Still Shining On
I was dubious when I first heard that Stephen King was writing a sequel to The Shining. That original novel is one of those stories that have outgrown the physical boundaries of its covers and over the last 36 years become part of the public consciousness. It’s one of those books that people can tell you a little bit about what happened even if they’ve never read it or seen either of its adaptations; whether Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version that King publicly disliked or the more faithful 1997 television miniseries that got the author’s approval but suffers from the limits of the format. To write a sequel to a novel like The Shining is enough to make the hairs on the back of Constant Readers (King’s affectionate term for his fans) like myself stand straight up. We simultaneously wonder whether a sequel to The Shining is really needed and know we want to read it all the same.
After reading the sequel, Doctor Sleep, I am still not sure if it was necessary, but am glad that King took the time to revisit Danny Torrance 36 years after his fateful winter with his parents and the ghosts of the Overlook Hotel. The novel’s prologue, taking place only a few years after the events of The Shining, brought a smile to my face. I realized that while I may not have been wondering what happened after that book, I was glad to know. Very glad. If you’re a fan of that novel, you will be too. But it must be noted that Doctor Sleep is a sequel to King’s book, not the Kubrick film. If you enter the world of this sequel without reading the 1977 novel, you will be confused at parts, and a lot within these pages relies on what happened during King’s original vision of what happened at the Overlook. Besides, there’s a reason why that book is among those included Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Should Read Before You Die. It has to be read. When you’re done and you come back to Doctor Sleep, you’ll be happy you took the time.
Does this mean that this book is without its problems? No, of course not. Not everything in Doctor Sleep works perfectly. After the initial prologue section, “Lockbox,” there is some pretty clunky character introduction. You can feel King’s prose wanting us to be afraid of the group known as the True Knot, but they do not compare to other evils King has put on the page. During the novel’s first half, any section that doesn’t directly deal with Danny Torrance can be a little rough at times and can read like they are there only to fill pages. However, by the time the novel reaches its center, or its “hub,” and the stories of Danny, the True Knot, and a little girl named Abra, who has a Shining all her own, start coming together, there is a much better sense of unity and Doctor Sleep powers through it’s latter half with all narrative strength fueling the fire.
Save for the few early concerns, Doctor Sleep is further evidence that America’s greatest living storyteller is at the height of his abilities. King has the knack of being able to capture what readers, Constant or otherwise, want to happen. He has always been strongest at capturing the mundane nature of every day life before some force of nature, whether ghosts, monsters, or time itself, comes to ruin the day. It’s those moments that make Constant Readers smile and laugh out loud at facing something evil, because we know somewhere in the back of our minds that such moments will not last.
Doctor Sleep builds to that old story King has returned to again and again: battle between good and evil. Fitting for a novel very centered on the notion of wheels and how the past comes back around. The showdown within Doctor Sleep is on a level that we haven’t seen since It or The Stand, the latter being King’s quintessential tale of light versus dark. What comes before that moment, the few narrative missteps or certain plot developments (one in particular) that will even give Constant Readers pause, are forgivable because he still has the natural ability ensnare the reader in the story, to lose ourselves in his language.
Literary critic Alan Bloom once qualified King as being the modern day author of what were once known as “penny dreadfuls.” That may have been so at one time, but King has consistently worked on cementing his literary legacy. And, after all, penny dreadfuls sold quite a lot of copy, didn’t they? And on a personal note, as a Constant Reader and an English Academic, I’d rather have King’s prose in the hands of the masses than anyone else.
In the end, Doctor Sleep gets my recommendation. It may play upon our nostalgia for The Shining, both as one of the seminal works of fiction in the last fifty years and as a piece of our culture, and read at times like modern King using his own authorial shining to contact the ghost of the horror writer whose books made him more than a household name, but it’s still a great read. Yes, it’s more horror than some of his recent work, but at the same time it’s not. I don’t think King can write that those old terror stories anymore. We’ve evolved too much as a culture with him as a central part and he’s evolved too much as a writer. Is that to say that Doctor Sleep isn’t a read that won’t have you flipping the pages until the end? No, it’s not. King may have lost some of his bite as a horror writer (he’s always excelled at writing about the horror that people do to one another or that of the world in general than ghouls or goblins or even to ourselves, as his recent novels Under the Dome, 11/22/63, and Joyland have shown), but he has only improved as a storyteller.
Does Doctor Sleep have its faults? Sure. Will you love every minute you get to spend with Dan Torrance and Abra? Yes. Will you relish in the fact that you didn’t know that you wanted more of the world of The Shining after almost four decades? Without a doubt.
In the Author’s Note (not to worry, no spoilers here), King writes: “I enjoyed finding Danny Torrance again and following his adventures. I hope you did, too. If that’s the case, Constant Reader, we’re all good.”
Yes, Uncle Stevie, I’d say we are indeed.
Doctor Sleep is available now from Scribner.Close