Review of Dr. Sleep by Stephen King

 “We disappoint, we leave a mess, we die, but we don’t…”

The above lyric is from one of the few musicals I have been obsessed with since elementary school, Into The Woods. The lyric is from the song “No More” sung as a duet between the Baker and The Mysterious Man as the Baker works out his issues with his family past and how to proceed with an uncertain future. The first act of the play is light and fun, but the second act gets dark. I kept getting this song stuck in my head while reading Dr. Sleep because it’s what comes to mind when I think about people reconciling their past with their present and their future, especially when it comes to relating to absent or difficult parents.

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Title: Dr. Sleep

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Scribner

Genre: Horror

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Dr. Sleep is a sequel to King’s novel The Shining,  picking up a couple of years after the events at The Overlook Hotel and carrying the reader through the early years of Danny’s adulthood and into middle-age.  I really enjoyed the first few chapters that act as a bridge between the two novels and reintroduce the characters of Danny Torrance, Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann.  The first few chapters of the novel read like old school Stephen King and have their genuinely scary moments.  It’s as Danny grows older that the tone of the book becomes less scary-tense and more suspenseful-tense.  Missing are the frightening images of The Shining. I’ve only read The Shining once and I was in my 20’s so this is not a case of the reader growing out of the fear the first novel brought them. King points out in the Author Note that he was reluctant to even attempt a sequel to what most consider one of his scariest books. Dr. Sleep just isn’t as scary as The Shining.

This does not mean that it isn’t a good story.  The newly introduced characters of Abra and her parents, Billy Freeman, and Dr. John Dalton read like classic Stephen King characters.  These are the main characters that, along with Danny, track down the members of the True Knot, a group of RV-driving “vampires” that torture and steal “steam” or life essence from children who exhibit the shining.  The True Knot, led by Rose The Hat, is not the scariest group of vampires, especially coming from the author of ‘Salem’s Lot. Most of the time they seemed a lot less powerful than even Abra herself, who is a thirteen year old girl who shines even more powerfully than Danny, and they have a fatal weakness.  I had trouble picturing them as a real threat except for the fact that they are paranormal.

The most interesting part of this novel, and probably the part most fans of The Shining are looking for, is about Danny’s life after The Overlook.  Danny has always been a character that you hope led at least a decently happy life after escaping his childhood and his murderous father.  Of course a happy ending can have some bumps along the way and Danny’s life falls victim to the same demons as Jack Torrance, namely alcoholism and a nasty temper.  After a one night stand that Danny steals and runs from, he ends up in New Hampshire, first as a maintenance guy for what I got the impression was a small theme park and then working for a hospice care center. This is where he gets the nickname of “Dr. Sleep”, assisting patients to their final resting places with the help of a cat named Azreel. The bulk of the novel switches between telling Danny’s story of getting clean and Abra’s story of growing up.  Using Danny’s passage of time is an interesting way of introducing Abra, who first contacts Danny telepathically as a baby. However, if The Shining was written by a ” well-meaning alcoholic”, As King states in the Author Note, then Dr. Sleep is written by someone who is all too aware of the damage that alcoholism causes to one’s life and relationships.  It feels as if Danny trades his alcohol addiction to one for AA.  I did want to see Danny clean up his act and he already knew being a “dry drunk” did not work for his father, but this part of the novel really drags. It feels like Dannny does nothing but work and go to meetings.  The scenes where he is at work at least have an emotional pull to them.  This was definitely a case where Stephen King could have used an editor who would actually tell him to cut some of the bloat he so often now seems to fall victim to.  I consider myself a big fan and I say that with respect, but I’m not going to just immediately ascribe perfection to an author because he’s prolific, famous and I enjoy his stories. I got a little bored on the middle of this story but the ending picks up the pace and finishes with an emotional punch.

If you approach this story for its characters and have enjoyed later books by King such as Duma Key, or you’re just curious to know how that little boy from The Shining grew up, then I think you’ll enjoy this book. If not, there are scarier books out there for you.

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