Saturday, 21 September 2013

REVIEW Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Oh, my dear one, is it you? How can it be you? Are you dead?  Am I? ... Are we ghosts?

Stephen King's new novel Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining (1977)Simple to say, but enormous in meaning to King's multitudes of fans. Like Evelyn Waugh announcing a follow-on to Brideshead Revisited, or Fitzgerald deciding to see what happens next to old Nick. Easy to sneer at such a statement of course, but in Horror genre terms The Shining is right up there with the very greats. For many, it is King's best book. The writer himself was tormented by the idea of following it: "Did I approach the book with trepidation? You better believe it?"

King was clearly worried about making the book as scary as the first one, because lots of people who have read it were either properly spooked or at the very least found it eerie and somehow unforgettable. In some senses the popular memory is also influenced to a very great deal by Kubrick's film version which was a seriously jumpy affair, even if King himself is less enamoured of it and feels it has a "cold heart". All in, The Shining just has a scary reputation. But one suspects King was concerned about more than just making sure the follow-up was scary: The Shining is a book that is adored. By lots of us.

Predominantly, Shade Point remembers the wonderful setting of that book - The Overlook Hotel. Like another favourite around here, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black, The Shining is a towering lesson in the importance of setting in creating an atmosphere to genuinely unsettle a reader. The Overlook is as good as a character in The Shining, and while some us may be visually influenced by Kubrick in this, it can be hard still to check into some, well, older hotels without mischievously comparing them to The Overlook. The hotel is wonderfully described, but it's not just the physical rendering that's important. Like Hill, it is the premise of the setting that really does the job - plunging characters into an entirely plausible isolated landscape, then bringing the walls closer and closer in. The story, about small boy Danny Torrance, who moves with his parents to this hotel high in the Colorado mountains as sole winter caretakers, is thus made a classic. Plain and simple. Following it would indeed be hard, and for the fans this kind of thing is all mixed emotions. Sequels, they're tough sometimes.

In some ways, though, and we're not saying this just to be contrary, Doctor Sleep, in hooking up with the grown Danny Torrance, may be a sequel, but it is also perhaps in some ways the last of a trilogy, so far at least. Stephen King has been writing some of the best books of his career recently and 11.22.63 (2011) and Under The Dome (2009) have something in common with Doctor Sleep. 11.22.63 King originally tried to write in 1972, and Under the Dome in 1976. The Shining came out in 1977. All these ideas must have been tumbling around at the same time. Like his last two, Doctor Sleep is a going back, back to answer a question that has long been on King's mind: what happened to Danny Torrance? He refers in his afterword to a question about it at a live event 15 years ago, with the implication that it had been in his thoughts much before that. There is then a sense of a 'collective finishing' about these three novels, that these were books that 'had' to be written, ideas that had to be put to bed with love and care. 11.22.63, Under the Dome and Doctor Sleep seem to be family.

There is more than just the long gestation of the three stories in common. There is something too about the way King extends his writing about small towns and communities, and the relationships of loved ones and family units - whether this be so enormous it has its own cast list (the entirely jaw-dropping creation of Chester's Mill in Under the Dome) or smaller, like Danny Torrance's weary and scared supporters in Doctor Sleep, or the weird familial operation of their foe, the Winnebago convoy The True Knot. In all three books there is something special going on in the way that King explores small town America, communities; something he has alway done of course, but in these novels seems somehow pin-sharp, high definition. 

He looks at the everyday relationships, the families and the bonds of friendship. In an entirely unshowy way, all three books have a deeply emotional undercurrent, strong currents of love between characters that is truly affecting. Of course, King fans have known this all along - like setting, he does our ordinary emotions with tremendous ease. Probably, one suspects, because he just writes it as he feels it. In all three of this 'unfinished business trilogy' there have been moments where Shade Point simply started crying. There is a genuineness about some of these simply described human interactions in the books that actually in effect has the startling otherness of good poetry - the sting in the tail at the end of the poem that tells us something profound when we are not expecting it. It is perhaps no surprise that one of the Doctor Sleep characters is a famous poet. King frequently catches us off guard with the great weight behind seemingly ordinary exchanges of affection.

This is not to denigrate the run of books before Under the Dome at all - after a wobbly time of it, Shade Point started to reconnect with King at Bag of Bones and pretty much enjoyed them all from there on. But, it is almost as if, after finishing the super Duma Key, King paused on the stairs, went way back down to the basement for these old manuscripts, got back up to the floor where Duma and Cell and all were happening, and decided to just keep going up. Now, I liked Duma Key a lot, and it was pretty spooky in places - more so than Doctor Sleep arguably - but honestly, nothing would prepare me for Under the Dome. That book (and I reviewed it here) is possibly the best thing he has ever written. It was an utter triumph. And there seemed to be no going back downstairs again after that. Now that he was up there, he wrote 11.22.63 and even though it is perhaps not quite the equal of the earlier two, Doctor Sleep. 

That's not to say Doctor Sleep isn't great, because of course it is. It's as subjective and difficult to separate any of this 'unfinished business trilogy' as it is to, say, compare The Shining with Salem's Lot, or Pet Sematary with Christine. I enjoyed it a very great deal.

Danny Torrance has grown up, and his life has hit the skids. While trying not to give too much away about the plot of either sequel or original, he has inherited the gift of all-out alcoholism from his father - the haunted and unstable Jack Torrance, caretaker to The Overlook. The book follows Dan into adulthood, marked gently by the passing of Presidents, as he finally finds a kind of shelter from the trauma, only to become involved in a battle to save a young girl who shares his own gift - the shining - from a marauding group of characters as bizarre and eerie as the riders of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: The True Knot.

(*slight spoiler*)

Initially, it may seem to some readers that just perhaps the same story could have been told without the need to make this a Shining sequel. That without The Overlook, it somehow wasn't quite the same thing. That Danny Torrance needn't be Dan Torrance. That you could just about tell the same story without the weight of the connection. I'd be lying if I said this didn't occur to me as well as quite a different story unfolded to what I had imagined, or hoped for. But, hang in there, it all becomes entirely right.  This magic trick is another feature of the 'unfinished business trilogy' - we are given initially awkward concepts that soon become as natural as air. Small American town inexplicably covered by giant dome? Check, all well, let's get on with the story. Time loop in the basement of a diner? Good, all good, fine with that. Sequel to The Shining with no hotel-style setting, new shining back story that stretches back centuries? You know what - that's okay too.

Hollywood of course would have done this differently.  A movie remake might well have used The Overlook as the premise for the sequel, rebuilt it and sent in another family. But King doesn't, and maybe that's why he thought the Kubrick "cold". For him, it is always about the family.

(*spoiler over*)

And at the centre of this particular family sits maybe one of the biggest themes of the book. The life-long battle against alcohol for those who get addicted. Even in the original novel, there was something of Danny's gift that worked as a metaphor of interior protection as well as panic, and something of the hotel that mirrored his father's descent into alcoholic despair and dementia. That King has returned to this seems deeply significant. By his own admission, of course, he struggled greatly with alcohol - and has now been sober for a very long time. Maybe this new novel is some kind of reaffirmation. His book On Writing movingly recounts his alcoholism in quite an inspirational way (as well as being a great guide for budding writers - if you're not going to listen to King ... ). 

For a while one saw references to how King wasn't as good a writer when he stopped drinking. Shade Point has always thought this a nonsense, and it is interesting, conversely, to wonder if any of the 'unfinished business trilogy", particularly Under the Dome and 11.22.63, were books that were too demanding, or indeed like Dome, too huge, to get done under the influence. And now, they are like the work of an older wiser man, sober since the late eighties, bringing out these broken things from the basement, and fixing them, polishing them up, and making them shine - like the model train that Danny Torrance finds at the beginning of Doctor Sleep, his route to sobriety and hope.

To return full circle? Is it scary? I think the answer to that is yes, and no.

'Yes', it is scary, but in a different way to the original Shining - the menace seeps in, as has been the case with most of King's recent works. There is one particular scene, late at night, by moonlight, digging, unearthing, that is quite terrifying. Individual moments will serve the inevitable film version well, too, with many, many moments of superb eeriness. Torrance's enemies this time, the True Knot, are a creepy bunch and have some superb set pieces to themselves. It is also scary because it is squarely about death and loss, about the fragility of love, about terrible guilt and redemption, about the despair of drinking a screwdriver at 8.15am because you need to. About whether there really is a higher power. 

And then 'no' - probably for lots of people Doctor Sleep will not be a time machine back to first reading The Shining under the covers with a torch. Like those in Bag of Bones, when the villains of the piece are defined, they somehow seem too heavy on the other end of the see-saw. And Doctor Sleep won't be a doorway to the past, like the diner in 11.22.63. It won't be the horror creepy-fest that story really was, back then. But you know, for those of us who read The Shining first as a kid, it couldn't be, and I hope Stephen King will be happy with people like Shade Point saying things like: it may not be as scary as that first trip to The Overlook, but it's scary in different ways, and boy, it does have some really eerie moments. And other things like, Doctor Sleep is not so scary because it is about warmth, and salvation; it's about survival, the survival of love and family, it offers hope that we sustain, and inspiration to the addicted. Stuff like that.

I still adore The Shining, and this new book may not be like it, but it makes sense with it, belongs with it, and is just fine.