There’s no point in mincing words, I’ve been dreading Doctor Sleep pretty much since it’s been announced. Not in a good way either. I’ve been a big proponent of King’s late period. By my mark everything he’s written since Cell has been worth reading and a good deal of it (particularly Full Dark No Stars) deserves mention among the best work he’s done. While the last seven years haven’t been entirely without missteps (I still say Under The Dome stumbles at the finish line) taken as a whole the body of work King has produced is incredibly strong.
This did nothing to bolster my confidence in Doctor Sleep.
The Shining is a perfect popular novel. If you have any interest in writing genre fiction, not just horror fiction, you owe it to yourself to read it. It’s a freaking machine. The word page turner is often used dismissively, but the construction of The Shining, the way every revelation baits you deeper and deeper into the book is a thing of beauty. And it’s all in the service of a story with so much empathy and hurt that it matters. The fact that the book is scary as hell almost seems like a bonus. That’s not the kind of thing you can just replicate. Particularly thirty five years after the fact.
And as details on Doctor Sleep leaked out it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. The initial premise, Danny Torrance working at a hospice where he helps ease his patient’s transition into death, sounded promising, but then King announced that “psychic vampire pirates” would be in the mix and sometime after that I trained myself to stop reading articles about Doctor Sleep.
So color me pleasantly surprised that Doctor Sleep is a complete blast of a novel, it might not have the ambition of 11/22/63, it might not be as introspective as Duma Key, or push his limits like Lisey’s Story. But it ranks among King’s most purely entertaining work. God help me I never thought I’d type this, but the story in which Danny Torrance battles what for all the world reads like the world’s first NC-17 Sailor Moon villain, ends up being not merely an entertaining read but a genuinely satisfying conclusion (continuation?) to The Shining.
After a brief prologue Doctor Sleep opens with Danny Torrance as a wreck, having followed his father’s footsteps much closer than the ending of The Shining would have you guess. Drifting and self destructive Danny finds himself drawn to a New England town where he joins AA, finds work at a hospice, and prepares himself for a destiny he can faintly see coming.
Doctor Sleep is one of those happy books were even its flaws end up working for it. At first The True Knot, arguably the best villains that King has cooked up since Annie Wilkes, and their carny slang patois seem jarring and out of place. But they end up being conduits for the sheer love of language that has always been one of King’s best qualities. No other popular novelist has King’s pure pleasure in playing with words, deconstructing them into babble, smashing together disparate bits of counter slang into inimitable phrases. It takes Doctor Sleep a bit to kick into its main plot, but that’s only because the AA material is so obviously heartfelt. And if Doctor Sleep, like this year’s Joyland, is kinder gentler King, with characters he can’t quite bring himself to really put the screws to, he’s still capable of hitting hard enough in the early goings of the story that you never take anyone’s safety for granted.
Heartfelt, funny, and genuinely eerie at times, far from derailing King’s late period resurgence as I feared it might Doctor Sleep continues it in high style. Hail to the king baby.