Sunday 3 November 2013

Doctor Sleep - thoroughly satisfying horror novel

RIP VIII is over.  Another year of fabulous dark supernatural reading.  Altogether I read 8 books for the challenge, though I haven't had time to review them all.  The big one I haven't reviewed is Doctor Sleep.  And this is solely because I finished reading it two weeks ago, and even though I managed to read and review The Bone People after, otherwise it is the busy time of year for me - two birthdays and Hallowe'en in the space of three days. Getting ready for all of it always takes more time than I think it will!

So, for the past two weeks, I've been holding my thoughts about Doctor Sleep in my head, turning over how good this horror novel is.  I really, really liked it.  It is the only sequel that could have been written to The Shining.  My one caveat is that it is does not have as many genuine heart-stopping thrills as I would have liked it - it seemed gentler on Danny than The Overlook was.  Is this because he is an adult now, and has made peace with seeing ghosts?    At the beginning of Doctor Sleep,  3 years after The Shining has  ended, one of the spirits comes back to haunt him - it is chilling, especially when Wendy sees the traces for the first time.  Will he be haunted forever?  Can one escape one's gifts?  What happens when you don't try to escape it, and embrace it?  As  a 5 year old, Danny could only survive the horror at The Overlook Hotel.  As a young child, the new other child character in Doctor Sleep, Abra Stone, is gifted far beyond Danny and even as a baby things happened around her - telekinesis, until she is able to speak, and later control her emotions.  She is the star of Doctor Sleep, but Danny Torrance is the heart.

 Danny Torrance is an interesting character.  He is an alcoholic, just like his father before him. And he is aware enough to know that he is like his father, except where Jack would hurt (and enjoy hurting in the mean part of himself) his family, Danny does not.  It is not part of his character, never has been.  Danny drinks to avoid feeling and seeing the spirits around him.  Even though his gift fades with age, he still has it.  So when he does an act that is mean - when he does something that causes such guilt in him that he can't escape it - he decides to change.  To make up for what he's done.  And he goes clean, joins AA.   This part does take a bit of getting through, as we go through the steps with him.  Hang in there.  It's important, and important for Dan's character growth.  It doesn't last very long, either.  But he has to get sane for the story to move forward.  Eventually he does, and the story then moves at a fast pace.

Dan eventually finds a use for his gift, a way of being there to help others cross over to the other side when their time has come.  It's very beautiful and gentle and melancholic, the way Danny himself is.  He has never recovered from The Overlook, though he has gone on from it.  That's the way it should be.  He encountered such horror there that no one would fully recover.  So the AA bit makes sense, especially as his family role model is his father, Jack, the alcoholic.  If you remember  Jack Torrance, this is what he also has, the gift, only not so much as Dan, and this is what he is jealous of.  Who can escape their legacy?  Alcoholism is tied up with what happened at the Overlook Hotel so much that Dan could either become an alcoholic, or a teetotaler.  There would be no in-between for him.

     But this is a horror novel, and the horror soon does arrive.  There are spooky moments, many kinds.  One of the eeriest (and based on a true story, except that one is about a dog who does this) is the cat that predicts who is going to die in the seniors' home where Dan Torrance ends up working at.  The cat works 'with' Dan in this, so that soon the nurses on shift, call Dan when they see the cat sitting on the bed of  a person, because they know the patient is about to die. Dan can take his turn sitting with them.  They start to call him Doctor Death as a way of accepting that he is helping easing their passage. The way of death, and who is not fearful at that moment? The name is not used in  the wicked way we would think Doctor Death could be used.  So Danny has become - continues - to be good, a good, decent man, good in the way that as a child he was a good child.  He has odd things occur around him and meets others who have the gift of "the shining", also.  All this happens after he stops drinking, which is key.   He has to be open to life in order to find his role, his place, to find good things happening in it.

The main event that is strange is that someone starts to write on a marker board he has in his room.  "Hello", the first time.  And in this way, infrequently, they communicate, until one day evil comes to take her.  Her name is Abra, and she is a little girl in the next town from where Danny settles. And she is a child gifted with the shining so strongly that she makes Danny look like he has only a little. Extraordinary.  Imagine what The Overlook Hotel would have done with her!!!

Because that is the key, of course.  The Overlook Hotel burned down when Jack Torrance forgot about the boiler that winter night long ago. But what happened to the evil lurking there?  An evil place doesn't start at the first floor, or the walls of the house.  It starts below, in the ground, too.  Evil attracts evil, and the people attracted to the campground that replaces part of the Overlook Hotel are not very nice people at all.  Oh no. Middle-aged RV'ing retirees, who feed off the bright spirits of the children who have the shining. Now that's horrific.

I won't say anymore, because Doctor Sleep is a thoroughly good, deeply satisfying horror novel. There is one story of pure horror in it, an image that haunts me, that makes the horror in this book all too real.  I almost wish there had been more of this, that we get to see a little more what happens to a few of the other children taken, so that we have time to experience the horror of what will happen to Abra when they come for her. And to think about the horror that all children experience when they are taken, because that is the real horror this story is based in.  Not that I want to experience it or even think about it, but Doctor Sleep gives us readers a way to understand a little the horror that is experienced.  It is too easy to look away, to not think about it, to forget that this really happens, and much, much too often.  This is a recurring theme in Stephen King's work, that people, especially adults, have a way of forgetting what they don't want to see or know.  In Doctor Sleep it's not as if no one notices children disappearing, but because the killers are careful to space it out, and they do it along highways and small towns, moving on quickly so that they can't be traced, just another bunch of campers on the road seeing America, no one notices them.  The banal face of evil, in trailer camp clothing, polyester, masquerading as satisfied older people.  Stealing children.  It's really quite a horrific way to envision who is taking the children.  Because no one sees or can trace them.  And there is no peace for the families, ever, in real life.  In the novel,  Dan and his friend struggle to reveal what they know without being accused of being the killers - always a threat when one is psychic.

Abra however is so gifted, that she is able to see True Knot, as the killers call themselves, while they are looking for children with the shining.  And I won't say any more, except to say that this is such a satisfying novel of horror, and resolution.  For all the characters, Dan especially.  What he couldn't do as a child, he can do as an adult, which is choose to fight against evil, not just witness it as he did as a young child.  And Abra herself is old enough as a 12 year old to choose to fight them (or not to). Doctor Sleep is about choices, all kinds of choices people make, every day, in big ways and little ways, and how our fate finds us in the end.  I do wonder what Abra will become as an adult?  She has so much power, surely she was made for big things? 

The Shining  is an experience of horror - and a fabulous ghost story.  It's from the point of view of Danny as a 5 year old, and this is part of what makes it so horrific and so accessible for readers.  Doctor Sleep is about adult themes, family and heritage of all kinds, as well as about one of the enduring themes of horror in our day:  the kids who vanish, the milk carton kids we used to call them. Except they are real, and there are far, far too many children who have disappeared and whose fate is unknown.  It's almost overwhelming how many children have disappeared over the past 40 years. Doctor Sleep is a novel about what happened to some of these kids, and it will really make you think about going into any rest station along a highway.  And really hang on tight to every child you have, all the time.

It's also about trust, and taking chances, and facing up to horror and trying to stop it.  It's refreshing to read a story that values the good in people, and cares about the horror of the victims fate.  This is no slash and gash novel, this is thoughtful horror fiction, a darned good story, and interesting.  Lots to think about, which is why it's taken me a little while to do this review.

 As a reader who loves The Shining, it's been a really satisfying journey with Dan Torrance in Doctor Sleep.  Easily my favourite duology in horror writing, and one I will return to again and again.  And yes, do read The Shining first, every time.  Doctor Sleep is built on what happens in The Shining.  I reread The Shining in September, review here.

The Shining is one of the seminal horror novels for me, along with The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.  Almost everything I read in horror is compared to these two.  Doctor Sleep is a muted kind of horror, with only glimpses of the kind of horror that made The Shining so great as a horror novel.  The Shining is better in so many ways for pure scare moments for me, and yet Doctor Sleep is kinder, sweeter, and I like it more because of this.  They are both very good horror novels, among the best.

I am really happy Stephen King continued the story of Danny Torrance. 

Other reviews of Doctor Sleep:
The Well-Read Redhead (some spoilers)
Bibliophile By the Sea
Emily Barton over at her library blog, Pequea Valley Reader's Blog