Book: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (2013)
Movie: Doctor Sleep (2019)
Age/Genre: Adult Paranormal Fiction, Thriller, Suspense, Horror
Content Notes: Racial Stereotypes and Slurs, Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Rape, Sexualization of Children, Torture and Murdering of Children, 9/11
I didn’t know there was a sequel to The Shining until I saw a bunch of social media posts in anticipation of the Doctor Sleep movie last year. I decided to read it for October 2019, and borrowed it from a friend. Then, the combination of the length of the book and my hesitance to spend more time reading Stephen King novels so soon after reading Gerald’s Game resulted in me choosing other horror books to fit our October theme last year. The borrowed book has been sitting on my shelf ever since, but I finally decided to read it so I could watch the movie and return Deana’s book.
Doctor Sleep continues Danny’s story from The Shining, focusing on him as an adult who now goes by Dan. Dan swore he’d never follow his alcoholic father’s footsteps, but alcohol numbed the voices and other effects of his “shine.” So when we meet Dan, he’s at rock bottom, moving from town to town, ashamed of the choices he makes to get through life. He is drawn to a small town in New Hampshire, joins an AA group, and settles down.
Meanwhile, we meet a group of supernatural vagabonds who call themselves The True Knot, led by Rose the Hat. Members of “The True” used to be magically-inclined humans, but through a mysterious ceremony, have become more. They live off of “steam,” a substance that can be found in humans (or “rubes” as members of The True call them) with the psychic powers that Dan knows as the Shining. The True can be killed, but rarely die naturally. Steam restores their youth and enhances their powers, which range from mind reading, to becoming nearly invisible, to astral projection. Steam is best released through painful death, and is strongest in children, so members of The True journey across the United States in campers, seeking natural disasters and tragedies such as 9/11, kidnapping kids with the Shine along the way.
The introduction to The True Knot really drew me in. We see them recruiting a new member, Andi, who can put people to sleep by mere suggestion. Even though Andi is defined mainly by her hatred of men, stemming from a sexually abusive father, I was hopeful that we would get to see some interesting character development.
I hate to get into spoilers, but there will be some minor ones in the following rant. Andi’s only function seems to be to show how The True are initiated, which by itself, doesn’t really add much to the book. We don’t get any history behind their ritual or any idea of how long The True has existed or why. I thought she’d be a great second-to-final battle, present a significant threat to our main characters, or maybe even have a battle of conscience since she’s the newest member of the group. Instead, I just felt disappointed that we were introduced to this character with so much potential that we never see. And because she has almost no dialogue or notable scenes after her turning, her most defining trait remains that she hates men, and after joining The True, discovers she can enjoy sex as long as it’s with a woman. Since Andi doesn’t receive any more characterization, I feel that her sexuality ends up implying that homosexuality is the result of sexual trauma, which is a complicated issue that can’t really be responsibly explored in a minor character’s barely-covered story arc.
So the main plot has Rose the Hat pursuing Abra, a tween who has stronger powers than Rose has ever encountered. Dan, of course, gets roped in and tries to help Abra escape and defeat Rose. Since the book takes place over many years, it’s hard to go into more details without spoiling some suspense in the beginning, so that’s about all I’m going to cover as far as the plot synopsis goes.
Generally, I liked the plot of this book. It shows how Dan’s life continues after the trauma of his childhood, and it demonstrates a bit more of how psychic powers affect individuals and the world at large. Some of the connections to The Shining seemed a little bit forced, like they were only there to provide a stronger tie-in to the first book, but that’s not really surprising for a sequel that came out more than thirty years after it’s predecessor.
My main gripe about Doctor Sleep is in the characterization. All the villains except for Rose are quirky caricatures. The members of The True Knot go by what Abra calls “pirate names:” Crow Daddy, Rose’s second in command, Snakebite Andi, Jimmy Numbers, etc. Several of the characters’ names include racial slurs, which didn’t feel like it served any purpose. It’s possible that such names could be used in a reclamatory way, fighting against a society that excludes them, but that can’t be said for the character whose name is a racial slur that isn’t even relevant to his ethnicity, but based on a racially stereotyped facial feature.
I have complained about the way that Stephen King writes women before, but the first half of Doctor Sleep had me wondering about his ability to write any character who is not a straight white male. Dan is characterized by his personal struggles, both internal and external. Everyone else seems characterized by societal stereotypes. It could be argued that it’s not uncommon for the main character to get the most in-depth characterization, but 1) being common doesn’t mean it’s not lazy, and 2) technically, Dan shares top billing for the main character with Abra.
Abra is an emotional, naive teen girl, who for some reason needs to be described by how adult men perceive her attractiveness. Several times, Dan has internal thoughts about Abra’s attractiveness, even though he is not attracted to her. I get his concern about people making assumptions about an adult man with a young girl. What I don’t get is why there has to be so much focus on her anatomy, all to be excused by “but not in a pervy way.” Does King believe men can’t interact with children without having inappropriate thoughts? Abra’s mom is primarily presented as hysterical and overprotective. There is a feud between Abra’s dad and her mother’s grandmother that is never explained or contextualized, which ends up making the grandma seem like just a cranky old Italian woman. Dick Halloran, reprising his role as Dan’s mentor from the first book, tells a story depicting his African American grandparents as “white” and “black,” those terms representing good and evil, respectively.
I can appreciate that Stephen King tried to add diversity to this novel, but a woman’s defining personality trait can’t just be that she’s not a man. Honestly, I was really intrigued by a few of these characters, most notably Andi and Chetta, Abra’s great-grandmother who is a retired poet, but neither were given the follow-through that I wanted to see.
As I mentioned, this book is a little hefty – my copy numbered 530 pages. Even though I had a physical copy, I decided to listen to at least part of the book via audiobook so that I could work on some crafts and read at the same time. I checked out the audiobook through Libby (seriously, see if your library has Libby or another audiobook/ebook app, because it’s a great way to listen to audiobooks for free) and started listening. This was a book I was able to focus on pretty well while doing other tasks, but the narration eventually started to grate on me. The narrator did fine most of the time, but sometimes he’d keep a character voice going beyond the character’s thoughts and dialogue, and the inconsistencies really annoyed me. So halfway through, I switched to the hard copy. I liked the experience of switching between mediums when reading the same book, though I do think the main difference in this case was the narrator, as there weren’t jokes that relied on spelling, or other discrepancies I’ve noticed between other audiobooks and text copies.
After I finished the book, I checked the movie out from my library. Going in, I expected a few major differences:
-a seriously condensed timeline
-fewer racial slurs and awkward racial moments
-Maybe Snakebite Andi Could be Redeemed! (okay, this wasn’t really an expectation as much as a hope)
The movie was… fine. It left out a ton. Though it technically is an adaptation of the eponymous novel, I think the main priority was to function as a sequel to Stanley Kubrik’s The Shining. I did like how the beginning connected the movies, and the opening managed to get a lot of the important parts from the beginning of the book in. However, the timeline being shortened really took away from the plot and Dan’s character development and relationships. The book takes place over many many years, with Danny’s low point being over 10 years before the main events of the book. We see Abra as a baby, having a psychic episode in response to 9/11, though the primary plot takes place when she’s about 13-years-old. We even get aftermath a few years after the main storyline. The movie shows a bit of Danny’s childhood, but then all the main events take place in a very short time frame.
As I predicted, the filmmakers left out a lot of the questionable race stuff. The cast was more diverse than in the book without making a big deal out of not everyone being white. It did seem to use the horror trope of people of color being killed early, for very little plot purpose. There were a lot more deaths than in the book. A couple of the deaths were really gruesome, in a way that made me really uncomfortable, which I believe was an intentional and well-executed choice. I think the extra deaths were added to hit some horror movie patterns, making it more horror and less of the fantasy story that the book is. But I didn’t think it was very creative as a horror film, throwing in extra deaths just for the count, without giving them any real gravity or function.
I found the character development in the movie to be even shallower than the book, which I had already found wanting. I think my ideal version of this story is a series where we get a lot more time with the characters. If this was paced like The Strain trilogy, there’d be time to explore all the great little tidbits that King teased us with.
Overall, if you like Stephen King, this book is worth checking out. If you like horror movies, the movie isn’t terrible, but it’s also not super memorable. Despite my criticisms of King’s writing, there still are a few of his works I want to check out, but it will definitely be a while before I dive into them.