Tracing The Trails : Doctor Sleep
Stephen King is one of the most well known and established names of our country’s popular literary landscape. Still, even he isn’t immune to the occasional marketing gimmick, the sly shaping of product in an attempt to garner more sales. Often the context in which a book is sold can make all the difference. I think you can see evidence of this in both The Green Mile as well as Desperation/The Regulators. Sometimes he is more successful than others but there are books where the vessel of the story itself almost seems more important than the story. And how does this relate to Doctor Sleep exactly? Well, as far as I’m concerned and how I have always seen the book is fairly simple.
Despite all the intense marketing of it as such, Doctor Sleep is not really a sequel to The Shining.
Not in the way I would define it, anyway.
So what is a sequel? It’s important to define what we’re talking about. For me, a sequel is where the primary narrative from one book or movie is carried over into the second. They need each other as fundamental pieces and one doesn’t stand up as well without the other. Perfect example, Empire Strikes Back into Return Of The Jedi. There is a clear narrative arc from one movie to the next. Now take a look at the James Bond films. With the exceptions of the rebooted films which seem to be more inner-connected, the classic Bond films aren’t really sequels. They’re just a series of films featuring common characters.
Doctor Sleep may feature a primary character from The Shining in Danny Torrence, now grown up. And we may get a few cameos from some other characters but for the most part, this story tends to stand on its own. There is a level to the story you wouldn’t pick up on without having read The Shining but those plot points are pretty minor.
Being totally honest, when I read Doctor Sleep, it came off to me like King had already written much of this as its own book. Then, at some point either he or his publisher realized that with a few tweaks to the story, they could market this to the world as a sequel to The Shining. Really think about it for a minute. Strip away any of the references to events in The Shining, plus a few short scenes and you still have pretty much the same book. Some of the back-story would need to be changed and you may miss out of some of the emotional impact that we (finally) get at the end but otherwise it’s still the same story.
It isn’t until the very end of the book that I really felt a strong connection with The Shining and I did like that King established a moment of emotional connection to the first book. It was almost like he was trying to rescue Jack Torrence from the image of Jack Nicholson that most people have in their heads. But, while throughout, I did feel the emotional trauma of Danny’s childhood experiences, I never felt like the actual involvement with The Shining extended beyond that of Easter Eggs for his fans.
My biggest issue with Doctor Sleep is with the character development, in that it feels like a large amount of the story happens before the book even starts. It was like I was reading the third book of a trilogy after skipping the second part altogether.
Going in, you have to assume that Danny is going to be focus for many of the readers. Finding out what happens to him would be of great interest. And the book starts off for him at a moment that is quite bleak and unforgiving when he makes a choice that many would see as morally questionable.
But then the book skips forward to the point where Danny has largely moved past his personal demons. He hasn’t emerged totally victorious but a lot of his struggles are told in exposition. And considering the natural parallels with his father’s alcoholism, I would have thought that King would dwell more on that. While he still seems to have some lingering issues around his experiences at the Overlook, much of what might have been interesting with Danny’s story seems done and in the past.
Then we have Abra, the young, gifted girl who Danny takes on, now in the Dick Hallorann role himself. Again, lots of potential here, especially with the kinds of feelings and emotions this relationship could evoke in Danny. But all we get are a few quick scenes that set up Abra’s psychic abilities and when the book hits the present, she is basically fully formed. No journey there for her, save for the small amount of danger presented to her in this story. In fact, I would even say that there is a certain amount of cockiness to her as a character that for me only served to diminish the level of threat and danger I felt for her.
That brings us to Rose the Hat. I’m just going to say in general that the True Knot in this book was a wasted opportunity. They are interesting to me but in the context of this story it almost seems like they are only there to fulfill the obligation of having a villain. I got none of the sense of menace and power from Rose that I have from other King monsters. Largely, Rose seems to trip over herself in encounter after encounter, constantly overestimating her own abilities. I actually think Rose would have an interesting story to tell and that I would be interested if King were to ever make them the focus of their own book. As it stands in Doctor Sleep however, they just kind of fell flat to me.
As a specific subset of the True Knot, I was especially perplexed by the character of Andi, or Snakebite as she comes to be referred to by the Knot. King takes great pain introducing her, giving her some POV chapters but then she kind of drops out of the story and save for a sequence towards the end, she plays almost no role. I didn’t really get what purpose she served and it was like she had once had more of a subplot that King decided to remove but then forgot to take out her backstory.
Ultimately, my biggest criticism is that throughout the book I never really had a strong feeling of danger or peril for the characters. When I got to the ending, there wasn’t a sense of unveiling or climax. It just felt inevitable and if I had to choose one word to describe the overall book, it would probably be mundane.
The quality of the prose is actually good. I don’t see the shortcomings of this book as coming from the writing itself. It’s just hard to not read it and feel that it was more of a cash-grab than an effort to tell a really good story. This is getting into the most recent books of King’s career and I have to say that a common vibe through most of them seems to be that King isn’t necessarily devoting the amount of time he might have in the past to writing these out. There’s a story there and it’s decent but there also feels like there’s just something missing. Like when you pick up a gallon tub of ice cream and it has almost no weight to it.
I think whenever you see a sequel being crafted after so much time, it generally comes off as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the first book and reading Doctor Sleep, I just didn’t see much to justify the massive amount of marketing I saw, leading up to the book’s release. I’m sure there are plenty of people who love this, it just isn’t for me.
My name is Chad Clark and I am proud to be a Constant Reader.