Monday, 26 January 2015

Dr Sleep, reviewed by Wayne Parkin

“What Is Tied May Never Be Untied”
 The deep familial roots of Doctor Sleep

Prefatory Matters: 
This piece is not really a review but is actually an analysis of some of the key themes running through the sequel to The Shining.  As such, while I will not be regurgitating the plot in a typical manner here, there will be significant spoilers littered within that would certainly ruin the story for the uninitiated. This is definitely intended for folk who have already had an appointment with Doctor Sleep.  If you haven’t, I will now gently take you by the arm and request that you come back at a later date. 

So I strolled into the my local branch of Sainsbury’s to grab a copy of this most anticipated of books on its release day; the lure of combining my favourite author with Nectar points obviously being too much of an attraction to resist.  But as I approached the check-out, novel in sweaty mitt, there was more than a slight apprehension rising within.  A strange feeling inside which was actually quite easy to place. Because despite his purple patch of recent years, I was seriously, SERIOUSLY, doubting the prudence of Stephen King’s decision to write this story -  a brazen attempt to spit in the face of the long-held convention that sequels cannot live up to the original.

Because who does that?  Who returns to the hallowed, yet overgrown, ground of such a beloved classic and expect to emerge unscathed and without criticism of pissing on their legacy? If it was ever in any doubt, this confirmed again that the guy has serious cojones. In the Author’s Note, King does acknowledge the challenges facing him in returning to The Shining; imagining people shaking their heads and dismissing follow-ups as not a patch on the original. It has to be said that while he notes this, it does not seem to have impacted his decision to go there, nor does it seem that he cared what people would naturally be expecting within the pages of Doctor Sleep.  If anybody was imagining him to take the road most travelled and produce a cheap cash-in re-tread of the predecessor…well…whose books had they been reading all these years?

Frankly King could recite the instructions for a trouser press in a literary form and I would still probably buy it.  To me though, the real pull was the promise from the author that it would be ‘a return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror’.   While I am more a fan of his world-beating ability to create and then empathise with his characters, I was seriously chomping at the bit at getting a dose of full-blooded horror from the master that, if not equalling them, would remind me of some of that earlier spunk that pumped from the pages of his 70s/80s tomes.
So, on that basis, it was time for me to catch up with an old childhood friend, one Danny Torrance.

Happily, King was able to effortlessly bring the reader up to speed in a small amount of time, quickly familiarising you with the events of The Shining, or the ‘True History of the Torrance Family’ as he sees it when compared to the film version (yep, he still hates Kubrick’s movie if his withering digs within the Author’s Note are anything to go by). Our curious appetites are sated in the first few pages as we learn of the various fates of Wendy Torrance, Dick Hallorann, and, of course, the pivotal character of Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance.

As we encounter Danny (or Dan as he is now known) he is struggling to co-exist with the demons that hang over him from the original tale, both spiritually and psychologically. He has seemingly succumbed to his worst tendencies - a heady brew of alcohol, drugs, cheap womanising and violence. So much of this is driven by his need to try and drown out the terrifying visions that continue to plague him into his adult years. His nomadic existence of moving from town to town in search of employment, and some modicum of peace, eventually leads him to New Hampshire where he becomes a helper at a hospice.  It is during this time that he discovers this ability to harness his psychic skills to assist dying patients in crossing over to the great beyond. During this period he also becomes psychically linked with Abra Stone; a young girl who, like the young Danny, is trying to make sense of the powers that she has – a gift that far outstrips that of Dan and ultimately puts her in the cross-hairs of some demons of her own.

The True Knot – a rag bag bunch of RV-driving nomads who travel the American highways seeking out ‘steamheads’ (i.e. those individuals who possess psychic gifts). Led by the memorable Rose The Hat, a traditional King-like villain, the Knot’s vampiric lust for ‘steam’ – the life-essence given off by the spiritually-gifted as they painfully die, consumption of which allows the members of the Knot to fend off mortality -  leads them to identify a veritable banquet in the form of young Ms. Stone.  With Rose at the wheel, and evil intentions for harvesting Abra’s steam afoot, the pursuit begins. The True Knot are ruthless, well resourced, malevolent, strong in number… yet they are completely outmanoeuvred and overcome by Abra and co far too easily.
That this happens is a curious approach by King, particularly as it directly contributes to the story not reaching the terror scales that the author had promised in the book’s promotion.  In fact the ease in which the desperate (and in some cases, bumbling) Knot are dispatched in the final third of the book leads to a paucity of tension that betrays the story’s earlier approach in portraying the hideous nature of the Knot. Indeed, the harrowing depiction of the kidnapping, torture and murder of 11-year old Bradley Trevor is a masterclass in economy.  Short at less than a page but devastating in nature, it expertly delivers the promised chills without resorting to gratuitous detail, instead focusing on other elements, whether it be the panicked and pained begging of the poor boy or the Knot’s complete lack of sympathy as they diligently execute their ghastly task. As a father of an 11-year old son myself, it stung like hell and lingered long in mind.  It turned out, however, that this scene was an anomaly in the greater scheme of things.  This may be because King had other places he wanted to go with this story.

Family is the greater motif at play here and it comes in various forms, whether it be Abra’s immediate blood, Dan’s various stand-in relatives through the years of Dick Hallorann, Billy Freeman and Casey Kingsley, or even members of the AA meetings that Dan attends - surrogate siblings (at least initially) to Dan, supporting each other and providing the strength that Dan needs.  Naturally, there is also the lingering shadow of another family member…

Jack Torrance may be long gone but his presence is felt throughout the story – a bogeyman plaguing Dan’s thoughts and, unfortunately, his initial actions.  As the saying goes, the apple does not fall far from the tree, and our fears that Dan will succumb to the same temptations as his father seem to be well founded early on as the younger Torrance floats from one booze-fuelled disaster to another.  There is no shortage of irony in the fact that Dan’s dependency on the drink is driven by a need to block out his past, namely the actions of his father. In striving not to be his dad, he is being pushed to repeat the same mistakes he made by falling in with the same vices.  At one point Dan ponders that very notion, asking himself ‘how much of his father’s son was he? In how many ways?

The legacy of Jack impacts in many ways throughout Doctor Sleep, including a revelation about Abra’s mother, Lucy, being the result of one of Jack’s extra-marital conquests, thus making her Dan’s half-sister. (This was an unsatisfactory reach too far for this reader). However, it is the father-son dynamic that continues to hang in the background of the piece, slightly out-of-focus but still in view. And when this element breaks out of this book and crosses the realm of another, it is clear that this is not strictly a Torrance thing...

It happens on page 12. Dick Hallorann is telling a young Danny a grotty little story of how his abusive Grampa would threaten him. If young Dick did not do what Grampa wanted him to do, then a bad man called Charlie Manx would come and take him away to a place for bad children.  If this name sounds familiar to avid horror readers, that’s probably because it is. You see, Charlie Manx is the loathsome and terrifying villain in the novel NOS4A2.  That book is written by one Joe Hill, Stephen’s son and somebody about whom Hallorann would probably say ‘has a little bit of shine to him’.

That feeling of familiarity does not stop there, depending on your reading order in 2013. In reading NOS4A2, you may have felt a further pang when the same Charlie Manx alludes to a certain group called the True Knot as being very similar to him.  And we all know which book features that bunch.

Yes, it seems that we are witnessing a playful game of cross-over between father and son here, or ‘blood calling to blood’ as Dan would say. While this is not the first time that Stephen and Joe have collaborated, it seems very apt when one of the two stories features such a strong emphasis on paternity.

Joe is currently harnessing some seriously dark vibes in his work and is not afraid to cut deep. While this was evident in his wonderful debut, Heart Shaped Box, and his seriously out-there follow-up, Horns, he truly grasped the nettle in his creation of Charles Manx – an utterly chilling bastard who invokes memories of some of Joe’s dad’s earlier creations, particularly one sewer-dwelling clown. This Manx fella is a cut-throat force of nature and seems to be at the peak of his terrifying powers.   You can’t help but compare him (it?) with the seemingly older True Knot who no longer appear to have the killer instinct that Manx had. It is when I ponder this that I start to wonder if this in an allegory for the place that each author currently finds themselves on the horror spectrum.  King– still the gifted writer he always was but one who no longer wishes to go for the jugular via easy visceral scares. Hill – the young pretender who is carving his own niche via more traditional horror channels, albeit with his own twist on the genre.

Going back to Doctor Sleep, it is an older, wiser King who, as a reflecting father, needs to feel that the dad will always come good for his son in the end.  This is apparent through the fleeting visitation of a ghostly Jack during the climax, whose pivotal actions may just go some way to atoning for what King may now see as an unforgivable, yet sympathetic, paternal failure in the original. And it is this appearance that conjures up in Dan’s mind his father’s night-time words - words that you could well imagine an encouraging King whispering in to young Joe’s ears during his early years.

“Bedtime, doc. Sleep tight.  Dream up a dragon and tell me about it in the morning”.

So while Doctor Sleep focus on the battles Dan faces in not becoming afflicted with the weaknesses that overcame his father, it is actually the positive attributes that Joe Hill has inherited from his own dad that is the story here, namely the skill in crafting horror tales.  Joe is dreaming up them dragons and is no longer content with just telling his pa about them. Like Dan, he has learnt to step out into the world, arguably out of his father’s long shadow, and to cut his own path through the forest. And like Abra, at the end celebrating her birthday with her new extended family base, he probably knows he will always have the support of his gifted relations in his future works.   As such, this is a further element of the familial blood that pumps through this book, and it is this that stays with this reader long after the final page has been turned.

Oh, that and poor Bradley Trevor.

He endures.


Wayne Parkin lives in Derbyshire, England and is an aspiring writer. He is a lifelong Constant Reader who even lived in New England for three years (although this was for a work assignment and not an extended pilgrimage to King).   He also struggles saying the title of this book without hearing the Miami Sound Machine’s Doctor Beat in his head.

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