We stood at the turning point. Half-measures availed us nothing.-- The Big Book of Alcoholics AnonymousIf we were to live, we had to be free of anger. [It is] the dubious luxury of normal men and women.-- The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous
It is with this duo of epigraphs that King begins Doctor Sleep. King's epigraphs are usually interesting, and they're also typically of thematic significance to the novel which they precede; Doctor Sleep is nothing new in that regard. However, I think these might be the most thematically tied-in of any epigraphs King has ever used, and I would argue that the second of the two is a big key to putting this particular novel in its proper context. It's a context that is a very different context than that of The Shining, the novel to which Doctor Sleep is a sequel, and some fans of that first novel have expressed disappointment with Doctor Sleep on the grounds that it doesn't hew closely enough to the legacy of its forebear.
It's a valid argument in some ways, but not one that interests me, particularly. I'm more interested in what Doctor Sleep is than in what it isn't. I don't always have that ability (as we'll see tomorrow when I put up a review of the Kimberly Peirce version of Carrie), but in this case, I managed it with no sweat at all.
Follow me, and let's if we can figure out how I did it.
By the way, since I haven't mentioned it so far, this review will be chock full of spoilers. It's intended for people who have read the novel; so if that isn't you, be warned.
Say, remember a few paragraphs ago, when I said that King begins Doctor Sleep with a pair of epigraphs? That was a complete lie! He actually begins it with a memorial note to the memory of his friend Warren Zevon, who passed away in 2003 (but will live forever by virtue of classic songs like "Lawyers, Guns and Money" and "Werewolves of London"). I just wanted to confess to that lie -- which I told knowingly and with malice aforethought -- before we proceeded. Fessin's done; let's move it on.
But not too far; let's talk about some more epigraphs! Specifically, two of them, both attributed to "Old AA saying." The first appears on page 1: "FEAR stands for fuck everything and run." The second appears toward the end, on page 511, just prior to the novel's epilogue: "FEAR stands for face everything and recover." Sandwiched between the two of them is the bulk of the novel; these epigraphs stand as bookends, and you will perhaps note that there is an evolution that takes place at some point between the first and the second. One might say that the first is the statement of an alcoholic, and that the second is the statement of a recovering alcoholic.
You might think those things are one and the same. You'd be wrong about that. I'm not an alcoholic, nor an addict, so in a sense I'm speaking out of turn by saying that; but based on what I've read on the subject from people like King, I feel like I'm on safe ground. So, standing between those two epigraphs is the process by which an alcoholic turns the corner toward recovery. In other words, the bulk of Doctor Sleep is a representation of that very process: an alcoholic deciding he doesn't want to be a drunk any longer, and taking the necessary steps to make that desire a reality. We've already seen from the first set of epigraphs that half-measures will not work, and that anger is a luxury the alcoholic cannot afford; now, via these FEAR epigraphs, we see that another vital part of the process involves conquering the urge to run away from one's fears. Instead, those fears must be confronted.
Doctor Sleep is not a horror novel. Reading it as such may produce some disappointment, especially from anyone who expects it to measure up to The Shining in the fear department. I get that. However, I would ask a question in return: why should it even try? And that's what's important to bear in mind about Doctor Sleep: it doesn't try, but is instead content to be its own entity, one which is a very logical progression from The Shining but does little to try and serve as a carbon-copy of the previous novel's themes and concerns. The Shining was Jack Torrance's novel; Doctor Sleep is Dan Torrance's, and while father and son share similar concerns and problems, the son is definitely not a mere shadow of the father. He is his own man, with his own problems, and his own ways of dealing with them.
That's a wise move on King's part. And really, it's only the latest in an intimidatingly long list of examples of how and why King deserves to be considered as being among the finest writers of his, or any other, generation. Judging from interviews, King wasn't even tempted to do what a lot of writers might have done: simply tell another haunted-hotel story and call it a sequel to The Shining. King is a far better writer than that, one whose boundless imagination has no need for circling back around to essentially just do the same thing again. Why? Because somewhere in the back of his mind, Danny Torrance never stopped living; in that fertile field of electromagnetic impulses, the neurons labeled "Torrance, D." never really stopped firing. Danny has been there all the while, occasionally popping his head up and saying hello.
So I imagine it, at least. Only King could say for sure (which he more or less does in the author's note appearing in the back of the novel). It's certainly consistent with the idea he had put forward on several occasions comparing his process of writing to digging up an artifact buried underground; in this case, the ground is his mind, and the artifact is the sum total of his ideas on a given character/plot/topic. He'd probably say that Dan was there all the while, just waiting for the years between The Shining and now to be unearthed.
With Doctor Sleep, King has done just that, and what he's uncovered is that while Danny grew up safely and soundly, he didn't grow up entirely rid of his father's demons. One remained: a genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, and the attendant difficulties in the field of Job Retention that frequently follow in its wake. Dan lacks one thing that Jack had, however: a family of his own. Dan, instead, remains childless, and so has something that Jack lacked: freedom.
From this starting point, Doctor Sleep could have gone in several directions. The one some readers may no doubt have preferred would be for it to try and be every inch the horror novel that The Shining was. Could King have done that? I'd argue that he absolutely could have done it; he doesn't typically write full-bore horror these days, but he has done so as recently as 2010 ("1922" from Full Dark, No Stars) and 2008 (the superb Duma Key, which is every bit as horrifying as The Shining, if not more so). So could he have done it? You bet your ass he could have. Let's have none of this "he's gone soft" talk; he hasn't.
However, it is difficult -- or at least I assume it to be -- to write a true work of horror without there being some element of tragic loss in the mix. The Shining has that via the death of Jack at the end of the novel; that story IS a tragedy, and Jack is the victim. Doctor Sleep could have followed the same path, provided that King wished to turn one of his characters into a tragic victim. Dan would have been the most likely choice, although if he had wished to offer Abra up upon that vicious altar, that would certainly have done the trick also. And there's no reason on Earth why that version of a sequel to The Shining couldn't have been a classic.
King didn't go that route. Instead, he saw the novel as an opportunity to issue what may prove to be his most direct statement on a theme near and dear to his heart: an ode to the perils of addiction. This is ground King has walked on several other occasions. Let's list them (and let's agree to not be terribly surprised if I forget one or two):
- 'Salem's Lot, which includes a subplot in which the alcoholic Father Callahan has to confront drinking of a different sort
- The Shining (duh)
- The Drawing of the Three, in which a heroin addict finds himself literally worlds away from the nearest hit, and has no choice but to confront the demon that is Cold Turkey
- Misery, in which Paul's (understandable) need for pain medication gives way to addiction of another sort: the addiction to writing
- The Tommyknockers, in which poet Jim Gardener's alcoholism actually helps to defeat an alien menace!
- The Dark Half, in which Thad's getting rid of his "George Stark" pseudonym is part of his efforts to stop drinking (both made him a rather unpleasant fellow)
- On Writing, in which King writes autobiographically about his own struggles with drink and drugs
There may be others that fit the bill thematically, if not explicitly, but those are the biggies. You will note that of all of them, the only one that is about someone actually seeking help for his problem and then finding success at conquering it is the nonfictional one, On Writing. King has never tackled the subject fictionally. He's had guys get clean (Eddie Dean, whose only other choice was death, and Paul Sheldon, who was arguably an addict only as long as Annie Wilkes forced him to be one, and was therefore defeating an outside force rather than an internal one); he's had guys try to get clean and not succeed (Thad Beaumont, who succeeds in one sense, but in a different one fails utterly); he's had guys find really good reasons to NOT get clean (Jim Gardener); and he's had guys fail spectacularly (Don Callahan and Jack Torrance).
He's never, until now, had a guy go into that particular battle and emerge with a decisive victory. But that's just what Dan Torrance does in Doctor Sleep, and since that seems to be just what King himself did in his own life, that makes Doctor Sleep extremely persuasive as something of a culminating point in the author's body of work.
The question, then, is this: do you accept the hypothesis that a sequel to The Shining is the proper venue through which to tell that story? If your answer is no, then odds are that you will not like Doctor Sleep much. If you're more inclined to say yes, then the question shifts somewhat: do you feel that King did a good job in the execution of the idea?
For me, that's where the debate gets interesting. More on that momentarily. First, more needs to be said about the decision King made to go down that road (Dan Torrance as vehicle for statement about alcoholism recovery) in the first place.
I'm in the camp that says King has the right to do whatever he wants to do; and I'm also in the camp that implicitly trusts that his instincts are solid. Why? Well, duh: because he's rarely given me cause to doubt them. (At least so far as his prose goes; on the subject of film and television, I'm a lot less inclined to be trusting of his instincts.) If his writing career is a baseball game, I can count of King to get on base about nineteen our of every twenty times he goes up to bat, which is a preposterously strong on-base percentage. He's let me down before (Lisey's Story, anyone?), but it happens so rarely that I always shrug it off as mere aberration. And the fact is, if he wanted to use a sequel to The Shining as a vehicle for exploring the process of conquering alcoholism, then he already had the mechanism in place to do so. What is The Shining if it's not -- partially -- the tale of a son surviving his father's weakness(es)? Danny IS a survivor. And not merely by virtue of circumstance, of by virtue of having been saved by Wendy and Dick. No. Danny is -- in The Shining, I mean -- a survivor because he is a fundamentally stronger person than his father.
So, yes, Doctor Sleep could have been a tragedy...but doing so would have risked turning a character who is fundamentally a survivor into a character who fundamentally is not. King would have been chasing The Shining and getting only farther away from it.
The conclusion I've come to is that what he's done here -- conceptually, insofar as it regards Dan himself being a struggling alcoholic -- makes complete sense. It works, plain and simple. But this does not address the notion of whether the novel itself does anything worthwhile with that concept.
Does it? The novel explores the concept by means of the following plot points (among others):
- Dan working in a hospice as an orderly, one whose "shine" gets put to frequent use helping dying men and women cross over to whatever waits on the other side
- Dan's friendship -- which is, for years, entirely telepathic (and extremely infrequent) -- with a young girl named Abra whose shine is even stronger than his own
- Abra's peril at the hands of the True Knot, a nomadic clan of not-quite-human beings who subsist by feeding on the emanations from dying psychics
- Dan's various friendships, which include co-workers and fellow AA members
There's more than that, of course, but those are the main ones which spring to mind. Of them, I'd say that three of them are, for me, entirely successful. The one that gives me pause to some degree is the semi-thorny issue of the True Knot. I've seen some people say that they are among King's best villains; I've seen others say that they are among his worst.
For me, it's somewhere in the middle. That statement comes with a caveat: frankly, I don't think King is always particularly good at writing villains. He has written good ones in the past (Leland Gaunt in Needful Things, Kurt Barlow in 'Salem's Lot, John Rainbord in Firestarter, and Andre Linoge in Storm of the Century are a few), but he's also written villains that turn out to be mildly unimpressive (Randall Flagg goes into this category for me, as does Tak in Desperation) or downright lame (the Crimson King in Book VII of The Dark Tower). Pennywise in It is my favorite of his villains, but that's only if you consider Pennywise to actually be a character; I'm not entirely sure I do, because I may be of the opinion that it is more of a force of nature than a character. Likewise, many of King's most successful stories do not actually have villains in the traditional sense: from The Shining to Pet Sematary to Duma Key, it is just as frequent for the antagonist(s) to be malevolent forces, as opposed to actual characters.
What King does well is give us a villain we can understand: Margaret White in Carrie, Mrs. Carmody in The Mist, Percy Wetmore in The Green Mile, and so forth. But they frequently end up being merely part of the problem for the antagonists of those books; defeating them will help, but it won't put an end to the entirety of the struggle. What makes such characters understandable is that they are humans, with human concerns and human failings.
Interestingly, King has tried to make the members of the True Knot just as understandable as any human, which is perhaps one of the only times he has done so with supernatural antagonists. We are meant to empathize with Rose and the rest of the True Knot. We are not asked to support the things they do; but we are consistently expected to at least grasp that they are doing what they do for a reason. For me, though, they don't entirely work. I get the feeling that part of what inspired King to write the novel was the conceit of there being monsters who pose as retired people traveling in huge RVs. It's an odd idea, but it's one that King could have gotten great mileage out of...theoretically. Problem is, it's such an odd idea that it can only work if King forces it to work. And he doesn't have any particular interest in scaring us with them; he's more interested in showing us how they serve as a tight family unit, and love each other. So for me, the True Knot end up being a strange mishmash of ideas, none of which ever quite manage to coalesce.
I do think that aspect ends up hurting the novel somewhat. As villains, Rose and the True Knot never seem particularly powerful, because they never really do anything that is powerful. They kidnap one Little Leaguer and torture him to death, and that's about it. Yeah, that's a fairly bad thing to do, but does it make them formidable adversaries? I'd argue that it does not.
At the same time, King doesn't put quite enough emphasis on the idea that the True Knot need to be stopped for Dan and Abra's triumph over them to end up feeling like a genuine victory in the high-fantasy sense of things. Sauron being defeated in The Lord of the Rings this is not. King could have gone that direction, with a few tweaks, but that was not where his interests lay; again, he was more interested in creating a bond of empathy between us and the True Knot.
A lot of readers, I suspect, will get caught on that question as if it were a barbed-wire fence they were attempting to get past. The reaction is understandable; part of me is still stuck on that fence, too. But the rest of me -- which is most of me -- got past it fairly quickly, because I realized that King's sympathy with the monsters in this case was a reflection of the main themes of the novel. Remember that whole thing about anger being the luxury of normal people? In this case, King is putting us in the perspective of someone living without anger; even when Rose is torturing a child, we understand that she is doing it out of a basic will to live. That bond of understanding that King creates between us and Rose defuses whatever anger we might feel. We don't want to see Rose succeed, and we definitely want Dan and Abra to defeat her, but we aren't particularly made to feel that her defeat is a victory, in the sense that one is victorious over a foe in stories. Her defeat is more like the defeat of Cujo in that novel; it is simply what had to be done. Rose is not vanquished; she is euthanized.
Ultimately, I think King makes the True Knot work; but it's not a home run, by any means, and I find that I can't quite bring myself to care about them enough to want to defend them vigorously.
Let's move on and talk about Abra Stone. She's a good character, and one I wouldn't mind seeing pop up again at some point in the future (to which end I will keep my fingers crossed in hopes of King living long enough to turn this into a trilogy fifteen or twenty years down the line). But associated with her character is another of the things that I imagine to be a major sticking point for some fans of The Shining: I'm referring, of course, to the revelation that she is Jack Torrance's granddaughter by way of a fling he had with a student back in his college-teaching days.
Of everything in Doctor Sleep, it is probably this that comes closest to actually changing The Shining in some way. If we buy into Doctor Sleep, we now must reread The Shining with the knowledge that Jack Torrance was unfaithful to his wife, and -- probably unknown to him -- had another child with some other woman.
If that bothers YOU, I get it. Theoretically, it changes your idea of who Jack is and what sort of man he is. For me, though, it works just fine. Jack is obviously no saint. He loves his wife very much. And of course, we all know that no man who actually loved his wife ever cheated on her. Right?
Wrong. Obviously wrong. To me, there is nothing at all inconsistent in the idea of Jack having cheated on Wendy. Get a few drinks in the guy, why wouldn't he fuck around with willing young girls? That makes all the sense in the world to me. From there, it's not much of a leap to think that a pregnancy might have been the result; and it's also not much of a leap to posit that Danny and Wendy (and probably Jack) would have been utterly oblivious to it.
The stretch comes in the idea of Dan crossing paths with this branch of the family later in life. But again, I think it makes sense, if only within the context of King's fantasy. The idea here is clearly that shine calls to shine, and acts a sort of secret glue for the universe. Furthermore, within the broader context of King's work, we can always chalk it up to ka. That works for me.
Your mileage may vary.
What makes the Abra angle work in the end is that King doesn't make it a softball. He's more than willing to present us with the negatives as well as the positives, and so he gives Abra -- and, to a slightly lesser extent, her mother, Lucy -- one of her grandfather's most unappealing traits: anger. At several points, King makes it plain that Abra's anger is a potential problem, and in the novel's epilogue he even hints that Abra might be doomed to face some of the same drinking problems that have plagued the Torrances. But he also holds out the hope of that not being the case, and either way, Abra has the support structure of a loving family, which Jack did not have, and which Dan only had intermittently.
So we end the novel feeling fairly good about Abra's chances of success...but not entirely convinced. That helps sell the issue of her ancestry, for me.
We haven't yet talked about the plot elements involving Dan's job as a hospice orderly. Let's get into that a bit. King has said that one of the things that got the novel going for him was the real-life story of a nursing home that had a resident cat, which was able to somewhat predict what patients would die. The cat would go to a person's room and curl up on the bed, and this tended to spell doom for that person, who typically died not long thereafter. Understandably, King found this to be a creepy and compelling idea, and what he responded to as much as anything else was the idea that the elderly residents did not, once this pattern became evident, shun the cat; they actually embraced it.
It's a fascinating idea, and King wisely does not overplay it in Doctor Sleep. We don't find out that Azreel the cat has a feline version of the shining, or anything silly like that. Instead, King simply makes it a matter-of-fact thing, and moves on from it by letting Dan "Doctor Sleep" Torrance take over where Azreel leaves off. King writes several moving sequences in which Dan coaches dying men and women into letting go of their lives. It's just a matter of going to sleep for the final time, and then waking up...somewhere else. ("And you will wake up again," he reassures them.)
The novel ends with Dan performing this act for someone. In this case, it is not an elderly hospice resident, but a fellow orderly, who has been struck by a car and is mortally wounded. The orderly, Carling, has been on only one other scene of the novel, in which he was shown to be a petty asshole who has a bit of a cruel streak when it comes to dealing with his charges. Dan restrains -- barely -- the urge to beat Carling's ass as the result of his having grasped an old man's arm so hard he left finger-mark bruises. This is, on Dan's part, a mild triumph, and it is evidence of his ability to let go of his anger. Any traces of that anger seem to be gone in the novel's final scene, as he gently promises to wait with Carling until he slips into that final sleep. It is a touching scene; not an obvious one to end the novel on, but, in retrospect, a bit of a masterstroke.
But, then, King is a master.
Ultimately, I don't feel that Doctor Sleep is necessarily one of the best novels King has ever written, but I did enjoy it thoroughly, and found it to be engaging and compelling from start to finish, as much so the second time I read it as the first (the second time being via the Will Patton-narrated audiobook). Is it a classic, as The Shining is? Well...probably not. But it's damn good, and that's good enough for this Constant Reader.
Looking over my notes, there are a few other topics I wanted to touch on. So, bulletpoints for all!
- The first chapter, "Lockbox," is an eighteen-page sequence that almost functions as an epilogue to The Shining. It strikes me as being entirely successful at recapturing that novel's voice, and frankly, I wish there was more of it. I get why there isn't; but if there had been, you'd have heard no complaints from me.
- While he is telling the story of his "black grandpa" to Danny, Dick mentions that the nasty old coot threatened him with a visit from old Charlie Manx, who would take him to where all the bad bos and girls ended up. For those of you who don't know, Charlie Manx is the main villain in Joe Hill's novel NOS4A2 (which itself includes a reference to the True Knot). Hill -- who, as I'm sure you know, is Stephen King's oldest son -- has downplayed the plot significance of these crossovers in interviews. I have yet to decide whether I am even vaguely persuaded by Hill's "aw, shucks, it's just a goof" stance. Either way, it's in the book(s), so it's canon! And it's cool as hell.
- Do the incantations Rose speaks have any sort of relation to the language Tak speaks in Desperation? I can't say for sure, but my inclination is that they do not.
- The nicknames the Knot uses for each other -- "Rose the Hat," "Barry the Chink," etc. -- are kind of silly. That's one of my least-favorite things about the novel, in fact.
- I believe this novel may contain the only scene I have ever read in which a man vomits on a turd. Well done, sir; well done. But as far as hitting rock bottom goes, having both vomit and feces involved seems entirely plausible.
- The scene involving Deenie and her little boy -- the chapter is titled "Mama" -- is one of the most haunting King has ever written, for my money. And while I typically shy away from imposing an author's biography onto his fiction, I find that I can't resist pointing something out here. The scene takes place in Wilmington, North Carolina, and this is a city that might ring some bells for some King fans. For one thing, it is the current filing home for the television series Under the Dome. Also filmed there? Cat's Eye, Firestarter, and Maximum Overdrive. King directed that last one himself, so he certainly spent some time in the city; and that era was reputedly when King's alcohol problems were at their zenith. Is this city's reappearance in Doctor Sleep a coincidence, then? Don't bet on it, pal. (For the record, I'm making no implications that King was up to extra-marital shenanigans while in town; I'm merely suggesting that it might be the case that King's own personal rock-bottom, whatever it might have been, could very well have been located in Wilmington, just as Dan's is.)
- Casey Kingsley is an appealingly gruff fellow. Every time he shows up, I mentally picture Robert Prosky as Darnell in Christine.
- I've got a trilogy of uncertainty based around the 9/11 sequence: (1) I'm uncertain as to why Abra focuses on this particular event; (2) I'm uncertain as to how the mechanics of the True Knot collecting steam from the event work; and (3) I'm unsure as to whether I think this is, on King's part, an entirely tasteful use of 9/11. Also, I have to ask: since we know Black Thirteen was at the bottom of the World Trade Center, does it play any part in this tale. Nah. Be cool if it did, though.
- The True Knot is said to have safe havens in towns such as Dry Bend, Jerusalem's Lot, Oree, and Sidewinder. Two of those have obvious King-related significance, but what of Dry Bend and Oree? I have no ideas here, and Google doesn't seem to have much in the way of suggestions. Intriguing.
- We are told that Dick died on January 19, 1999. Hmm...
- It didn't really strike me until after I'd finished the novel, but Wendy is barely in it. She's obviously in the opening chapter; but that's it, apart from a few casual mentions from Dan. On the one hand, I wish there was more; but on the other, I appreciate King not shoehorning her into the novel just for the sake of doing so.
- Silent Sarey is one of the novel's most problematic aspects. For one thing, I hate her speech impediment; that "lup" and "levenge" stuff could be sold on film by a good actress, but in prose, I find that things like that simply don't work for me more often than not. This is definitely one of those times.
- I wanted to mention this in the body of the review, but couldn't figure out how to do it gracefully: if you're with me, in the camp that accepts the plot development of Jack Torrance having fathered a daughter who in turn mothers a daughter with a very powerful shine, then -- in an odd way -- you find yourself doing something I've been doing for a decade now. That is, serving as a slight champion for the movie The Rage: Carrie 2, in which he find out that Rachel is Carrie White's half-sister by means of Ralph White, Carrie's unseen father. I stand by the plot of Doctor Sleep, and I also still stand behind the idea that that part of the plot in The Rage works just fine. Ralph is obviously a weak-willed, flighty fellow; OF COURSE he had other children! By virtue of writing Doctor Sleep, King has unwittingly given The Rage slightly more legitimacy than it once had. Funny.
And that, ladies and gents, is where we will call it quits for this review. Because, you know, if kind of delights me for a review of Doctor Sleep to end with a bit of pro-The Rage: Carrie 2 sentiment.
Speaking of Carrie, see you tomorrow with a look at the newest remake!