Doctor Sleep (2013)

I actually finished this book a few weeks ago, but things continue to be nuts and I haven’t had brain space for reviews in a while. Naturally, in the last weekish of the semester, when things are at their craziest? That’s when I decide I have time. This is why I am So Incredibly Successful and Everyone Is Jealous.

Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, proving that sequels don’t necessarily have to feel meaningfully connected to the original to be, well actually, not all that, uh… meaningfully connected to… the original. I sorta lost the thread of that for a moment there. But I’m not panning it, and I’m not doing that obnoxious fan thing where I get all sniffy when an author doesn’t treat his/her characters the way I think they should or whatever. Doctor Sleep just feels like it takes place in a totally different world, despite featuring a number of the same characters and having numerous important narrative connections to The Shining. This isn’t a bad thing, or a good thing, really; it’s just a thing. But if you’re expecting Shining 2, you’re going to be disappointed.

Doctor Sleep follows Danny Torrance, son of Jack, in the years following the Torrance family’s misadventures in the Overlook Hotel. It begins soon after Jack’s boiler-related mishap (spoiler: the hotel blows up, yo) and jumps forward in fits and starts through the years until grown-up Danny, now a massive alchy, screws up his life almost beyond repair. Then he takes a bus and winds up in a tiny New England town where he gets clean and takes up a job at a local hospice. He soon has a random psychic encounter with a little girl named Abra, who is a more powerful psychic even than Dan himself. Abra has inadvertently drawn the attention of a nomadic group of child-murderers styling themselves the True Knot, a bunch of occulty weirdos who roam the US in Winnebagos kidnapping psychic kids to consume their “steam,” or life force. They get to live forever this way, which is great for them, I guess, but less good for Alma and the other kids they target. The True Knot sets out to get her, and Dan sets out to protect her.

That’s the major conflict of the novel, comprising a good two-thirds of the text. Much of this is spent developing King’s own theory of the workings of telepathy and telekinesis, with the main characters, good and bad, working out elaborate schemes to utilize their powers in complex ways and get a leg up on the other guys. Little Abra at one point sets a psychic trap for one of the baddies in which she, Abra, appears in the form of Daenerys of Game of Thrones fame and attacks the baddie with a lance. In her mind. Obviously.

The other 33% of the book consists of the most exhaustive description of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and traditions that anyone not actually a member of that organization could ever desire to read. Really, a considerable portion of the novel is dedicated to Dan’s struggles with the demon drink. The story loses some of its urgency when the text moves between the fight against the True Knot to the smug philosophizing of AA sponsors, a contrast that removes the last vestiges of horror that were The Shining’s legacy and puts Doctor Sleep more fully into the scifi genre (it has more than a few things in common with Dan Simmons’ novel The Hollow Man).

Doctor Sleep is entertaining and worth a read, and I like the message of redemption. It’s also got a cast of immensely likeable characters. It’s a very far cry from The Shining, which again, isn’t necessarily bad. But in switching genres, a move which I’m fairly sure was deliberate, I feel that much of the impact of the original was lost. Doctor Sleep is less a scary story–and it’s not supposed to be–than a protracted meditation on the Spider-Man philosophy of power and responsibility, with the twist that the guy with the power is an alcoholic. So, more like Iron Man, I guess. Only without lasers and flying.

But if they do a movie of this book, I could see Robert Downy Jr. starring. Or actually, Tobey Maguire, because that poor guy must need work.


Retro Review: The Shining (1977)

Ah, see. Mm-hmm. This.

The Shining is–let’s be clear about this up front–a brilliant novel. It’s so much–SO MUCH–better than Kubrick’s film that I’m genuinely surprised that the latter became the huge giant obsessive cult whatever that it did.

To be fair, yes, King’s original story does have more than a bit of the surreal time-bendingness that so characterized Kubrick’s adaptation. And there is a guy in a dog suit, though we’re never treated to a view of him mid-fellatio as we are in Kubrick’s version. But King has subtlety, and he has emotion, and so much of his story unfolds in the minds of the three main characters–especially Danny, the clairvoyant little boy who is arguably the protagonist–that the film actually seems almost incomplete by comparison.

The bones of the story, of course, are basically the same as in the film: the Torrance family moves to the Overlook Hotel in Colorado, where daddy Jack has taken a winter job as caretaker. Jack is a mostly-recovered alcoholic, he writes, he has a violent temper, he broke his son Danny’s arm one time; he’s a freakin’ mess. Danny is telepathic and he speaks to an “imaginary” (totally real) friend named Tony, but he does not wiggle his finger and speak in a needlessly annoying squeak when he does so. Wendy, who shares much of the protagonist spotlight with Danny, is a character. Like, she has feelings, and also thoughts, and she does a great deal more than run and scream.

There are a significant number of other plot points that are different or missing altogether in the film, to its detriment. First and foremost–and this is a major spoiler–Dick Halloran, the telepathic chef who tells Danny about the “shining” and is far and away the most likable character in the novel, does not die. This is super important. We also learn who Tony actually is. There are no spooky twin girls or big-wheels, no blood elevators; there are several large and important scenes involving the topiary animals outside the Overlook coming to life and trying to kill people. (Only Stephen King could make a freaking shrubbery frightening.) The ghost woman in Room 217 is far more important in the novel than she is in the film, though Jack definitely does not make out with her. Finally, the novel contains a whole slew of flashbacks that reveal how the characters came to this point, primarily involving Jack’s descent from promising writer to hopeless, violent drunk, which round out the character nicely.

These flashbacks, along with the characters’ inner monologues in the book’s present, are completely absent from the film. The result is that, in the film, the characters are barely characters at all. In the novel, Jack isn’t just an abusive drunk: he’s a guy with hopes and plans who sincerely wants to be redeemed but can’t get over the deep suspicion that the world has deliberately screwed him over. Wendy is a woman who deeply loves her family and has to reconcile that deep love with the growing conviction that her husband, despite quitting the drink, is actually sinking deeper and deeper into a dark and dangerous place. Danny is a precocious little boy with a frightening ability–he reads minds, he sees ghosts, he shines, as Halloran puts it–and his struggles to make sense of the dark realities it reveals border on tragic. He’s just five years old, and when he reads people’s thoughts–especially his parents’–he doesn’t necessarily understand the words and images which are revealed. All of this comes through to the reader in narration, from the point of view of each of the characters (Hallorann gets a fair bit of time, too). None of that critical narration–not one drop–is expressed in Kubrick’s film.

The point is, there’s depth here. In my Pet Sematary review I linked to King’s own criticisms, via Salon, of the film version of The Shining. In that article King highlights how “cold” Kubrick’s adaptation is, how Jack Torrance is too whacked-out from the beginning, how Wendy is a victim instead of a hero; and naturally enough, King is absolutely right. These are people, and if they’re likable or hateable, they earn it.

Some of the monologues are a bit stilted and artificial, but given the situations they address, this is understandable. It’s not super scary, but it actually does have a few genuinely creepy moments, like the first appearance of the woman in 217, or the time Danny, playing outside by himself, crawls into an old cement pipe and discovers that there’s something very unpleasant in there. Anyway, whatever flaws it has are minor. The book is very, very good.