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Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Friday September 27, 2013 MYT 8:05:26 AM
By DAVIN ARUL
This follow-up to The Shining is a brilliantly told tale with characters you really wish were friends of yours. Except for the Empty Devils, of course.
THE Shining was one of Stephen King’s scariest books, and the idea of a sequel 35 years later seems absurd, its standaloneness sacrosanct in the eyes of fans.
After all, when the inevitable sequel to a beloved work arrives, the result typically has all the sour taste of a betrayal.
Fear not. Doctor Sleep is a sequel that succeeds on its own merits, a beacon on any shelf filled with King’s post-Desperation output.
The end of The Shining was pretty much it as far as the Overlook Hotel, its ghosts, victims and near victims were concerned. Psychic child Danny Torrance made it out with his mother Wendy and Shining-gifted cook Dick Hallorann. (That’s one reason why I spit on the movie adaptation; Hallorann was way too rich a creation to die as a cheap plot gimmick.) Alcoholic, homicidal patriarch Jack Torrance didn’t make it. And the freakin’ hotel blew up.
What kind of a sequel can you write to that?
A terrific one, it turns out – a page-turner I finished over two days while keeping my mum company after her recent surgery. I say this not as a cheap attempt at sympathy, just to say that the situation of one supporting character in the book hit me right in the gut, given where I was emotionally at the time.
Doctor Sleep is not a continuation of The Shining so much as a continuation of Danny’s life, though the events of the earlier book are not ... Overlooked. Something happens early on in Doctor Sleep that will creep the crap out of you like the whole “Room 217” episode did in the original.
These opening pages are like visiting old friends and finding that they haven’t changed one bit in the intervening years ... and neither have the ghosts that haunt them. (The book saves one more post-Overlook ghostly encounter for much later, and you might need to reach for a tissue then.)
Doctor Sleep soon leaves these leftover nightmares behind and shows Danny growing up into a troubled young man, an alcoholic like his pa – and grandpa before him – and for a time it looks as though the chap is going to continue the family tradition of an inherently bad nature (“mean jeans”, as a typical King interjection might go).
He does some lowdown things, one particularly rotten deed haunting him for years, influencing his decisions but also causing indecision at critical points.
Still, there’s always redemption where you care to look for it, and Dan gets an opportunity to put his life back in order. At around this time, he makes psychic contact with another strongly Shining individual, a little girl named Abra Stone.
He is dragged into a series of dangerous but also life-affirming situations, because it turns out there are other creatures as vile as the Overlook ghosts after Abra.
The villains of Doctor Sleep are people, or at least they look like us; the author frequently reminds us that they stopped being people a long time ago. The “True Knot” are a parasitic lot who feed off the Shining of gifted individuals, using prolonged torture to extract their “steam”.
The younger the victim and the more agonising the torture, the more potent the steam, apparently. So, yeah, you know who these monstrous “Empty Devils” have set their sights on.
As the hunters close in on their quarry, the book becomes a parallel tale of Dan’s struggles to pull himself back together and Abra’s determination to sort out the devourers.
I liked how Abra’s courage makes her not just a strong but inspiring figure in the unlikeliest of packages. As she stands up to the True Knot, patterning her “battle self” in one psychic struggle after Game Of Thrones’ Daenerys Tagaryen (to show that King is up on the pop culture icons of the day too), you get the feeling that these bozos really had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
Metaphorically, the whole True Knot aspect of the book seems to be a cautionary tale of a cruel, soulless and indolent society being undone by its own complacency and greed. These villains, however, are also the weakest portion of the novel, sometimes appearing downright unthreatening – like they were there just to give Dan and Abra something to rally against and strengthen their characters in the reader’s estimation.
King’s storytelling has evolved to the point that he is able to effortlessly juggle numerous plot threads and characters and give all of them significance, making it relatively easy for the reader to keep track of things because they matter.
Many characters, Dan most of all, are broken or fractured souls, and that makes them that much more real. Even the True Knot has a kind of sympathetic appeal, not to our darker natures but because King makes them seem so ... regular.
The author says he is a different man now from the one who wrote The Shining and that is a big plus for Doctor Sleep. Its story is compellingly told and emotionally affecting in a way that early King (The Shining was only his third published novel), as good as his scares and plotting got, was not.
For all the creepiness, scares and page-turning excitement of Doctor Sleep, it’s the strong emotional resonance of its characters and situations that struck me the most.
Whether you’re keeping vigil with a loved one, or piecing your life back together after hitting a low point, or looking out for the folks who matter in your life, there’s a thread in here that will connect with you.
The book ends on a painful yet gentle note, a powerful one that really cements King’s status as a master storyteller. As he says in the dedication about Warren Zevon, who always used to insist that King sang lead on Werewolves Of London when they played gigs together, this is the author howling like he means it.
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