King's Highway pt. 74: Doctor Sleep

So, Doctor Sleep, unh? You read it? 

For those who haven't, I'll save the spoilers until after the pictures. So this first part is spoiler-free.

I haven't checked any Stephen King message boards about it and with the exception of the spoiler-free Truth Inside the Lie review haven't looked at any reactions anywhere. I've avoided my King-fans groups, Goodreads, you name it. I knew the same plot everyone knew a year or so ago; that was it. (You can bet I'll be gorging on those tomorrow and for the rest of the week.)

I didn't love it.

I wasn't exactly disappointed; I mean, I liked it well enough. The last few wrap-up chapters are quite good. Mainly, it lacks suspense. It very much seems like the work of a grandfather who doesn't want to scare his granddaughters and is taking pains to censor himself not to do so, maybe. 

This in and of itself isn't bad; it's kind of cute, actually. But it makes for a tepid continuation of the horrors of The Shining. This isn't really a horror novel for that very reason (as King says in his Author's Afterward. And if that's a spoiler, I hate you.) so I don't hold that against it. But the lack of horror doesn't negate the meh-ness of the above; there's just no real menace to the plot-menace. It is literally like the book jacket describes - our heroes are menaced by a gang of geezers in winnebagos.

Now: the parts I did like (which I won't spoil with specifics) are more than that. But even among them, I found myself making the same note: Isn't this the scene from... ? It's a pastiche of things from previous works as varied as Dreamcatcher, Firestarter, Insomnia, Pet Semetary and Wolves of the Calla. (And, not in a good way, The Dark Tower book 7.) I had the same reaction to Bag of Bones, for what it's worth, though not as a pastiche of those same works. 

I don't think he was re-purposing previous material, at least not deliberately, probably not even unconsciously. But it just struck me the same way Bag of Bones did - as being served a re-arrangement of last night's dinner(s.) And as I said in my review of that one and I quote myself because why the eff not: "I don't mean to make too much of it. One, I enjoyed it (and, to continue the metaphor, he's feeding me and all, so I'd feel a bit like a dinner guest criticizing the menu whom no one forced to sit down in the first place); two, it's not something unique to King - all writers tend to mine similar material, over time; and three, King is certainly aware of this tendency on his part and plays around with it. "

The Shining is, of course, a classic. And not just a classic of the genre, or late-20th century American fiction (though it's certainly both of those;) it's one of King's best and most loved works. Much has been made of the difference between the movie (which is brilliant and a brilliant version of the book; too much internet vitriol has hardened my stance on that one.) and the novel and King's displeasure with that disparity, but no one can reasonably expect King not to assert authorship of his own material. I have no problem with his continuing the story. 

But it can be tricky to write a sequel to a stand-alone classic. (And that's what this would be had the Kubrick movie never been made, in my opinion, for a couple of different reasons.) Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is a classic; anyone read Closing Time? (I did; it's just okay.) Bret Easton Ellis writes polarizing novels, but the canon has absorbed Less Than Zero. Who read Imperial Bedrooms? (I did; it's amazing, actually. Rare example of not just surpassing the original but deepening it in a completely unexpected way.) 

Unfortunately, I think Doctor Sleep is more Closing Time than Imperial Bedrooms. Everything King's put out since Lisey's Key has been dynamite; this one falls short of all of them. As a companion to The Shining in particular, it's a pleasant enough aftermint but nothing the world would have missed had it never materialized. I certainly don't think it dilutes the main course, but no one's dining here for the aftermint.

This concludes the spoiler-free part of our program. Please enjoy some pictures before this review resumes and the spoilers fire and splay like Missile Command.



I won't even bother categorizing these, just some bullet-points.

- As mentioned above, sequels are trick business. Could King be wink-winking at us by choosing "Not a Second Time" by The Beatles as the song Lucy channels?

- Dick Hallorann died on January 19, 1999. (Also: Dan says "There are other worlds than these.") I didn't find these to be earth-shattering, just making note of them.

- The True Knot are just not scary. Nor threatening, which is worse. Why does King go out of his way assure the reader over and over again that they are no threat? At no point are they ever even closely up to the task to which they've set themselves, and the heroes move to their conclusion with relative ease. (There is one genuinely threatening moment, where Rosie tricks Dan into almost strangling Lucy. I liked this, not because I'm a sicko or am gunning for the horror of it all, but because it was the one time I was in doubt as to the outcome. Every other time we see them they're dying, being misled, getting overpowered, or suffering from the fucking Measles. 

- The Measles! Imagine if Grady in The Shining had to stop every few sentences and tell you about his bad hip. 

- Along those lines, when Abra "uncovers" their info, it's no revelation; it's just a mid-game recap that didn't need to be fleshed out as much as it was. Sure, it makes sense for the characters to discover who they are, but why are we stopping to recap the book jacket? Along those lines, why are we unfolding telepathy like Constant Reader needs to be walked through it? There are a lot of sequences like this. (When Lucy comes back into things, everything stops to catch her up; there's just a lot of tidying up that could have been done.)

- Abra is interesting, but she is never in any danger. That's a big deal. I don't think putting the kid in danger is something that needs to happen. What I'm saying is that this is a traditional set-up where everything hinges on feeling some sort of anxiety over the fate of the child, and we are prevented from doing so by the near-constant re-assurance of both the magnitude of her power and the swagger of her anger. (Add to that the bumbling incompetence of the True Knot - completely at odds with their centuries-long survival - and this aspect of the novel is unfortunately tedious.)

- I have no problem in theory with the 9/11 references. They make sense and all. A friend of mine woke up and projectile vomited the very second John Lennon flatlined. (True story.) But the scene where the True Knot travels to Hoboken to soak up the steam in the wake of that event confused me. Can they do this at such a distance? How? Or is it that they only need to physically surround their victims when storing them in canisters? (If not, I mean, how close do they need to be? You can hit people from pretty far with a sniper rifle.)

- The cycling was a distraction. Cool visual - I enjoyed picturing it in my head - but after their introduction, it seems they do nothing but cycle and watch each other cycle from that point out. I end up feeling kind of bad for them. And not in an author-succeeds-at-creating-empathy way, in a "Stop beating up on these people" way.

- When I covered Pet Sematary for this series, I wrote this: "Louis got everything he needed to dig up his son's grave for $58.50. It'd be interesting to price the same items now; I bet it would be twice that. " We almost get the answer here, when he and John go to dig up the baseball glove. "He put a little fan of twenties on the counter." I could price it myself but for a glorious second, I thought King was doing my work for me.

- The reveal that Jack Torrance fathered Lucy is dumb. Serious eye-roll. 

- I didn't like Jack appearing to blow Dan a kiss any more here than I did in the mini-series. But at least here it has a certain thematic symmetry with The Shining, and I begrudgingly admit it probably works. The mini-series still blows.

- In the scene where he talks to Abra, would Crow know Hogwarts, Amy Winehouse, Lord of the Rings, etc.? Not a dealbreaker - I mean, maybe he would, sure - but the True Knot sure don't act like a bunch of ancient fogies. Except in that they're completely non-threatening.

- Also: given its recent appearance in Joyland, having the TK constantly referring to "the rubes" is ill-considered.

- Introducing the Knot via Andi and the lockboxes via young Dan and the leftovers from the Overlook and then letting them disappear for virtually the whole novel was also ill-considered. Yes, I'm second-guessing both America's best-selling author, Scribner and Sons, and Nan Graham.


I liked the A.A. stuff. That's a good portion of the positive I'm taking away from the novel. (The last few chapters are also quite good; it's a strong epilogue.) I like how that was counterpoint throughout. Along those lines, I'll put this paragraph up there with the best King's written, as well as hard-won poetry for alcohol-induced despair:

"The smell of the wine was sour, the smell of jukebox music and crappy bars and pointless arguments followed by fistfights in parking lots. In the end, life was as stupid as one of those fights. The world wasn't a hospice with fresh air, the world was the Overlook Hotel, where the party never ended. Where the dead were alive forever. He raised the bottle to his lips."

- I also liked "She's the Queen Bitch of Castle Hell." Nice phrase. I'll be using it. Unfortunately, as it turns out, she isn't: she's more like a mean manager of a 7-11. In the end, I wondered why both Tony and Deenie (not to mention Dick) even bothered warning Dan at all.

- "She punched in the number they told you to call when shit like this happened, then waited while a recorded voice summed up all the absurdity of the twenty-first century by telling her that her call was being recorded." (Concetta)

- I liked Concetta. I knew she was going to come up again at the end from how she was introduced, and I enjoyed that part of the resolution.

Well. There it is. I look forward, weirdly enough, to the inevitable Mick Garris adaptation. We shall meet again.

p.s. As for where I'd put it in my rankings on first read I'd say: between The Colorado Kid and Lisey's Story for the 2004-to-present block, and between The Dark Half and Pet Sematary on my overall.


  1. Well, I liked it a lot more than you did, but you make some excellent points here which cause me to wonder if I was maybe a little too lenient in some ways. I'll have to give it a good think.

    I do agree that this isn't really a horror novel, but in my case, I found that to be a strength, even as it applies to the True Knot. I, too, found myself feeling oddly sorry for them on a few occasions; a sort of "oh, these poor bastards have really stepped in it now" feeling.

  2. One of the rare times I disagree with Kevin Quigley's review over at Fearnet. He referred to the True Knot as a "force to be reckoned with." Not sure what book HE read, but I found them weirdly toothless and poorly developed.

    I still ended up kinda sorta liking it, just disappointed. When you put forth a lackluster sequel to a classic, maybe it stings more, I dunno. It's a bit like Ghostbusters 2.

  3. I can't wait to come back and read this review after I've read the book!!!! I did get to see King last week in Boulder and ti was amazing!

  4. My impression of the True Knot was that they used to be badass but have lost most of their strength over the years. Think Clint Eastwood nowadays. 40 years ago you wouldn't have screwed with him for any amount of money, but now he's old and wrinkly and talks to empty chairs. My impression was that if Dan and Abra had encountered them in their prime they would have had a much tougher time of it, most likely to the point of losing the battle.

    I also thought there should have been more trepedition on Dan's part about returning to the site of the Overlook. The single most traumatic experience of his life happened there and King failed to capitalize on that aspect of Dan's personality. What scares you as a child often scares you as an adult but Dan showed little to no emotion upon seeing the place again. He simply shows up at the Top O' the World (or whatever it was called) to slug it out with Rose and that was that. A wasted opportunity.

    I enjoyed this book, truly. I just think it could have been better. And it comes up a very poor loser against the original.