Doctor Sleep involves an ancient train running again. In a way that’s a metaphor for the whole thing. King’s seminal novel The Shining – first published in 1977 – finally has a sequel. Two questions arise: is Doctor Sleep a good book? And is it a good sequel to the Shining?
Let’s face it, The Shining is one massive locomotive. In a way, it’s not even a Stephen King creation. It’s now also a Stanley Kubrick creation, and a Simpsons creation, and a creation of every single person who’s adapted it, parodied it, referenced it, ripped it off, etc. The Shining is such a ubiquitous part of our culture that, ironically, we’ve destroyed much of its value as a horror novel. Getting scared by the Shining now seems like getting moved by “Luke, I am your father.”
Jack Torrance’s psychic son Danny has grown into a man haunted by events at the Overlook Hotel. He drifts around the country, drinking and getting into bar fights, until he joins Alcoholics Anonymous and finds work at a nursing home. There, he finally finds a positive use for his “shining” ability…comforting the dying as they pass over to the other side. People start to call him Doctor Sleep.
He also meets a young girl called Abra Stone, and realises that she has the most powerful “shining” ability he’s ever seen. She can levitate a piece of chalk and write messages on a blackboard miles away. She can potentially kill with her mind. Unfortunately, a shadowy group of individuals called The True Knot has also become aware of her abilities. The True Knot are like the Manson family mixed with vampires (a town called Salem’s Lot gets name-checked, by the way), except instead of blood, they feed on “shine”.
This isn’t the same kind of book as the Shining, which took place almost entirely at snowbound hotel. There’s lots of travel here, lots of movement from place to place (and time to time). That might seem like a small detail, but the first book got a lot of mileage out of its feeling of claustrophobia and confinement, and if that’s what you liked about the Shining, you won’t find it here. Doctor Sleep is The Shining with a drivers license and a lot of tollbooth ticket stubs.
There’s a lot more violence, but also a lot more humanity and character development. Again, that might be good or bad. What really worked about the The Shining was its coldness, and how it felt like Jack Torrance was losing his humanity. Here, even the villains unambiguously think they’re in the right, and they have fairly solid reasons for doing so.
Some parts really work. The early scenes with Danny and Mr Halloran, the deathbed scenes (I got strong nostalgia for the Green Mile reading Doctor Sleep), the way the True Knot are introduced. Other parts aren’t as strong…often because King suddenly starts trying to force connections to the Shining. Midway through the story he remembers “hey, didn’t Danny have an imaginary friend called Tony?”, and then we get Tony jammed into the plot so aggressively King might as well be using a shoehorn.
And there’s a few hideously boring scenes where we meet Abra Stone’s Italian family. This is the first time (from memory) that King has written an Italian family that isn’t made up of gangsters. Frankly, if this is the best he can do, he should go back to making us an offer we can’t refuse.
So does it work as a sequel? Maybe it’s better to ask, does it want to work as a sequel? Doctor Sleep is really its own thing, and it’s not bad for what it is. King’s been in gradual recovery mode since the early to mid noughties, and this continues the trend. You’ll find a lot to like here, if you’re willing to leave the Overlook behind.