Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Half-Measures Availed Us Nothing: A Review of "Doctor Sleep"

First: have no fear.  There will be no spoilers in this review.  Not even itsy-bitsy ones.  I have every intention of writing a gloves-off review, but I think I'll give it a week or so, and let a few more people play catch-up with me.  (The interim seems like an excellent time to bounce back over to You Only Blog Twice and hammer out a review of Licence to Kill.)  But for now, if you've merely come here looking for a thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down from me, that's exactly what you'll get from this.

But first, time for me to be self-indulgent and write about myself for a while.  Sorry about that, but it's what self-involved people do, and so it's what I'm going to do tonight.  Not at length, though; and if you want to just skip to the opinionating, scroll down until you find the photos, and start reading from there.

There was a time when I wasn't as zealous a King fan as I am today.  These days, what happens when a new King book comes out is this: when I found out the release date, I put in for PTO (that's Paid Time Off, for those of you who might not know) for that day, and typically for a day or two afterward.  On occasion, I end up not getting to take the time off (that happened with Joyland), but typically, I do.  So, when the release day rolls around, I will get up in the morning -- I say "morning," but since I am nocturnal, it sometimes turns into afternoon -- and go to Barnes & Noble or Target or (shudder) Walmart, wherever seems most convenient to the day at hand, and buy a copy.  Then, I'll go home, start reading, and generally continue reading until I can't keep my eyes open.  
I'll squeeze a meal or two in there somewhere, and probably a shower, and probably a few brief internet sessions.  Last night, I interrupted things for over an hour so as to watch the series premiere of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC.  (It was a little on the underwhelming side, by the way; not so much so that I won't be back next week, but underwhelming nevertheless.)  My cats love it when this happens.  Reading time is PRIME lap-time for cats, and so King-release days always equal hours of lap-time.

It hasn't always been like that.  I've been trying to mentally track the evolution of what seems like mildly -- and you can possibly scratch the "mildly" -- compulsive behavior, and I can't quite figure out its genesis.  Now, just so we're clear, when I indicate that I feel it is compulsive behavior, I'm not claiming to have OCD in any sort of clinical sense.  I don't.  At least, I don't think I do.  Either way, I don't see it as a problem.  Fannish behavior of that nature is often looked at askance by people who don't quite get it.  These are often the same sort of people who insist that their lawn be mowed once a week whether it (strictly speaking) needs it or not, or who insist that everything in the house get dusted once per week.  Or who will put life on pause when their favorite football team is playing.  Why do they do those things?

Because doing those things makes them happy.  The reasons for that being the case are their own, and maybe they care about the specifics and maybe they don't, and maybe we care about them and maybe we don't...but in the end, I think that's always what it amount to.  Such things happen because they are happiness-generators.

My stance is this: Stephen King is my favorite writer.  He has released a lot of books, and I've read all of them, and I can count on maybe the number of fingers Roland has left after meeting the lobstrosities the number of those books that I didn't enjoy reading.  And even those, I enjoyed at least a little bit.  The rest of them, I enjoyed quite a lot.  So when a new Stephen King book comes out, why on Earth would I not want to start reading it immediately?

But in trying to trace the history of it becoming a formalized thing as it has, I can't quite figure out the when of it.  I think I can say with reasonable certainty that I was buying and reading them on release day as early as Dreamcatcher, but I think it might go back even a bit farther than that.  Either way, I know definitively where it wasn't happening: Hearts In Atlantis was released in September of 1999, and I did not read it until Christmas of that year.  I can't remember why that would be the case, but 1999 was not a good year for me, so it almost certainly had to do with the reasons why that was the case.  (I'm being vague here, and that's because there's no need for this post to devolve in melodrama.)

And now, a suspicion begins to present itself, one which looking back on 1999 helps to clarify.  King released three books that year: the screenplay of Storm of the Century came out in February, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon in April, and Hearts In Atlantis in September.  The first, I got (and read) more or less immediately upon release; I got the Book-of-the-Month Club edition, the only hardback version to be published.  The second, I picked up somewhere locally, and I believe I remember reading it more or less immediately upon release, too.

A lot happened between those releases and Hearts In Atlantis, though.  I had some melodrama, and King himself had some flat-out drama, nearly losing his life in the process.  I can remember being upset by that accident, but I also remember being too preoccupied with my own garbage to get really upset about it.  Or, it seems, to read the new book when it came out late that summer.

Casting my mind back to Christmas of 1999, I begin to dimly remember that that Christmas -- spent at my grandparents' house -- took on an air of me returning to myself.  I'd gotten over most of the melodrama, to the extent I ever would; and I'd gotten away from it proximity-wise, in any case.  I'd taken Hearts In Atlantis with me, and I remember sitting awake with it while everyone else in the house was asleep and reading by Christmas-tree light, munching on peanut brittle, feeling more myself than I'd felt in months. that it?  Did that few days bring home in some way a fact: that when I'm reading a Stephen King book, I am, in some odd but essential way, more in some way?  I think that could be it.

But lest that sound weird, consider that it's possibly the same for the guy who wants to get Grand Theft Auto V the day it comes out and play it for hours on end; or for the guy who has a specific date that we wants to take the tarp off the pool every spring and refill it; or for someone who goes to the grocery store every Thursday afternoon like clockwork.

It's an addiction, see.

But not all addictions are bad.  Some of them, I think, are pretty great.

Doctor Sleep is all about some of the less beneficial forms of addiction.  I don't think it's a spoiler to inform you that the novel is about Danny Torrance, who is now all grown up.  Dan Torrance is the result of that aging process, and Dan Torrance has some of the same problems his father, Jack, had.  And as it turns out, the shining doesn't do a whole hell of a lot to help with that.

The bulk of the novel is devoted to Dan's friendship with -- and mentorship of -- a teenage girl who has the shine, as well.  Her name is Abra Stone, and she is even more powerful than Danny himself used to be.  This is not good, because she comes to the attention the book's villains: the True Knot, a traveling clan of somewhat vampiric beings who roam the country in RVs, posing as retirees.  But what they really do is find people who have the sort of talents Danny and Abra possess; some of them they turn in members of their not-quite-human race, but most they feed on.  They don't drink blood, though; they inflict pain, which causes the victims to emit something called "steam."  The steam nourishes the True Knot, reinvigorates them; one of their number who appears 65 might appear 45 again after taking steam.  And Abra, as powerful as she is, is too tempting a target to resist; if a normal child with the shine is a flashlight, Abra is like a lighthouse.

I wouldn't even consider giving more than that away.

So, the million-dollar question: is Doctor Sleep good?

You bet your ass it is.  There will undoubtedly be some purists who insist that it tarnishes the legacy of the original, one of the best-loved novels of the twentieth century.  I'd argue that not only does it not tarnish that legacy, it deepens it.  Doctor Sleep is a terrific novel.  I've got a few slight reservations, which, I suppose, could become magnified into major reservations on a reread.  Is that a possibility?  Sure it is.  But I can't talk about most of them without delving too deep into spoiler territory, so they'll have to wait until the next review; and anyways, they are all minor reservations at worse.  At least for now, and I expect them to remain that way.

Another million-dollar question: is Doctor Sleep as good as The Shining?  For me, that's a no.  But I think it ranks comparably to most of King's other top-notch works, like Joyland and Duma Key and 11/22/63, and that, friends, is pretty damn good. 

Another question: is it scary?  You know...I'm not sure it is.  It has a few creepy moments, to be sure, but overall, I'm not sure I'd even classify it as a horror novel.  This, again, is for reasons I can't quite get into, but the short-hand version might go something like this: Dan Torrance isn't as easily scared as Danny Torrance used to be, so the focus is different.  This might bother some people, I guess.  It didn't bother me.

The bottom line is this: I spent the better part of two days (the waking hours of them, at least) sitting in one chair, with a series of cats curled up on my lap, doing little but reading one book and fielding the occasional phone call.  I didn't feel bored at any point.  I didn't feel tempted to go do anything else (except take a brief trip to my parents' house and watch that S.H.I.E.L.D. show with them).  My attention didn't wander, which it has been known to do even when I'm reading a book I enjoy.  Nope; it was just me and that book and some cats, and it all seemed like a pretty damn fine use of time for all involved.

In the end, what better experience can you ask for?

Be back in a few days with a longer look, one which goes to the spoilery places this one avoided.  See you then!


  1. You know, it's funny.

    At the beginning of this review I was (no offense) getting bored when the would be inner critic in my head (or Wouldby) spoke up in something like:

    Wouldby: Best to pay attention. There might be something to learn from the way a person reads a book.

    Me: Uh-huh. Annnd what have YOU got from it so far?

    Wouldby: (regards words on screen) There is something here to take away, at least. He strikes me as one who's not content just to know, but also KNOW WHY he knows. A virtue too little cultivated in this age. Though I suppose that's always been the problem facing most people, the desire to learn is there, but getting your hands on the opportunity is what's problematic.

    Me:...No s-t....Uh so what do you think of his take on Sleep, Wouldby?

    Wouldby: I think every book, even a sub-par one has an inside that can tell you not only about it's composition, but sometimes also the mind of the author who composed it.

    Me: So what's your take then?

    Wouldby: Curiously enough, I find in it the same faults I often encounter in the lesser work of Dean Koontz.


    Wouldby: Didacticism where he should focus on developing character, style and dialogue. It opens with two AA epithets. Both very useful (indeed, indispensable) for real life. However fiction's task is with entertaining and storytelling, not directly expounding philosophy. Indeed, it might be fair to say that here, King is more interested in the "message" at the expense of the story.

    Me: So what do you think of the story "proper" then?

    Me: The author is alarmingly content with describing only the surface of people, places and events. This presents an unfortunate lack of depth in terms of the character's motivations, actions, and even their circumstances. For instance, Dick Hallorann...

    Me: Yes?

    Wouldby: In the original novel, though he's on only for a few pages, the reader is given a sense of both depth and history were there really is none, or at least not in the conventional sense. This ability to convey depth is one of the hallmarks of good fiction. Whereas in Sleep there's little going into the character. He seems almost to have been brought on stage for the soul purpose of functioning as an advice dispenser.

    Me: Well, wouldn't some argue that that's the whole point of his character?

    Wouldby: Perhaps, but never forget the matter of depth. As he's presented, the character is little more than a cipher.

    Me: Well, wouldn't some argue that the character is rounded enough as he is?

    Wouldby: Why do you say that?


    Wouldby: Or rather, what makes you say it? Why or what about such an idea it is true?


    To be continued.


    1. Continued from last post.

      Wouldby: Granted, I note the words in the review above about stories making others feel happy.

      Me: So what do you think of such a judgment.

      Wouldby: It's at least true enough that all stories are in some way generators of some kind of mood, emotion, or series of both at the same time (if indeed the two words aren't merely terms for the same thing).

      Me: Do you think emotional reaction is a good criteria for whether a book is good or not, or whether it succeeds?

      Wouldby: Experience has taught me to be cautious in this regard. Granted the power of great fiction to raise powerful reactions in the reader, still, on close second examination these are merely the surface indicators of much more complex and challenging thoughts imbedded in the work. For instance, take Shakespeare's Hamlet or King Lear. There is a great deal of thought in both plays. My guess is, without them nobody would even muster the curiosity to come back to them. There's more to it, however for the moment I'm content to point others toward that essay of yours.

      Me: Er, thanks, I guess. Do you think there's anything-

      Wouldby: That is all for now, I think. Good day.

      Well, that was what you might call my inner critic. I have no idea where he came from, or even who he is. However, I don't disagree with him on the short coming of Sleep.


    2. I'm confused. You've read the novel?

      I thought you said you would be avoiding it like the plague...?

  2. I'll admit to having leafed through it a bit. When I first listen to king narrate the prologue I felt...I guess mad as hell, and for reasons I've outlined in that paper I turned in. However what I didn't expect when I started leafing through it was relief.

    Not excitement, not suspense, not even any real threat (indeed, the True Knot and Rose win my award most boring, least interesting villains I've ever read) however it was the relief that comes from laughing inwardly (albeit very muted) and thinking in mild surprise, "Well this isn't Danny."

    I know I've basically said that about the main character before, but apparently it took at least reading a bit to let that sink home.

    After that reaction, the rest of my reading could be summed up by my complete lack of reaction, the story not raising much in the way of emotion and just staying right there on he page, even when I was able to visualize it in my mind. It didn't help, or do anything to improve it. In fact all a lot of it did was serve to annoy me.

    I remember wondering once way back at the beginning wondering if King might have been writing it as a parody of all the Twilight fad we've had recently. After what I've read, I can't help wondering if that's maybe true in some sense. However, even if that were the case, the results strike me as an abysmal failure.

    Nothing of what I've read has changed my initial opinion that it's a flop. However it's very failure has in some sensed eased my worries that it is in any way "the truth" (see my essay).

    With that in mind, I can at least set it aside as (I'm real sorry if you're a fan but I got to tell the truth of what I found) the arrant nonsense that it is, and move on with little regrets, except maybe that I worried over nothing.

    That said, it still is sad to see such a good story (Shining) reduced in such a way; and for me this will stand as King's worst book (unless, forbid, he manages sink lower in some way I can't even think of).

    That said, I don't think this means he's a bad writer, or that he still doesn't have it in him, if he tries hard enough, to write better and still be good at what he does best; making us think by scaring the ever living crap out of us!


    1. Let's turn our attentions back, briefly, to your initial comments:

      "At the beginning of this review I was (no offense) getting bored when the would be inner critic in my head (or Wouldby) spoke up in something like:

      Wouldby: Best to pay attention. There might be something to learn from the way a person reads a book.

      Me: Uh-huh. Annnd what have YOU got from it so far?

      Wouldby: (regards words on screen) There is something here to take away, at least. He strikes me as one who's not content just to know, but also KNOW WHY he knows. A virtue too little cultivated in this age. Though I suppose that's always been the problem facing most people, the desire to learn is there, but getting your hands on the opportunity is what's problematic.

      Me:...No s-t....Uh so what do you think of his take on Sleep, Wouldby?"

      Now, Chris, I have to ask: did you assume I would be too dim-witted to take note of the various insults you've peppered throughout this passive/aggressive attack of yours?

      That's not the sort of stance that is going to cause me take anything you say seriously.

      Speaking of which, I think you are dead wrong about pretty much everything you have to say about "Doctor Sleep." I'm not going to go point-by-point and refute what you say, though, because frankly, life is too short. You've got your opinions on the matter, and I've got mine; oil and water, etc.

      You made up your mind about the book months ago, and have been twisting yourself into knots trying to justify it ever since. So imagine my non-surprise when your seemingly-cursory sampling of the novel yielded exactly the results you expected it to yield.

      Granted, we all carry preconceived notions with us, and I'm no different. I fully expect to be entertained by a new novel from King each and every time. However, I think I'm capable of evaluating the material on its own merits each and every time. If I wasn't, then surely I would have enjoyed "Lisey's Story" and "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon." Instead, I found both to be tedious. I don't find myself enjoying every movie I expect to enjoy; just last night, I settled in to watch "Rush" -- which I assumed I would love -- and found myself thinking that it was a bit of a sloppy mess.

      I always HAVE preconceptions, but I routinely defeat them. So I know, based on that, that my enjoyment of "Doctor Sleep" was not due to self-fulfilling prophecy. I enjoyed it based on its own merits.

      My perception of your opinions on the book is that you are incapable of approaching it. It doesn't fit into your preconceived notions, and so when you read it, you aren't even actually engaging with it; instead, you are taking just enough from it to satisfy you that you've been right all along.

      That's my perception of things, at least. And obviously, it's your right to read the book that way, if that's what you want to do. However, from this point forward, you should not be looking for me to have any tolerance for it. I don't agree with your stance toward it, nor do I agree with a single one of the specifics you mention above. I don't really think we've got anything left to say to each other on the subject, and that's where we're going to leave it.

    2. Agreed. And apologies. Let's move on.


    3. Also, sorry for that Wouldby comment. I never meant it to come out that way. Double sorry if it did.


    4. The Wouldby thing flew over my head. Is that a reference to something? Or a pun I'm not getting?

      I dunno - I'm about 100 pages in and it's not great, but it's far from "Didacticism where he should focus on developing character, style and dialogue." The style seems a conscious (and pretty successful) effort at replicating the style/ flow of The Shining especially with the
      breaks into parentheticals like that. Granted, he's done that throughout his career, but he started scaling it back bigtime over the course of the 90s. So that's jumping out at me.

    5. Similarly:

      "That said, it still is sad to see such a good story (Shining) reduced in such a way; and for me this will stand as King's worst book (unless, forbid, he manages sink lower in some way I can't even think of)."

      I just can't see it. Since you've come to this conclusion without reading the book, I suppose it's fair for me to disagree though I'm only a fifth of the way through.

    6. I actually love the use of the parentheticals. They always seem like flashes of the subconscious to me; sort of like if you insert four frames of something into the middle of a movie, and it's there just long enough for the audience to see but not long enough for them to really grasp. When I read the books where King uses that technique, I try to keep the narrator in my head focused on narrating, and have him not quite "say" the parentheticals, but rather take note of them without including them in the narration.

      Weird? Yes. Yes, I am. Why do you ask...?

  3. Bryant I really enjoyed your story of reading Hearts in Atlantis in front of the Christmas tree while everyone was asleep, feeling more like yourself. That is a nice moment in time that you will always remember, it's great to have those in life.

    I'm not sure if I will read Dr. Sleep b/c I really am tired of the AA and alcohol stuff he has written recently. I thought everything he wanted to say about that was written perfectly in Callahan's story arc in the Dark Tower.

    1. Mike C - that was the first note I made as I'm going through this: "Isn't this the Father Callahan arc?" Somba's a little close (though different enough, to be sure) of The True Knot, too.

      Actually, that connection is a bit hazier, I guess, but it just seems so familiar. (Firestarter is coming to mind - as well as the first Shining, though that's hardly surprising, and probably intentional - with the Abra stuff, too.

      Anyway! Just happy someone else mentioned that Father Callahan bit.

    2. It was covered fairly well in "The Tommyknockers," as well, courtesy of Jim Gardener. It didn't bother me because I found that while he is certainly mining themes he's mined numerous times before, he's got a different focus. Still, it's a fair criticism.

  4. Well, as for the whole Wouldby business, it's actually kind of funny.

    You see after reading your review I was trying to compose my own thoughts and the middle of that the phrase "The would-be critic in my head", and the idea just jumped out at me like that.

    For the next few minutes I got totally wrapped up in this amusing idea of this literal would-be critic as an actual fictional personality. I got so involved before I ever commented that I was just running with this concept to the actual point that I began to speculate on what this fictional "would-be critic would look like.

    The picture I have of him in my own head is strange cross between Roddy McDowell and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I can only explain that by saying it's the composite sort of almost image that occurred to me. In fact whenever I imagined his voice it actually WAS McDowell!

    I saw how this would be critic is one of those ivory tower types, I think he even has a pipe. He's sophisticated yet somewhat socially awkward (though not in the Frasier and Niles Crane territory). For instance, if he were reading a paper and someone were to say hello, they'd have to repeat themselves a few times before he even noticed anyone was there, and when he did he give a bit of an exasperated sigh before folding up his reading material and devoting attention to other matters.

    Yeah, I literally was going all the way with this. I never came up with an idea like that before, which made it all the more fun to contemplate. My thought was since he's a would be critic, his name is naturally Wouldby.

    When I started my first two post comments, I was psyched and wanted to test out this neat somewhat joke of an idea of a fictional person who exists only inside my head, even down to his own style of diction.

    .......I'll go take my meds now.


    1. Ahhhh-so. I was saying it as "Would Bye" not "would-be," hence my confusion.

    2. I am 100% pro-Roddy McDowall. I'm currently debating putting in "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and watching the final scene...

    3. WHOO-HOO! That's my cue!

      Here's a vlog I discovered last month, part of a fan retrospective called The Summer of the Planet of the Apes, featuring McDowall and KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!


    4. Chris - just finished. I thought of your manifesto a few times while reading it. I ended up not liking it as much as I wanted to and agreeing with you more than I thought I would. I didn't hate it, but... well. I reviewed it and I'll leave it there. Disappointed, though I guess the roll he's been on since Lisey's had to end sometime.