Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book Reviews: Doctor Sleep

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
Some things are obvious upon reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s follow up to his novel The Shining. The first is that King is and always has been an incredibly masterful writer. The second is that (and he states as much in the epilogue) King is still rather peeved at Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of The Shining. He thinks Kubrick got some very basic things wrong. King appears to resent that the film is probably better known in the American zeitgeist than the book. King seems to have made it his goal to change that in his remaining time on this planet. The final obvious takeaway from this book is that apparently King did not spend much, if any, time around black people during his formative years. I don't think he can easily(?) write realistic black characters. 

Many of his black characters are either literal Magic Negroes or creations that are just white characters dipped in blackness. For example, Dick Hallorann is the hero's mentor and I suppose, literally a Magic Negro. All four of Dick's grandparents were black. Despite this Dick unironically describes his paternal grandfather as “Black Gramps” because the man was bad. This grandfather was a child molester and all around evil man. Dick describes his maternal grandmother as “White Granny” because she was good. It’s from her that Dick inherited his psychic abilities. OK. Imagine a Jewish character describing one Jewish relative as “Jew Uncle” because he was cheap, petty, vindictive and grasping and another one as “Christian Auntie” because she was kind, polite, friendly and helpful. Does that ring true to you? Well YMMV but it certainly didn’t give me a warm comfortable feeling. Anyway. 

If you haven't read The Shining you're missing something good. Nevertheless reading The Shining is not necessary to enjoy Doctor Sleep. The inevitability of death and the circle of life are important themes in Doctor Sleep. We also get King’s first hand knowledge of the pain of alcohol abuse, broken bones and the helplessness of being hospitalized and immobilized. King was hit by a van in 1999. This accident almost took his life. He narrowly avoided losing limbs to amputation. 

Dan Torrance (the little boy Danny from The Shining) is all grown up now. He still remembers the horrific events that took place in the Overlook hotel. His parents are now deceased. Unfortunately Dan is still fighting the demons his father fought.

It’s not the literal demons of the Overlook, though a few still crop up from time to time. No Dan has become, just like his father before him, a quick tempered violent alcoholic who has trouble keeping a job or saving money. Dan hits bottom one night when he steals money from an equally destitute one night stand partner and has an unpleasant encounter with her son.

Afterwards Dan starts trying to make his life better. He drinks to dull his psychic abilities. One would not imagine why a person with such abilities would wish to do that until you consider how much "fun" it would be to look at someone and know the time and fashion of their death or see in Technicolor all the ugly things they’ve done in their life or have unwanted visits from and conversations with people who are long dead. Still, Dan decides that he must stop drinking. Starting a new job as a carnie and later as a hospice orderly in a New Hampshire town, Dan gets his life together with the help of AA. And his powers, his shining as it were, also start to become stronger. He helps to ease patients' transition. 

His shining becomes stronger not only because he’s no longer drinking but also because he’s (initially unknowingly) in the vicinity of a young girl, Abra Stone, whose shining ability dwarfs Dan’s own, just as Dan’s strength once made his mentor Dick nervous. As a baby, Abra foresaw 9/11 and as a toddler was able to read minds and amuse herself by levitating spoons, telekinetically playing the piano or making every channel on the TV play The Simpsons. Her parents try not to believe in her powers but her great grandmother does, along with Dan, obviously. The shining is strongest in children. And Abra is something of a prodigy.

Unfortunately for Abra there is another group of people who know the power Abra possesses. They seek out children like Abra. Calling themselves the True Knot and led by a beautiful but sadistic and evil woman known as Rose the Hat, these people are not human any longer. They are psychic vampires of the sort featured in Dan Simmons' Carrion Comfort or F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle. They travel incessantly across the US. They literally feed on people’s pain and fear. 9/11 was a bouquet for them. But what they most enjoy, what gives them sustenance and power, is to consume the pain and soul of a child with the shining. After hours of torture, just before death, the True Knot are able to consume what they call “steam” or the essence of such a special child. 

This gives them power and something approaching immortality. Most of them are hundreds of years old but can appear as old or as young as they please. When Abra clairvoyantly sees Rose leading the True Knot in a ritual murder, Rose becomes psychically aware of Abra. But when Abra is able to smash Rose aside as easily as you or I would an annoying gnat, Rose decides to take a special interest in locating Abra. Rose thinks Abra's power could sustain the True Knot for decades if not centuries.

Abra turns to Dan for help. As Abra is only twelve, it's difficult for the forty something Dan to assist without tripping everyone's pedophile alert. But Dan intends to help Abra just as Dick once helped him. It’s something he feels compelled to do to make up for past sins. And once he discovers that the True Knot has a link to the Overlook Hotel, it becomes very personal indeed.

Much like Stoker's Dracula and King's Salem's Lot, a small circle of heroes attempt to protect an innocent against supernatural evil. The twist is that although this innocent is far more powerful than her protectors, seeing herself as Daenerys Targaryen, Abra lacks experience and may not be as wily as she thinks she is. 

The bad guys are very bad indeed, and you won’t want to put the book down. It moves quite quickly despite being over 500 pages. Children are harmed in this book. It’s not the most explicit thing King’s ever written but he’s not writing at the shallow end of the gross out pool either. Doctor Sleep is not as scary as The Shining. Black House, which like Doctor Sleep revisits a grown up special child, was much scarier. Unlike a lot of modern horror or fantasy authors King places virtually no grey in the bad characters in Doctor Sleep. Rose and one or two other baddies have a brief hint of complexity but they are and remain monsters. 

This book is Tolkienesque in that "Evil" is generally depicted as something twisted and broken which is produced by bent people, not something which is part of everyone's heart. So if you want a respite from more cynical authors, this might be worth reading. If you believe that death is not the end or that the arc of the universe does indeed bend towards justice you may be satisfied with this story. I did like the shout out that King gave to a villain in his son Joe Hill’s book NOS4A2, which I need to get around to reading sometime soon.
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