Thursday 20 February 2014

Doctor Sleep (aka The Shining 2)

Sleep Throat

Doctor Sleep (aka The Shining 2)
by Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-1444761160

It’s been a couple of decades since I last read a Stephen King novel (that one was Insomnia... and it was brilliant) and longer than that, even, since I used to regularly read him.

Part of that is because, when I discovered him at around the age of fourteen, I was pretty much a “binge reader”. I’d find a writer I liked and then read pretty much everything that was available by that person at that time and then move on to somebody else. When I started out, King only had 11 novels out under his own name and, at that time, his pen names were still an unlocked secret. The first novel I read by him was because I was at that age when all boys wanted to read about just two things... horror and sex. Everybody in the playground was reading something with a curious mixture of the two and, in terms of the sexual content, horror was an easy “in” because most of us kids weren’t into buying proper porn... that stuff needed to be hidden away.

That’s not to say that Stephen King was any kind of sex fix (nah... we left that to James Herbert) but this is the reason why writers like King, Herbert, Koontz and inevitably, the more exploitative writers like Shaun Hutson and, goodness me, Guy N. Smith, were lapped up heavily by us kids wanting to read about unpleasant or at least vaguely spooky phenomena.

King was pretty much the first horror writer I read, other than maybe Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, and the novel I started on was one which had just come out and had an amazingly attractive cover. That novel was Christine, about a haunted 1958 Plymouth Fury that had a mind of its own and started to possess its new owner. I already knew who King was because, like many people my age, I’d loved the TV adaptation of Salem’s Lot (reviewed here) and after I read Christine, I went on to Salem’s Lot and then... pretty much all the others which were available at the time while simultaneously exploring the other writers I mentioned above. Luckily for me, I didn’t read his debut novel Carrie until I’d read quite a few of his others first. I say luckily because my reaction to Carrie was that it was a terrible novel and if I’d read that first I wouldn’t have discovered King’s genius... and he is a bit of a genius, to be honest.

King’s work was never that visceral or gory, although he’d occasionally have something unpleasant to say and would phrase it in a way that cut through the layers and got under your skin quickly enough. I can’t even, honestly, say I found any of his books scary either... Lovecraft was one of the very few who could occasionally give me pause to think in that area. But what I saw right away was that he’s a damn good writer. His work with the characters and pacing is far above the others, something I discovered soon enough when I began reading some of those people I mentioned above (even so, if you think I can resist reading books with titles like Night Of The Crabs or The Sucking Pit, then you’re off your trolley).

One of the books I read in that initial binge was The Shining, of course. It was a pretty great book although, I have to admit, I did prefer the Stanley Kubrik interpretation of it on film.. let’s not get in to that argument here though, right?

When I expressed a desire to read King’s new sequel to his classic horror opus, a good friend of mine bought me a copy for my birthday back in January and, as I knew I would, I rediscovered just how good a writer Stephen King is all over again. Gonna have to look up some of that back catalogue for the ones I missed soon, I reckon.

Doctor Sleep is mainly set in the present day, although it takes a while to get here because King treats us to the intervening years of the central character Danny (the little boy from The Shining) as he grows up and slips inevitably into the spiral of alcoholism that was the legacy left him from his father (a father famously played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrik’s movie version). We see him go from low to new low to hope and then onto something a little better etc until we come to the present day. We also meet some important supporting characters plus a little girl called Abra, who we see growing up and kinda cross cut with Danny’s progression as a human being. Abra and Danny have a connection... but I don’t want to say too much about that here... no spoiler warnings.

King has always been about characters and, like some of his books, there is also a tangible villain of the piece in this one... as opposed to a woken up force of nature. In fact, there’s a whole bunch of villains who call themselves The True Knott and who will cross paths with the main protagonists and have an impact on their lives in many ways. But, like I said, King is all about character. So these are not just mere two dimensional villains, quickly fleshed out to present some kind of vague threat. As Danny and Abra mature and move forward towards their respective destiny, we also see the villains fleshed out and progressing with them. We understand what they want to take from our main protagonists but we also feel what’s at stake for them. We feel their own pain and can see why it is necessary for the antagonists to take the path they are taking. It’s all a question of survival and although these people are quite nasty and unsympathetic, King fleshes them out enough so you can at least understand where they are coming from. And, of course, once the writer has you hooked like that, you are invested in the stakes and caring all the more for what happens to the central heroes.

Now I have to say that, I did pick up fairly early on in the book where King was going to go with his denouement. He’s always, and I figured this out even when I first read Christine back in the early 1980s, used a certain amount of foreshadowing in his work. He’ll end a section saying something like... “It was the last conversation character X and character Y would ever have” or some such. It keeps you turning those pages and, although I’ve always thought he kinda overused the technique, I can’t argue against the fact that his use of this particular writing tool makes for a very gripping read. Lots of writers do this kind of thing nowadays... including my two annual Christmas reads, Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs.

In this one, however, it wasn’t the foreshadowing so much as the internal logic and the legacy, or should that be baggage, of Danny thrown over from his experiences in The Shining that tipped my hat pretty early on as to roughly how the ending was going to play out. But you know what? Two things about that...

First is... it doesn’t matter. King is such a great writer that it becomes all about the journey and not necessarily about the destination. The destination can still be great even if a little predictable and it’s not all about that but more about what you learn about the truth of humanity through the trials of his characters than anything else. After all, if you’re into sex, for example, you’re not going to bother not going through with it even if you’ve predicted you wont have a “quality” orgasm at some point, are you? If you are, then don’t call me!

The other thing is, it’s not the ending which is so great in this, it’s the epilogue, or wind up, or secondary ending, that really makes this book worth while in terms of the novel as a whole. I didn’t see the stuff in the very last scene coming, where Danny once more fulfils his role as the title character, Doctor Sleep. It’s about a simple act of kindness but the implicit message behind that particular act is one of, not even redemption... that point has already been reached... it’s an act that reminds you that you are not, and never will be, the enemy. You rise above even the most inconsequential negative elements in this world if that’s at all possible. It affirms something about the life you live and the way you want to live it... and I thought this was a perfect “end game” moment for King right there.

In his afterword, King talks about how and why he came to write this sequel to a book he wrote well over 30 years ago and he comes across a little like he’s worrying how people will react to it after the original has always been considered a bit of a classic and how it might not live up to what people may expect from the inevitable comparison. All I would say to Mr. King is this. You’ve written another in a series of very fine books. If this doesn’t go down as another classic, then it certainly deserves to and probably, in time, it will. It’s a more than worthy sequel to The Shining and, personally, I enjoyed it far more than the first novel.

And as for any one still reading to the end of this review... if you’re into the work of Stephen King and haven’t given Doctor Sleep a go yet, all I can say is that it is a truly excellent and compelling read which will have you constantly page turning and which will hopefully leave you with a very satisfactory sense of conclusion. This one’s definitely a hard recommend from me.

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