Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep" Reviewed
Remember that “All In The Family” where the Bunkers go to a marriage counselor and Edith is shouting “Fair fight, fair fight”? Well, that’s what I feel like reading Stephen King’s follow-up to his 1977 “The Shining”, one of the most popular horror stories of the 20th century, “Doctor Sleep”.
The “True Knot” are vampires whose longevity is based upon killing children with the Shining (you know a sorta extra sense –a mix of premonition and fun with ghosties) and breathing their essence. But it isn’t a fair fight and I found myself rooting for the Familial Knotters who endure through human tragedy.
Danny Torrance, the little boy with the shining from the Shining who is nearly killed by his alcoholic father and ghosts aplenty at the Overlook Hotel back in 1977, is back again and now a recovering alcoholic and working at a hospice in Massachusetts where he goes to AA meetings and whisks the dying over the side.
Have you ever been to an AA Meeting? Unbearable doesn’t begin to describe it; they are full of tics and talismans and catchphrases and catechisms. One of the main reasons I stopped drinking was so I wouldn’t be forced into these horrible things. Hey, fellow drunks, let me save you some time: the only way not to drink is by not drinking, if you can do it than that’s great, if you can’t do it you’re deader than Elvis.
But there is nothing in the world that can’t be romanticized out of reality, including death, and including AA. Stephen King was drunk when he wrote “The Shining” and he is a non drinking drunk now he has written “Doctor Sleep”. True Knots are pitted against Danny Torrance, AA versus alcoholics if you will, as True Knot want a young girl “Abra” with a shining more powerful than Danny’s and Danny is out to save her.
I’ve heard people claim “Doctor Sleep” is scary. There isn’t a scary moment in the entire book, nothing is in doubt from the first page to the last, it gives the term stacked deck whole new vistas of meaning: Danny clobbers all comers and trashes out everybody who comes close to him. It is ridiculous in its mean spirited refusal to give us a contest. Even the chief villain Rose With the Hat is not given the power necessary to be a convincing villain. It is like Superman versus a mugger who wants your Iphone now. Where is the sport? Or god versus the devil. Where’s the drama when the end is self evident?
Stephen King builds this in so I am not saying something he doesn’t know, but the True Knot is not a fair comparison to alcoholics; without torturing and eating the essence of children, the True Knot die. What does anyone expect them to do? Even if they get their kicks torturing humans, they are, in effect, much better creatures than omnivorous humans because human’s have a choice but are too lazy to choose whereas True Knots can either be True Knots and kill children or die. There is no place else for them.
I am not a huge King fan; King is a great storyteller not a great novelist. He is great for people not raised on Dickens, Tolstoy, Hugo. Anybody who has read the first chapter of “Les Miserables” is going to have little patience for King Is Great theories. But he is great compared to Stephanie Meyers and he has moments of greatness although not in “Doctor Slee”’.
I am a huge fan of his novel “The Stand” and its trip across the States to a showdown is echoed on a much smaller scale here. It all ends up on the land where the Overlook Hotel once overlooked the Rockies in a hugely disappointing conclusion to a stacked deck war of AA versus alkies. In one of the most gratuitously indifferent feats of precise writing (though in a clever way admittedly), he puts most of the bad guys in a room and finishes em off before he fight begins.
The book has been out since October and I checked out reviews from the New York Times to the Washington Post and I have no idea what these people are talking about. The novel might think it is a hulking metaphor for alcoholism but it is really a terrible metaphor for the USA’s foreign policy wherein Dan representing the USA is so huge and powerful he swats the Iraq like (rule one of war: demonize your opponents) as though it is a gnat.
Other reviewers claim the difference between “The Shining” and “Doctor Sleep” is the difference between between a late 20 year old alcoholic (the first novel also works as the story of an epic case of writers block) and a middle 60s member of AA in good standing, but it really isn’t: it is between the socialism of youth and the conservatism of late middle age. The True Knot are rebels living outside the law Danny, Abra and friends are mainstream America killing the rebels off, and mercilessly.
Take another look at the basic metaphor: if Abra so much as has a chicken sandwich she is a bigger murderer than the True Knot because THE TRUE KNOT HAS TO OPTION AT ALL. None whatsoever, they either kill or die of starvation. And even Andi, the new Knot they turn at the beginning, doesn’t know what she is letting herself in for. True Knot are in fact innocent. It is the nature of life that you kill what you feed off, True Knot have done nothing even vaguely wrong. Now, I have no problem with Abra protecting herself and killing them in return, my problem is King positioning this as a good against evil fight when it obviously is survival of the fittest.
This is a huge, unsurmountable problem, and King can’t fix it. He may well be a great storyteller but he isn’t a great stylist and his metaphors are banal and obvious and therefore he isn’t a great novelist and this is so far from being a great novel as to be, indeed, a very ordinary one.