The Sequeling : Stephen King – “Doctor Sleep”

ABOVE: What a terrible cover. It’s like trying to purchase a book at an opium den.

There’s one main problem with “Doctor Sleep” (and a couple of minor ones we’ll discuss later.) The main problem is that it never needed to exist. “The Shining” is one of Stephen King’s most successful exercises at sheer ratcheting suspense – and beloved for it – but it doesn’t suggest a sequel anymore than “Cujo” did…

(Unless someone took Cujo to Pet Sematary. HMMM. There’s an idea for Stevie!)

And “Doctor Sleep” is only HALF a sequel to “The Shining.”

ABOVE: Things ARE scarier in twos, though.

It’s important to establish what a pure sequel is and isn’t.

A sequel isn’t a series: they’ve been designed from the origin to bear the brunt of many stories happening to the same characters, and whether the interest decreases with each installment in, say, a Maigret novel or a Harry Bosch novel, it has more to do with the jaded reader or the exhausted writer than with something inherent in the nature of the story.

A sequel isn’t a part of a saga.

Novels that happen to take place in the same world are also not sequels. Is “The Lord of the Rings” a sequel to “The Hobbit”? Not really, they’re simply works that happen within the same geography and with a shared history. That’s also true of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Sound and the Fury.”

Is “The Two Towers” a sequel to “The Fellowship of the Ring”? No, it is a direct- and necessary- continuation of the events.

A true sequel comes after an original, finite work of art has proven commercially rewarding, and there’s a desire to recapture the effect. It doesn’t have to be a shameful cash-in, and it can be as good as, or better than, the original, but it IS, by definition, unnecessary. It tries to recapture the same effect of the original and it can do it in two ways: by re-setting the PLOT so that the action of the original can be repeated (bigger and bolder, of course) ; or by re-setting the CHARACTERS so that the lessons of the original can be re-learned.

The first possibility is more popular: a new batch of killable meat arrives at Crystal Lake!  Precocious kid is left home alone… AGAIN! The other possibility is only slightly less shop-worn and it usually involves buddy cops re-learning to buddify, or grumpy old men getting even grumpier. (Oh, those grumpy old men! They never learn.)

So there are two obvious ways to write a sequel to “The Shining,” (and this has been out for quite a while so I hope my spoilers are minimal):

a) We focus on replicating the plot. Either the Overlook Hotel, which has been burnt to the ground, goes back up and the ghoulies are still there, or else the freaking Bates Motel opens in its place and the ghoulies are still there. SOMETHING opens in the grounds, and we get another haunting story.

b) We concentrate on character. But Jack Torrance is dead; Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann are pretty secondary; Danny Torrance is the logical option. He has the TITULAR SHINING! So let’s find out what that entails! What is it like to live with the legacy of the Overlook Hotel? (There ARE other options in the “character” area, all unsavory: Jack T0rrance isn’t REALLY dead/ Wendy Torrance goes through the crazening too for some reason / Dick Hallorann gets a wheelchair and opens a school for kids with “the shining”!)

Danny works best, and Kings knows that, because he understands the basics of story – even his detractors have to give him THIS. But he doesn’t always know how to finish his stories – even his biggest fans know THAT. He knows he has to start a sequel to “The Shining” with Danny Torrance, but he doesn’t know where to FINISH with Danny Torrance.

ABOVE: “Why wasn’t I cast for E. T.? I can do that thing with the finger just fine!”

Before I go into all sorts of plot spoilerage for “Doctor Sleep,” let me reassure potential book purchasers: this IS a good book, part of King’s late-career renaissance. It is well-written as usual, the mannerisms are reined in, the 500 or so pages go by briskly, and it has two likable main characters in Danny Torrance and Abra Stone. But this IS a post on the Internet: why praise when we can point out the problems?

Like I said, there’s a few of those.

It might be presumptuous, but I’m pretty sure that “Doctor Sleep” is the final uneasy result of four disparate ideas that King sensed were as tottery as new-born calves- and instead of patiently waiting for maturation he lassoed them together, hoping they would hold each other up.

ONE of those novellas, the “character sequel” to “The Shining,” involved Danny Torrance realizing that alcohol is the true ghost he’d inherited from his father, and recovering through the magic of AA. The SECOND novella, the “plot sequel,” involved ‘The Shining” being presented in a new child, Abra. The THIRD novella involved a kindly doctor who’s aided by a magical cat in euthanizing his patients. A FOURTH novella involved the family ties between a band of quasi-vampiric RV-ers called the True Knot, who perpetuate the child-stealing Gypsy stereotype that the weak Gypsy lobby hasn’t managed to stamp out.

This is to say that only about half of “Doctor Sleep” has any claim to being a sequel to “The Shining.” Marketing has its demands, and Stephen King obeys. It’s testament to his story-telling prowess that, with abundant use of mirror and smokes and galvanic tricks, he tricks you into thinking these four novellas are an entity, but every now and then you see the badly-healed scars in the monster.

Here’s how the novellas individually fail.

1-The Danny story is a well-meaning but cliched recovery drama, with a splash of AA pamphleteering. It doesn’t work as a sequel to what’s arguably one of the greatest horror novels of all time, for the same reason that a musical comedy would have been a bad idea for a follow-up to “Alien.”

2-The Abra story fails simply because she’s not surrounded by the Overlook. Instead, she’s surrounded by suburbia, an under-developed mother, an unnecessarily over-developed great-grandmother, and a weirdly characterized father.* Abra basically sits around as uneventful YEARS pass, amusing herself with occasional Carrie-like spoon tricks, and texting Danny with her MIND, (an ability that became a lot less impressive in the 2000s when we all realized we could text each other with our PHONES.) When Abra finally does something, it’s the absolute pop-culture-referencing nadir of Stephen King’s career:

She transforms into frikkin’ Daenerys from George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.”

ABOVE: Yup, THIS Daenerys

This is a thing that actually happens in “Doctor Sleep”! You can tell I consider Stephen King a genuine MASTER because I didn’t fall down to the floor in convulsive laughter, which I would have been done had any lesser artist attempted such a pandering moment of idiocy.

*This review is long enough, but I kind of want to talk about the minor unpleasantness that is Abra’s father, David Stone. King is at his worst when in “all men are pigs” mode, every single time, and one can almost hear him (or Tabitha, or Joe Hill, or whoever helps him with his prolific output these days): “Hmmm. I don’t like the idea of there being a HAPPY suburban heterosexual marriage. How about we have the father be a wife beater? Naaah, we already have five other abusive assholes in the novel. Let’s just make him roll his eyes in a snooty, jerky manner every time a woman speaks and be like: ‘Stupid female! Must be on her period!’ Yeah, like that! Let’s set him up as this unpleasant, possessive, middle-class normo. Maybe it will be relevant to the plot toward the end? Eh, whatever. Maybe not. Forget it. Let’s just make him nice from the middle of the story on out. It’s not like he matters.”

3- The Doctor Sleep story fails because it’s not even a story, merely a premise. Turns out Danny’s “shining” (you know, the talent that made him see dead people and telephatically talk to Abra) also SOMEHOW turns him into some sort of morphine dispensary while he works at a hospice. How stupid is it for a guy who is tormented by his ability to see ghosts to apply for a job at a hospice? There’s also a cute magical cat who appears for a few scenes, and can sense when people are going to die. Can cats get the Shining, just like they get feline AIDS? Is Danny’s “Doctor Sleep” talent going to be relevant to the fight against the True Knot? Is the hospice story going to turn into a soapboxy speech about euthanasia? The answers are: “Who knows?” “Not really,” and “No way! We used up all the preachiness in the AA section!”

ABOVE: Cat Nap!

4- The True Knot story fails for the simple reason that King has absolutely no idea if they’re soul-less child-killing monsters, or essentially noble sons (and daughters) of anarchy, or vampires, or Grateful Dead fans journeying after the ghost of Jerry Garcia. There’s dozens of them you won’t care about. They have vaguely undignified hobo names (“Barry the Chink”! “Token Charlie”! “Apron Annie! She has an APRON, see! I hope that makes her memorable!”) Their leader, Rose the Hat, is repeatedly described as a beautiful, queenly vamp, but comes across like a slatternly truck-stop madam.

NOTHING about the True Knot makes sense. NOTHING. They’re classy, ancient billionaires with magical talents who have amassed power for centuries… BUT they’re also crass, stuck-in-the-1970s, broke-ass losers who slug from trailer park to trailer park with all the majesty of cockroaches. Huh? They’re above all governmental power, their papers are always in order, and no agency can touch then… BUT they also creep by leprously on the fringes of society to avoid trouble. There’s hundreds of them, they’re all deadly killing machines, they control supernatural forces… BUT they’re undone in ten minutes by a recovering alkie and a teenage girl whose big trick is PICTURING DAENERYS IN HER HEAD. That’s not a power! I DO THAT THREE OR FOUR TIMES A DAY ALREADY.

Simply put, King didn’t think enough about what he wanted the Knot to be: an endearing if sui-generis family? A shadowy menace? How menacing can someone nick-named “The Hat” be? Rose the KNIFE is menacing. Rose the Hat is a Disney cartoon.

ABOVE: Rose the Hat

The Overlook Hotel is a character in “The Shining,” a more important one than Danny Torrance ever was. King knows all his strands MUST converge there for the climax to the sequel to provide any satisfaction- but he doesn’t have a compelling reason for any of them to go there. So he pushes and nudges and contrives while his characters rebel against the imposition: they have no business there! It’s LITERALLY scorched earth.

The point of scorched earth is that you don’t go back to it.

RATING : I’m vacillating between GOOD ENOUGH and COOL!

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6 thoughts on “The Sequeling : Stephen King – “Doctor Sleep”

      • HMMMMM HMMMMM I’ve definitely given this a lot of thought at points, maybe more than it merits. I think “The Shining” is the best as far as balancing sheer horror with plot, (not many of King’s books get the balance right.) I probably would have to go with “The Stand” or “It” just in terms of “bang for your buck”. “Pet Sematary” and “Cujo” may be his scariest books, he hasn’t really written straight horror for decades. As for horror books in general? Does “The Divine Comedy” count?!

  1. Pingback: The Body Electric : Stephen King – “Revival” | THE PAGEAHOLIC

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