Skip to content

Frank's Book Log

Literature is a relative term.

Doctor Sleep

2013 | Novel
A cover of Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013)
C+: 3 stars (out of 5)
on Jan 14, 2023

Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining finds Dan Torrance a middle-aged recovering alcoholic living in New Hampshire and working as a hospice orderly. He uses his unique gifts to comfort residents as they transition to the other side.

A parallel plot thread follows Abra Stone, a girl born with a powerful shine dwarfing Dan’s. As she grows up, her gift manifests in strange occurrences, culminating in a birthday party where she levitates every spoon in the house.

A third arc introduces the True Knot. A group of “hollow devils”—psychic vampires who prey upon children with the shine, torturing and killing them, then inhaling their essence. This essence—what they call steam—affords them preternatural youth.

The threads weave together, with Abra reaching out to Dan via the shine and meeting Tony, Dan’s psychic alter-ego. A series of events sees Abra swap bodies with the True Knot’s leader, alerting the True to Abra’s existence. The lure of such a strong shine proves irresistible, and they set out to claim Abra, but Abra recruits Dan for help, and, of course, all roads lead back to Colorado and the site of the Overlook hotel.

Compared to The Shining, that’s a gargantuan amount of plot. Indeed, the book feels less like a direct sequel to the original psychological horror and more like an independent dark fantasy featuring some of the same characters.

This despite picking up where The Shining ended. In what amounts to an extended prologue, we see young Danny overcome the remaining Overlook demons with help from Dick Hallorann, then jump forward to an angry, alcoholic Dan hitting rock-bottom in North Carolina, before migrating to New Hampshire and starting a new life.

King’s approach to marking time’s passage would please Chuck Palahniuk:

That job lasted awhile, long enough for the Saxophone President to turn the White House keys over to the Cowboy President.

And when Dan arrives in New Hampshire and applies for a job, King channels Raymond Chandler:

He was a big man who didn’t so much inhabit his small, cluttered office as wear it.

But King retains his folksy conversational tone. When Dan reflects on his father, he thinks about human nature’s nasty tendency to compound misery.

Of course when you were running with the bottom dogs, what you mostly saw were paws, claws, and assholes.

Said folksy vernacular confused me when Dan turned a bottle cap “widdershins”. The Kindle’s built-in dictionary told me it meant “counter clockwise”.

But this section feels rushed. Danny jumps from resilient kid to gutter drunk in a matter of pages. I wonder if there wasn’t another book here, one chronicling those missing years. Dan’s first drink. His first bender and attendant regrets. His mother’s death. Depressing, but it would resonate.

The hurried timeline slows as Dan tries to quit drinking. King paints a convincing portrait of the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery process. When Dan reaches out for help, his would-be sponsor relates this advice:

“ ‘Get your ass to a meeting,’ he said. ‘If your ass falls off, put it in a bag and take it to a meeting.’ ”

Amid Dan’s recovery, King introduces the True Knot, who prowl the country in a fleet of RVs, “double-nickelling” it along the interstates. We meet them as they recruit a new member. It’s a memorable scene, but—set in the eighties—still prologue.

Then we get Abra’s origin story. More prologue, including a 9-11 reference, and some family drama between her mother, father, and mother-in-law. This proves the weakest thread early, as it lacks Dan’s redemptive arc, and the True Knot’s supernatural weirdness. We also meet Abra’s pediatrician, John, whose professional view feels vintage King:

Perhaps kids really did come into the world trailing clouds of glory, as Wordsworth had so confidently proclaimed, but they also shit in their pants until they learned better.

Things improve once King connects the threads. Teenage Abra proves a compelling character, and Dan works in the Dick Hallorann role. The True Knot pale next to The Shining’s terrors, but the finale acknowledges this with a welcome scene that made me grin.

Dan also picks up a sidekick in Billy. A seventy-something Walter Brennan type who, as Dan says, “likes to tell people that the good thing about being old is that you don’t have to worry about dying young.”

Part of Dan’s plan to combat the Knot involves Billy watching out for Abra, but Abra’s father, Dave, proves skeptical.

“All respect to you, Mr. Freeman,” Dave said, “but you’re a little old for bodyguard duty, and this is my daughter we’re talking about.”

Billy raised his shirttails and revealed an automatic pistol in a battered black holster. “One-nine-one-one Colt,” he said. “Full auto. World War II vintage. This is old, too, but it’ll do the job.”

I loved Billy.

But about the True Knot. The notion of innocuous, middle-aged psychic vampires roaming the highways in a motorhome procession proved imaginative, but never ventured into disturbing or terrifying. More like the witch in The Wizard of Oz than The Witch.

Further, King’s’ pop-culture references feel incongruous coming from the mouths of beings hundreds of years old. For example, they seem affronted by the name “Abra”, saying:

“Yeah, they name em anything these days. Remember when Jane and Mabel used to be good enough for the rubes? I read somewhere that Sly Stallone named his kid Sage Moonblood, how fucked up is that?”

For a group of aged immortals, wouldn’t Stallone—or any popular star—be as relevant as a 1940s one-hit-wonder to contemporary audiences?

Anyway, once he’s got the plot moving, King attempts three twists. He telegraphs the first two such that I was ahead of the characters—frustrating—but the third one—a secret weapon Dan unleashes in the finale—surprised and elicited another grin.

So what to make of the book? Compressing multiple back-stories and timelines to set up the main story causes it to feel both rushed and overlong, like a movie adapting multiple books into a single film. But if you can forgive the sometimes tedious setup, the main story proffers an entertaining dark fantasy adventure with some memorable characters. Just don’t expect The Shining.

Reading History

    Sat Jan 14, 2023 via Kindle (Scribner, 2013)
    Read over 77 Days
    1. 30 Oct, 2022
    2. 01 Nov, 2022
    3. 05 Nov, 2022
    4. 06 Nov, 2022
    5. 07 Nov, 2022
    6. 11 Nov, 2022
    7. 12 Nov, 2022
    8. 13 Nov, 2022
    9. 15 Nov, 2022
    10. 27 Dec, 2022
    11. 30 Dec, 2022
    12. 04 Jan, 2023
    13. 05 Jan, 2023
    14. 07 Jan, 2023
    15. 08 Jan, 2023
    16. 11 Jan, 2023
    17. 12 Jan, 2023
    18. 14 Jan, 2023