Saturday, November 29, 2014

First Impressions: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep is the sequel to ‘The Shining’. King apparently had written this book in response to questions he’d been asked on book tours, “What happened to Dan?” Dan was the little boy who had an abusive father he loved and a gift called ‘The Shining’. The gift had, in some ways led to events that killed the dad in the Overlook hotel.

In this sequel, Dan Torrance grows up to be plenty messed up. Thoughts and memories of the evil dead he’d seen in the Overlook crowd his mind. To kill them some more, he drinks a lot. The book in fact begins with him nursing a fat lip after a drunken brawl. An incident occurs where he really believes he has hit a new low. It’s time for Dan to quit drinking and change. So he packs his bags, gets on a bus and moves to a new town. There, with the gift he has, he works in a hospice helping people on the brink of death to sleep and cross over to the other side. They call him ‘Dr. Sleep’.

While at the hospital, one night Dan sees a name scribbled in chalk, ‘Abra’. Not very far from where Dan lives, a little girl is born called ‘Abra’. She is a peculiar little girl. Her parents have heard her pluck piano notes from the air as a toddler. Who, when she was maybe two, scared her parents by staring at the T.V. and making all the channels broadcast ‘The Simpsons’ simultaneously.

While Dan was creating a new lease of life by trying to circumvent the shining, there was a little girl who was growing up with it.

In the time that Dan Torrance has grown up, the world has changed. And yet the world has not. There was a sense of evil that Danny had imbibed since childhood. He had learned to lock up that evil inside his head so that he does not, as King describes in some other part of the book, ‘find himself in a motel, looking at his reflection under a naked bulb with a gun on the table.’ However, in Abra’s time, the world has the ‘True Knot’ – a posse of unworldly people who kill and torture children who have the ‘shining’.  Their aim is to inhale ‘steam’, i.e. – the essence of these gifted children.

One thing leads to another and the True Knot go after the girl. The girl gets in touch with Dan again. And Dan, with memories of Overlook and his father and his shining that helps people cross over to the other side, has a destiny that’s intertwined with past, present, guilt, redemption and all points in between.

As a sequel, Doctor Sleep is a worthy one to The Shining. You don’t have to read the Shining to get Dr. Sleep – which I think is interestingly true to life. You don’t need to know a person’s childhood to understand the patterns of his battles. The childhood will surface soon enough.

The book has a lot of quintessential King – the stuff that had caused me to shut down my first Stephen King novel many years ago – details of thick blood dripping down eyes, gaping wounds, sickles slashing the necks of undeads. But in the books I have read, King has always shown a mastery over the fragile relationship between a man and his inner beast – and a man and his beastly parent – and that zone where there is no difference between the two. I had loved ‘The Shining’ for this. When the Overlook hotel is snowed in and every hollow in the hotel is ridden with shadows, deep resentments rise. Jack Torrance couldn’t quell them. And Dan Torrance is his father’s son. How will he manage?

Dan’s struggle with the netherworld is juxtaposed with his struggle with alcoholism. King has weaved in the tenets of the AA 12-step program with the other narrative of fighting evil. These parts are really strong. Also moving is the way Dan’s friendship with his buddies is set up. You don’t really think of this much when you’re thick into reading but you remember it later. King builds these relationships as a bookmark to the ethos of working class American men. Simple, decent folks who just happened to stumble badly at some point.

Here is why I will keep returning to Stephen King’s books despite pages of endless violence – for the quiet poetry of his phrases that appear suddenly – like a word-rafted rainbow in a crowded linguistic metropolis. There’s a part where Dan and Abra meet near a pond. King describes it thus: The color on water had faded to the faintest pink tinge – ashes of roses...when Abra joined him.

Makes you sigh.



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