My editor never asked me to write this review, and she may never publish it since the book (Doctor Sleep by Stephen King) came out in September. This isn’t exactly “on time.” For those of you not familiar with his latest piece, Doctor Sleep follows Danny Torrence (of The Shining lore) from adulthood into middle age. It’s a standard King story with bad guys, good guys, and adventure . . . but what makes this book different than his others is less about the set up of the story and more about Stephen’s clear affection for Danny. I’ll explain shortly. [BTW – Spoilers are a few paragraphs down. I’ll remind you again when we get close.]
First of all, I like Stephen King’s stuff a lot. Like, a lot. I’ve read pretty much everything. (His novella, The Long Walk, is my absolute favorite piece of modern fiction.) Although his style has evolved dramatically from his younger, desperate (and alcohol-fuelled) days of Cujo and The Shining , all of his books share a common denominator: his characters. Specifically, you love them, relate to them, hate them, and believe (in) them. In my opinion, his characters are what truly differentiate King. Also in my opinion, it’s this specific talent that causes the most problems in Doctor Sleep.
Doctor Sleep starts off with a dramatically different feel than most of King’s recent (last 20 years) works. Specifically, it feels rushed. It’s like Stephen King was uncomfortable writing about Danny Torrence, whom he already developed in The Shining. The rushed feel is slightly alleviated by King’s brilliant capability of description; he paints pictures of scenes that are vivid partially with the use of what has become almost a Stephen King cliché: he speaks “low class.” His descriptions of bars, fights, drinks, one-night stands, and binges are written with the attitude, understanding, and perception of someone with a pretty low-class view of the world. This tool makes me (likely you, too) believe in the character and paints an incredibly detailed picture of the scene he is describing. This skill was overused in the first section of the book. This is SO not like Stephen King that I began wondering what was going on with him . . . and I continued reading.
The meat of the novel, where the characters stabilize, gel, and start figuring out what/who the bad guy is, is fine. This is where the bad guy(s) decide to eat/kill/stab/whatever the good guy(s) – and you learn about all of that. It’s where Danny stops running and settles into a life that allows the other critical characters to start bonding. It also takes place over some 13 years or so (another weird thing for King, but I am fine with it – so he need not worry that I’ll criticize). Anyway, this section is classic King, and I loved it (of course). No rushed feel, no overdoing the King low-class view – just pure Stephen King gold.
Then, the end happens. True to his style, the end is a bit abrupt. The good guys have a fight, and then a REAL fight (a la It) with the bad guys [HERE COME THE SPOILERS], and they win. This happens all the time with Stephen King, so we’re good, right? NO. The bad guys (4 of whom are well developed “boss bad guys”) all die, and the good guys – including Danny, Abra (the main character), Billy (the 80-year old protector), John (the recovered alcoholic doctor), the parents, the cat (at like 18 years old!) – they all live. Danny and Abra and everyone live happily ever after – the end. Mr. King, with all due respect, “WTF?” What I would have expected would be that Danny dies (He did bad stuff, was an alcoholic, and has the power to sacrifice himself to make it better.), Billy dies (80+ years old!!), John dies (Recovering alcoholic doctor? Yep – should die.), and maybe Abra’s parents, too, so Abra can feel the loss, lose her innocence, and move on (just like in a TON of King’s books). These deaths would have made the win at the end more powerful (You value it more if you earn it!) and would have given the complex world he created final closure. This “live happily ever after” thing is weird. I didn’t hate it, but it was weird. Here’s my theory.
My theory is King was a victim of his own writing. I bet he loves his characters the same way we (the readers) love his characters. I think he pours a chunk of himself, his loved ones, his enemies, his pets, and whatever else into those characters, and this work combined with the attributes he’ given them makes him love them. What does this mean? It means that sequels will be forever a challenge (at best) for Stephen King to throw together. This is because he likes Danny too damn much to kill him. Heck, he loves Danny too damn much to have people Danny cares about die. Double heck, he loves Danny too damn much to even have him suffer all that much. I suspect there is more to it than just effort and other people he put into Danny (There might be a little King in him, too.), but I think King’s attachment to Danny kept King from unleashing holy hell in the book the way he normally would. What’s more, I worry. Yep, I worry that as King gets older, as his kids become more and more adult, and as he meditates on his near death experience from over a decade ago, I worry that he’ll take his respect, caution, and mature love for life and plug it into his books, which will take away a good chunk of the suffering and pain that I love about his stuff. I guess we’ll see.
I’ll end with this: Mr. King, I am a giant fan of yours. I’ve loved your work since I was a teenager living on Lake Winnipesauke in NH. I even remember serving you take-out from the restaurant I worked in and being terrified because you were Stephen King! Please don’t take away the blood and pain that make your characters stronger and better, just ‘cause you love ‘em. Sometimes, killing the things you love is the very highest compliment. I learned this from you.
Here kitty, kitty.