Stephen King has created some amazing characters in his career, and in the process of creating them, I think he’s become a character himself, far more so than other equally prolific writers. King is the guy who doesn’t just write about the bogeyman, he fears the bogeyman himself. I think of Gordie Lachance in the novella “The Body,” and that’s how I see Stephen King: the kid sitting around the campfire with us, making up stories, and being scared along with us.
Thus, I think his fans share a certain intimacy with Stephen King that’s lacking among his peers. I’ve read dozens of books by Dean Koontz, J.D. Robb, Lee Childs, John Sandford, and so many other authors, but none of them give me the sensation of being told a story by a friend. Each of the four I mention above is an excellent writer on his or her own merits, and I’ve loved pretty much all of their work. To paraphrase Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” King just has a certain “muchness” the others lack.
So it was little surprise to me in the Afterword, that “Doctor Sleep” was born when a fan asked King if he knew what happened to little Danny Torrance, the kid from “The Shining.” The question gnawed at King, until he went to whatever wonderful, creepy place he goes to find his stories. The answer is right here. “Doctor Sleep” is what happened to Danny (now “Dan”) Torrance, and it is one of the best books I’ve read in a while.
As a storyteller, “Doctor Sleep” shows Stephen King unusually focused. There is a sizeable cast of characters, but each serves his or her purpose. Some King novels start out small—just a little three-day concert in a cow pasture—then they spiral out of control, till you end up with the muddy chaos of Woodstock.
Dan Torrance has been taken by the bottle, developing an alcoholism just like his father, Jack, did in “The Shining.” Early in the book, he finds himself in a small New Hampshire town, working for a hard-ass Yankee who also takes him to AA. The boss-employee/sponsor-sponsee relationship between the two essentially charts Dan’s redemption as a man.
He gets a job at Hospice, where his shining ability helps patients at the moment of death. He gives them peace, and by doing so, finds a certain peace. As in most novels—especially in King’s—that peace is short-lived.
The girl isn’t even looking for Dan at first. She’s trying to get ahold of Tony, the little boy who lived inside little Danny’s mind. Abra is the girl’s name, and her shining is a hydrogen bomb to Dan’s hand grenade. Over the years, they grow closer. This is good, for soon, Abra’s life and sanity will be tested by an unlikely group of enemies who feed off of that special gift. Only Abra and Dan working together give the girl’s survival a chance.
In many ways, Abra is very different from Danny Torrance in “The Shining.” She’s an only child, yes, and she has this alienating ability, but her family life is comfortable and safe. The only thing lacking is somebody to help her figure out this odd power she has, and how to use it.
There’s a lot of Alcoholics Anonymous in “Doctor Dream.” Dan’s sobriety depends on the program and his AA Sponsor and friends. There are multiple quotes from “the big book,” as “Alcoholics Anonymous” is called by its adherents. King nails the details of how meetings work, and how the program works.
One of the many AA sayings is “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” For young Danny, Dick Halloran was that teacher. For Abra, that teacher is Dan. Their survival depends on Dan’s ability to teach.
One thing I loved about “Doctor Sleep” is that the survival of humankind is not at risk. In “It” or “The Stand,” if the group of protagonists fails, some seriously harm could befall people everywhere (or at least in Derry). The victims in “Doctor Sleep” are so sparse, that humanity would continue unscathed, except for these individual tragedies, the kind of which happen all the time.
Another thing I love about King’s work is that the man knows how to write a sequel. I thought “The Talisman” (co-written by Peter Straub) was a good book; I think their sequel, “Black House,” is a great book.
Similarly, I love King’s addendum to “The Shining.” I refuse to judge it against its predecessor, because I’ve seen the Stanley Kubrick film about 30 times, so my knowledge of the book “The Shining” is unreliable.
But I got that feeling of sitting around a campfire with some friends, and somebody asks Stevie the Story Guy whatever happened to the kid in that story about the creepy hotel. Then we all make ourselves comfortable around the fire, toast some s’mores, and get ready to see what that King kid comes up with. By the time the story’s ended, the fire has died down, we’ve heard one hell of a story, and we’re ready to crawl into our sleeping bags, and hope our dreams aren’t bad ones.
“Doctor Sleep” is that good.
Most Highly Recommended