Friday, October 25, 2013

Doctor Sleep

                     Okay, so the rundown is as follows: While Doctor Sleep is among the better written books I have read this year, that does not make it one of the better books I have read this year. While intriguing in places, overall the book falters as it is of two minds and comes up the better for neither of them. It's a book with a lot of heart about an older man and a young woman and their attempts to stand on their own but with help from others, and for that it gets some of my praise. But the way the book weighs itself down and seems unable to make up its mind about which story it wants to tell until the very last page make it one to take out of the library rather than buying it. Read it if you must, but I won't tell you you must read it. More, as always, below.

"Where do the Empty Devils live?"
"In your childhood."
- Danny Torrance and Dick Halorann

                   There have been very few times a book has confounded me as much as Doctor Sleep has. Usually, it's pretty easy to tell what I thought of a book when it finished. I can usually trace it back to a feeling: Wishing it didn't have to end, glad I finished it, the sudden gut-punch and the relief that said sudden gut-punch is over when there's a twist you saw coming but hoped would get subverted...hell, I've even wanted to glass an author, and physically assault a book after finishing them*. But I got no such strong reaction from Doctor Sleep. I just feel odd about it. And that's weird, because usually, Stephen King books have a strong power over me. Doctor Sleep just sort of fell short.

                   And by no means is it a bad book. It's actually got a lot of heart to it, which is something that a lot of horror novels forget. And parts of it are well-written. But, well...maybe it's just best to read on and see what I mean. Before I get lost trying to find the right words.

                    Doctor Sleep is the story of Danny Torrance, once the young prescient boy of The Shining, and picks up a little ways after The Shining left off. Danny is living with his mother, both of them dealing with their own trauma-induced nightmares after the event. In Danny's case, the nightmares take the rather tangible form of the ghosts from the haunted Overlook Hotel, who have decided to haunt his bathroom after his family blew up their previous haunts. As one does. With the aid of Dick Hallorann, the former cook from the Overlook and the one who trained Danny in the psychic powers known as "The Shining", Danny manages to lock away the ghosts in his head. But from the prologue, it's clear Danny is still just as disturbed, and that the lockboxes in his head, meant to keep the bad things at bay, will probably haunt him for the rest of his life.

                    Meanwhile, a young woman named Andi Steiner is recruited by a shadowy organization called the True Knot for nebulous purposes, involving something called "steam" that the True uses to prolong their lives almost eternally as long as they don't run out. The True travel the highways in RVs and campers, harvesting steam from the unwary, from disasters and children who seem to have the Shine, because of course no one looks at an RV, and the people who live inside of them look like the most harmless of the harmless. Right?

 And then things don't get weird, and that might be part of the problem.

                     Danny Torrance, now Dan Torrance, becomes an alcoholic like his father who drinks all his money away and hangs out in low places. Drinking is the only thing that seems to shut down Danny's gift, and since he needs to shut it down more and more these days instead of managing it, he drinks lots. Finally, he winds up working in a hospice in New Hampshire after a terrifying night where he steals all a woman's money and leaves her and her abused kid with a bunch of food stamps and a pile of cocaine. He starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous and sorts his life out, using his gift to pass people on to the afterlife under the name "Doctor Sleep" while his cat Azzie points people who need him out. 

                      At the same time, Abra Stone is born nearby, and where Dan is a strong spotlight, Abra is a lighthouse. Abra is a strong psychic talent, enough that she can foresee horrible disasters in her dreams, changes every channel so that it's airing The Simpsons, and once makes things levitate in the air. Abra's parents and grandparents keep her under wraps, but one night Abra gets a glimpse of the True going about their work, harvesting a little boy in Iowa, and that puts the True on to her. But at the same time, she manages to contact one Dan Torrance. And all three of these forces are going to collide dangerously when they eventually meet. And it will take all of Dan and Abra's combined talents, as well as their friends and loved ones, if they want to survive, let alone win the day.

                   I suppose the main issue with the book is that it's of two minds. One is about Dan Torrance finding his way back from the brain-fog of alcoholism. It shows him getting family, friends, and dealing with his powers and trauma. In this narrative, Torrance also helps a little girl and finds fulfilling work in a hospice helping his patients on to whatever afterlife they get. This, on its own, is a very compelling narrative. The other narrative involves a band of torture-happy vampire-like creatures who travel around in a convoy of Winnebagoes and their struggle with a teenage girl and her protector, a former loser who has cleaned up his life and has to once again use his inner power against the forces of evil to help his sort of adopted daughter. In their own right, they're equally compelling narratives, and I'd be happy to read either one of them. The problem is, Abra's story and Dan's story are not technically the same story until at least halfway through the book, and even then, the whole mess only comes together in the last hundred fifty or two hundred pages. It's as if the book is caught between the story Stephen King wants to tell, and the one he knows would readily find an audience, and the book's inability to make up its mind causes both stories to weaken. Which is a shame, because I'd have wanted to read both of them, had they been on their own. 

                 The second problem is that while the villains are scary, they could be scarier. Rose the Hat, the True's de facto leader, is a frightening boogeyman in her own right, but the True just don't do enough convincing. Yeah, there's some rumors, and yeah they take children's souls by torturing them out of their bodies, and there's sequences where they feed on disasters like 9/11, but due to the book's indecisiveness, they take a while to become a threat. It's a very slow build, and while a slow build could be good, this one just seems to take its time. The book's main villains are all internal, as is most of the book, and because the book (much like its predecessor) is preoccupied with the internal struggle, the True seem a little less threatening than they should be. In the end, the issue is that there's no sense of urgency. When the two groups finally meet, it's brutal and cathartic and frenetic and I find myself wondering "Why isn't the entire book like this? What happened?" 

                   Which leads me to my final point. While there are some good scenes and scary images, it takes a while for everything to get going. It reminds me of the entire section of The Stand where the survivors are talking about rebuilding civilization. The section just went on and on and on, with a few feints in the dark that the forces of good and evil took at each other, until finally King had to write in a bomb that killed off about a third of the cast, because otherwise it would have just gone on ad nauseam. The pacing is off, and while someone should have done the Siamese-twin separation necessary to make a leaner, meaner book, no one did. King once remarked that the abridged version of The Stand felt like "a Buick with all the chrome stripped off". Doctor Sleep feels like one of the mutated "limousines" on that one episode of Top Gear, where there's been too much modification and chrome, and two smaller books turned into one big saga.

                   It strikes me that perhaps the reason The Shining worked so well was because no matter how big the hotel was, it was one enclosed space. The nature of the setting forced the heroes to confront everything, and no matter how much horror was packed into the space, it was still just the space. With the entire United States and about thirteen years or more to work with, what could be a taut story fraught with struggle both internal and external is instead a rather sedate mass that moves from one moment to the next unhurried, ending in several brutal moments as the heroes rally a desperate plan that ends in catharsis, but also leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

                  But the problem is, this isn't a bad book by any stretch. It's actually very well-written, and that the end was cathartic is a point in its favor. The nastier scenes have a coat of grime that worked beautifully for them, and the entire book has an amazing amount of heart. It's very touching to see where Dan Torrance ends up and how he ends up there, and the interactions between the characters all make them feel very real. The problem is, in the end, I can't recommend it based on these things. Because the issues the book has with itself, the identity crisis it's in, loom so large.

               So in the end, if you really have a hankering to read this, I'm not going to dissuade you. But please, take it out of the library. Borrow it from a friend. Maybe when I'm older I'll begin to understand and appreciate this book more, but as is, I simply can't recommend it.


Private Midnight by Kris Saknussemm (redux)

See the following announcement for what's going to happen in November

*Ghosts of Manhattan and Damned, respectively. I punched a copy of Damned

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