Book Review: Dr. Sleep. Does Every Book Really Need a Sequel?

Doctor Sleep Cover by Tal Goretsky and Sean Freeman
Doctor Sleep Cover by Tal Goretsky and Sean Freeman

Sequels and series and prequels are really big business in the publishing world; think of the Warhammer series, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, even the books that comprise J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And, of course, King’s own Dark Tower series… but aside from the latter, none of King’s books that I know of have ever had a sequel. So when I heard that he was writing a sequel to The Shining I was nonplussed, to say the least. (As my Jeopardy-champion friend Robert Slaven might have said, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over?”)

I mean, if a book ever had an ending—and let’s be clear, I’m not discussing Kubrick’s adaptation; movies are entirely separate things and are almost never directly taken from books—then that book was The Shining, which ended with Jack Torrance dead and the Overlook Hotel “blowed up real good,” as SCTV’s Billy Sol Estes might have put it. (Who knows, maybe Kubrick was thinking of doing a sequel, as he killed Dick Hallorann, played by Scatman Crothers, and left the Overlook intact. Why not? Carrie had, if memory serves, two movie sequels. But King decidedly didn’t write one.)

King’s first book, Carrie, came out in 1975, followed by ‘Salem’s Lot the next year, and The Shining in 1977; then there was a Richard Bachman book (Rage) in 1977 and the collection Night Shift in 1978. I received my review hardcover of The Stand in 1978 from Doubleday and took it to Norwescon that year to get it signed by GOH Stephen King; I hadn’t read Carrie when it was published, but I really liked The Shining. Since then I’ve read every book he’s published, most of them more than once. I’ve also seen every filmic adaptation of King (some of them more than once) with the sole exception of The Golden Years, which bored me to tears at the time; one of these days I’ve got to go back and watch it. Is this enough to convince you I’m a diehard King fan?

So I looked forward to Doctor Sleep with trepidation. Okay, I supposed he could resurrect Jack Torrance; after all, is a King protagonist ever fully dead? But what about the Overlook? In other words, where could Big Steve go from here? Well, the book came out last week and I’m here to report that, as usual, the Big Guy did a bang-up job, in my occasionally-humble opinion. (I’m not as ‘umble as Uriah Heep, but I’m modest. Just ask me.)

The protagonist of Doctor Sleep is not Jack Torrance, but his son Danny, who was the main character with The Shining—the power, not the book—which was Dick Hallorann’s catch-all phrase for some kind of ESP, mostly involving telepathy in the first book. (In Carrie, the ESP under discussion was telekinetics.) Dan Torrance, now grown to adulthood, still has some telepathy, although—and this would seem to be confirmed by studies done of certain ESPers by researchers at Duke University and other places—as children with telekinesis, who are believed to be responsible for poltergeist activity, generally lose most if not all of it after puberty. (This begs the question of whether there actually exists any ESP at all; there is strong evidence that the Rhine researches at Duke were all either fakery, unconsciously slanted or misinterpreted results, or just plain wishful thinking. But for purposes of fiction, we can happily grant that ESP exists in one form or another.)

In case you’ve never read the book or seen the movie (which has at least a little resemblance to the book), the outline was this: Jack Torrance is a recovering alcoholic writer with a couple of well-regarded publications, but he’s just been fired from a teaching job (thanks to his alcoholism) and is on his last-chance job; he’s a caretaker at a classic hotel in the Colorado Rockies, who will be away from alcohol for six months during the winter, and will use this time to write a new book and, hopefully, redeem himself and his family’s fortunes. He has a wife, Wendy, and a six-year-old son, Danny; and Danny has an extrasensory telepathic talent. And an imaginary friend named Tony.

At the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, the Torrances meet the hotel’s chief cook, Dick Hallorann, who tells Danny that his gift was called “The Shining” by Dick’s grandmother, because people like Dick and Danny have a kind of shine to them. The manager and staff (including Dick Hallorann) leave and the Torrances have the Overlook to themselves; Jack’s duties are to do a few repairs, winterize the hotel—which will close to the public until spring, because the roads become impassible when it snows, and the only communication is by radio, not telephone (this was in the days before cell phones), and especially to keep an eye on the boilers keeping the hotel from freezing, because if they go out the hotel is a multi-million-dollar loss, and if they overheat, they could explode.

The hotel’s kitchens and freezers are full of food that the Torrances are welcome to eat over the winter, but there is no booze in the lounge; also, the previous caretaker, a man named Grady, killed his whole family and then himself in the middle of the winter. Right off the bat, we find out that Danny’s shining makes him sensitive to the hotel in an unexpected way; the Overlook has an evil past and appears to be a locus of spooks, bad happenings and scary stuff. Long story short, the Overlook tries to take over Danny because of his shining, but has to settle for Jack—the shining is hereditary. Jack becomes possessed and goes after his family with a roque (a variant of croquet) mallet; Danny calls Dick Hallorann back from Florida using his shining; the boiler blows up; Jack dies; the Overlook burns down and Dick helps Wendy and Danny escape from the hotel before it does.

Sorry to rush you through that, but this is supposed to be about Doctor Sleep; I don’t want to put you to sleep recounting the previous book.

The Shining Cover (Original Publication)
The Shining Cover (Original Publication)

Dan Torrance hasn’t had an easy life since his father died; his mother had a bad back after being bashed with a roque mallet, his shining has given him lifelong nightmares and—this is the thing I didn’t expect—he is an alcoholic like his father. And, like his father, he gets violent and angry when drunk. (Nobody knows for sure whether there’s an hereditary link in alcoholism.) But for Dan, now in his 40s, the alcohol keeps the shining—and the nightmares—at bay. Although Wendy received a settlement from the company that owned the Overlook, it only lasted a few years, and Dan Torrance has not had an easy life before, or after his mother dies. He settles in a small town in upstate New York, and gets work at a hospice, caring for the elderly—he can hold a job because, unlike his father, Dan is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (Jack never joined, which is good, because then we wouldn’t have had the book, would we?). Over the years he’s become very good at easing the dying into that permanent rest—aided by his shining—and he gets the nickname “Doctor Sleep” because of it.

However, there are other ways to shine—other forms of ESP—and not all of them are beneficial. There’s a troop of “gypsies” (maybe originally Romany, maybe not—that’s never clear) who travel the highways and byways of America preying on children who have the shining. They are a group of near-immortals (one of their number lived in pre-Roman England and sacrificed people to oak trees) called The True Knot, who take what they call “steam” from the dying young—but not just any young person; it has to be someone with the shining. And they can’t just die—they have to be sacrificed in almost unimaginable pain for the steam to be effective; the steam keeps the True Knot’s people alive, and gives force to their powers. They are, in effect, vampires who drink not people’s blood, but their essence; and the best “steam” comes from pain.

There’s a thirteen-year-old girl named Abra, who lives near where Dan Torrance works, who has the shining more than young Danny ever did; when the True Knot becomes aware of her presence they determine that she will be their victim. And thereby hangs the tale. As is my custom, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so I can’t give you too much information about this book and what happens. I can give you my reaction to it, however.

I enjoyed this book while reading it. King kept me on the edge of my seat a lot, as I tend to get invested in the characters while reading. The ending I found satisfactory, but although there’s a lot of good invention in this story, I didn’t find it as satisfactory as its parent, The Shining. I can’t explain the exact reasons, because that would involve spoilers, but there are a few things I can say: in spite of its length, I think it could have been longer. The ending—although it worked—felt rushed. The main sympathetic characters (Dan, Abra and “Uncle” Billy) never really felt like they were in that much danger, as opposed to The Shining, where you weren’t certain that anyone would come out alive. If I were asked if I recommend it, I’d say “sure,” but I don’t feel it was one of King’s best. That being said, I think he did a very good job of writing a sequel to a book I would have sworn didn’t need and couldn’t use a sequel.

Stephen King photo © Shane Leonard
Stephen King photo © Shane Leonard

If you’ve only seen the movie version—or the TV version with Steven Weber—of The Shining, I urge you to read the book. It’s a very different experience, although the TV version did attempt to follow the book closely. One of the faults of Kubrick’s film is that nobody in their right mind would hire Jack Nicholson for a crucial job like that—his interview was so patently phony that I was sure Ullman (the manager who interviewed him) would see right through him; and it was no surprise to anyone when Nicholson went nuts—because his acting persona is like that to begin with, am I right? Nicholson is such a superb actor, however, that despite its many flaws the Kubrick film is now regarded as a “classic”—and deservedly so. But in my opinion, not as classic as the book itself. Doctor Sleep, while a very good book, doesn’t quite reach this pinnacle.

If you enjoyed this entry—or even if you didn’t—please write or comment (either in Amazing Stories or on Facebook), and let me know what I’m doing right or wrong by your reckoning. This weekend (in fact, starting today—Friday) I’ll be at VCON, our local fan-run convention. Next week’s entry should be about VCON and some of the goings-on there. Till next week, then!

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