which sort of led to a question: how much of his father's son was he? (p. 173)
The decision to start drinking is one Dan will come to regret long before he hits rock bottom in a scene that seemed relatively tame by Stephen King standards. The long and short of it is he steals some money to buy booze from a strung-out single mother in full view of her suffering infant son. It's this incident, this lowest low, which motivates him to seriously consider quitting; this over and above the "dangerous dog inside his head. Sober, he could keep it on a leash. When he drank, the leash disappeared" (pp. 33-4).
Determined to put his dangerous dog down once and for all, Dan takes to the town of Frazier, and there, things change; for the better, unquestionably . . . for the character if not the novel. Dan makes a few friends, lands a job at a hospice that helps him make sense of himself, and last but not least, starts attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, abiding as best he can by the commandments of the Big Book.
And just like that, the shining comes back. It "was always stronger when he'd been sober for a little while, but never as strong as it had been since coming to Frazier. It was as if the air here was different, somehow. More conducive to those strange transmissions from Planet Elsewhere. Special. The way the Overlook was special" (p. 65), the voices in his head suggest. But no. Not quite.
Initially, Doctor Sleep is powerfully paced, and nicely concise, which tightness leads to an excellent sense of tension. There seems no stopping this story, no escape from the dark place the author aims to take us . . . when all of a sudden it stalls, sputtering out after our protagonist's arrival in butter-wouldn't-melt Middle America, where King spends the entire middle act of his narrative trying to get the increasingly idle engine at its core to catch.
The bulk of the tale takes place in the present, a decade and change later; a tedious period of years we spend for the larger part with Abra rather than Dan—a girl with some serious shine who will look to Dan as Dan did Dick Hallorann when she becomes a target of a gang of allegorical alcoholics known as the True Knot.
Children who shine are prey to them, but you already guessed that, didn’t you? The empty devils are on the land like a cancer on the skin. Once they rode camels in the desert; once they drove caravans across eastern Europe. They eat screams and drink pain. You had your horrors in the Overlook, Danny, by at least you were spared these folks. Now that the strange woman has her mind fixed on the girl, they won’t stop until they have her. They might kill her. They might Turn her. Or they might keep her and use her until she's all used up, and that would be worst of all. (p. 234)
Though his recovery seemed a touch too easy to me, I admired King's unflattering characterisation and development of Dan; to wit Dan's attachment to Abra, who has yet to make his mistakes, felt natural. Abra herself, however, struck me as frankly manufactured. She's an archetypal figure that’s featured in King's fiction frequently. She's Carrie, Charlie, Danny, and Susannah rolled into a single precocious kid, but quantity is not quality, and Abra can't hold a candle to any one of the above. She has heart and pluck and panache, but these attributes are hardly hers. On the contrary, they're inherited, like Dan's love of liquid spirits.
This, I think, is symptomatic of the single most unsatisfying side of the sequel to The Shining. There's the plot, and there's the not, whilst what little actually happens pales in comparison to what has happened. At the outset King gets his money's worth out of the Overlook's ghosts, the middle section is hardly worth mentioning, and the most potent moment in the entire finale—whilst a red mist of death and destruction rages around the grounds of the hellish hotel that the True Knot retire to when times are tough—is Danny's incidental recollection of the horrifying hedge animals that tormented him in his innocence.
These connections wouldn’t be such a significant issue if Doctor Sleep didn't lean so heavily on them, but they are not simply Easter eggs to please Constant Reader: they're stand-ins for all that this narrative lacks. In lieu of anything as effective as a dead woman with fishy fingers, King is evidently content to fall back to time-tested territory again and again. Compounding the problem is the unhappy fact that these borrowed horrors far outstrip the faintly ridiculous images he depicts in this sequel—foremost among them a host of floating eyeballs and a femme fatale with a magical top hat whose teeth have a tendency to turn into tusks.
All too often, Doctor Sleep reads like a composite novel as opposed to a narrative in its own right, and its network of connections extends within and outwith King’s canon. Never mind the notion of him referencing Quidditch, Amy Winehouse, and The Hobbit in the space of a single page; the most ill-conceived of all these is to "a bad man called Charlie Manx" (p. 12) whom horror readers will recall from Joe Hill's far more satisfying NOS4R2 (2013). Abra, however, can't compete with little Vic, nor is King's walrus woman a patch on his son's chillingly charming Manx.
Doctor Sleep does have its highs—fleeting scenes where it feels full of promise—but strangely for a sequel to what may or may not be "the best supernatural novel in a hundred years," its best and most memorable moments occur when it is at its most mundane. "At times like this, Dan knew what he was for. At times like this he regretted none of the pain and sorrow and anger and horror, because they had brought him here to this room while the wind whooped outside" (p. 126). Here to Helen Rivington House, a hospice where Doctor Sleep, as the locals come to call him, helps folks find peace in the last moments of their lives. More of this would have been a step in the right direction; King gives us more of the rest instead, layering connection on top of connection until the whole dark tower topples.
In his trademark afterword, King is altogether too quick, I think, to remind us that "the man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, [though] both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kickass story" (p. 484). Would that he had.
So to repeat, and complete: Stephen King doesn't usually do sequels, and I rather wish he hadn't done this one. He does connections instead, connections which Doctor Sleep leans too heavily and too often on to feel fully formed. That said, I too "enjoyed finding Danny Torrance again and following his adventures," albeit to a lesser extent than I had hoped. For all its failings, Doctor Sleep is in the final summation serviceable Stephen King, but it's far, I'm afraid, from exceptional.
And The Shining deserved better.
Phoebe North writes SF for teenagers. Her first book, Starglass, came out in July from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. Visit her blog at www.phoebenorth.com.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.