Book Review: Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King

cover of Doctor SleepDoctor Sleep is Stephen King’s long-awaited sequel to The Shining.  Doctor Sleep finally tells us the fate of Danny Torrance, who was a little boy in The Shining.  Like his father, Dan battles alcoholism and a temper.  He is also plagued by psychic insights and visions.  During the course of the book, Dan hits bottom, enters recovery, and finds a use for his gift.  He works as an aide in hospice centers, and is able to help people die, not by giving them more fatal drugs but by guiding them into their final sleep.  It is this talent that gives the book its title.

Danny also becomes the mentor and protector of a little girl, Abra, whose psychic gifts are far more powerful than Danny’s.  Then Abra becomes the target of a group of monstrous humans who feed on the souls of psychic children, Danny has to risk his life to save her.

There are tons of reviews of this book on the Internet, so I’m just going to hit on the things that struck me the most.  One, of course, is Stephen King’s gift of making the mundane terrifying.  In this book, scary things happen in bathrooms, and in suburban homes, and in RV parks.  I’ll never look at a Winnebago the same way again.  King has always been good at finding horror in every day things – a car, a dog (and a broken down car), a case of the sniffles.  And this book is never stronger than when it makes the everyday world scary.  It’s that kind of creep factor that makes me unable to sleep with the book in my room.  The book is angry.  It has to sleep elsewhere.

Here’s another thing – like The Shining, this book is about alcoholism.  The Shining was written by Stephen King while he was drinking, and Doctor Sleep was written after years of sobriety.  It shows.  To me, the scary thing about The Shining was the moments when Jack’s son would look at him, or Wendy would look at him, and they would realize that he was simply not there anymore.  I have some experience with that sensation and it’s far more terrifying than dead bodies in bathrooms.

The most riveting moment in Doctor Sleep, the moment that most had me vibrating with anxiety, comes when Dan sits on a bench with a bottle and tries to decide whether or not to drink it.  The most touching moments come from his community of fellow AA members who are constantly trying their best to come through for one another – whether that means pouring a cup of coffee or fighting demonic hordes.  I’m grateful to this review (from The Guardian) for pointing out that the Bad Guys are also addicts, but they refuse to take responsibility for their addiction or their actions.

This book isn’t so much a battle between “Good” and “Evil” as it is between responsibility and carelessness.  The Baddies are careless with the lives of others.  They are totally unrepentant for the suffering they cause, claiming that they HAVE to do these things.  They are BORN that way.  Dan and his ragtag team are deeply flawed people who have hurt many, many people in their lives.  But they are trying to take responsibility.  They acknowledge that alcoholism has a genetic component but they refuse to hide behind that fact.  This whole book is one big amends, in a good way.  And the greatest victory isn’t the one over the supernatural bad guys.  It happens when Dan tells a secret – not a supernatural secret, just a sad, shameful secret about the carelessness he himself took with the lives of others when he was drinking.

Actually, a huge portion of this book is about telling the truth.  Frankly, it’s a bit overdone for the purposes of narrative flow.  Dan has to explain things to himself, to his boss, to a sympathetic doctor, to Abra, to Abra’s parents, to Abra’s grandmother – I’m surprised he doesn’t just stand around with a cardboard sign listing the basic facts of the plot.  But all this explaining shows us that this world is real, and messy, and that people work together more effectively when they know what’s going on.

I’m not sure Doctor Sleep is King’s best book – but it’s a very, very good one.  And, unlike a lot of horror, there’s a point to people’s actions.  The book isn’t nihilistic.  It’s pretty warm and fuzzy, all things considered.  It left me feeling hopeful that people can step up, can create goodness, even against great odds.

Book Review: Joyland, by Stephen King

cover of JoylandStephen King has written some books that are great, some that are OK, and some that are awful, but he has never, ever, written a book that is boring.  Joyland is a book that is OK.  It has flaws, but being dull is not one of them, even though the story is more a coming-of-age story than one of horror or suspense.

Dev is a twenty-one year old college student with a broken heart who accepts a part-time job at Joyland, an amusement park.  He makes friends, he saves two lives, he bonds with a sick kid and the kid’s overwhelmed mother, and he recovers from being dumped by his first love, Wendy.  He also tries to solve an old murder that happened in the park.

I was thinking there might be some murderous clowns or something, but actually the horror quotient is quite low.  This is a coming of age story, and although the murder ties all the elements together, and gives the book a certain sense of dread, there’s not a lot of scary stuff.  There is a show down with the bad guy, and there are some hints of the supernatural (a ghost, a psychic kid) but this book is more about coping with the kinds of losses that are devastating but not supernatural in origin.

The book seems sort of thrown together – it feels like Stephen King has two completely different books in mind and he just chucked them in a blender to see what would happen.  I never understood why the murder is so important to Dev, or why solving it was such a catharsis for him.  I was also disturbed by an undercurrent of misogyny.  In general, I don’t consider King to be a misogynist writer – books like CarrieLisey’s Story, and The Gingerbread Girl (a novella), not to mention Rose Madder, Dolores Clairborne, and Gerald’s Game, have viewed women with deep sympathy and celebrated their individuality and their ability to survive.  Maybe I’m just a little bloodthirsty, but reading The Gingerbread Girl was one of the most cathartic experiences in literature I’ve ever had.

But there’s a weird thread of hostility to women that runs through Joyland.  I’m not speaking so much of the murders – they are clearly viewed by all (except the murderer) as despicable acts.  I’m more concerned that Dev is so angry that Wendy, his first love, never had sex with him.  Guess what Dev – Wendy doesn’t have to have sex with you.  Not having sex does not make her a tease.  Having sex does not make her a slut.  She dumped you for another guy, and that’s shitty, but sex isn’t something that’s owed to you, dude.  So get over that.  Really, that’s all we know about Wendy – Dev adored her, she wouldn’t have sex with him, she dumped him for someone else.  Not having sex with Dev, but presumably having it with someone else, is her one defining characteristic and we are supposed to hate her for it.

The other two women in the story are sweet and supportive.  Annie, the mother of Mike, the sick kid, is initially hostile, but she warms up to Dev and rewards him for his goodness to Mike with – you guessed it – sex.  And Dev’s friend Erin is uniformly sweet.  She is, in fact, the perfect girlfriend (although she’s not Dev’s girlfriend).  And yes, she does have sex with her boyfriend, and not with anyone else.

What I liked about Joyland was its description of carnival life.  With the carnival, and the boardwalk, and the feeling of the transience of summer, overlaid by ghost story shivers, this is a great summer reading book – but not, overall, a great book.