Dr. Sleep by Stephen King, Review: Part 2 (of 3)(for Part 1, click here)
Horror novels can live and die by their villains. Today, let’s talk a bit about the villains of Dr. Sleep: the True Knot. I went into this book actively intending to dislike them. Recreational-vehicle-driving tourist-looking shining vampires? An interesting concept, I thought, but why shoehorn them into a fictional universe where ghosts are already known to exist? It creates too many questions that I don’t want to know the answers to. Like, can these Shining-sensitive vampires interact with the Shining-sensitive ghosts we met in the original novel? Would the vampires be scared of ghosts if they saw them? Or would they simply say “Eh, ‘dem ghosts are just a bunch of ‘shining’ groupies like us. We share an affinity for shining-sensitive kids!”
I consider it lazy writing when questions like these start popping up. When your head starts filling up with loads and loads of potentially corny/awkward scenes you hope never actually play out in the novel. Questions and scenarios that the writer obviously chooses to give a wide berth, and for good reason. Though Dr. Sleep does, in fact, have a few moments when the vampires briefly interact with ghosts, but it all happens pretty quick and Stephen King wisely avoids going into too much detail.
And then there’s Abra. The most powerful shining-kid of all time. First of all, I didn’t like how King claims Abra is stronger than Danny ever was, when that was kinda the point of Danny’s character in the first book. The fact that he was pretty much the Michael Jordan of shining-kids. That’s why the Overlook Hotel ghosts wanted him so bad. He wasn’t just strong, he was a once-in-a-lifetime mutation. Dr. Sleep sort of retcons the first book and makes it seem that Danny was just particularly strong back then, but not like ‘Whoa Holy Crap He’s a Freakin’ God’ strong. But here’s Abra, who’s so powerful she can physically move things with her mind. Just like Carrie, the titular character in another classic Stephen King book.
In Dr. Sleep, Abra’s like Luke Skywalker in the swamp lifting X-Wings from the water. Yes. In this book, the “shining,” as a biochemical brain condition, now includes telekinesis and even astral projection. This makes Danny from the first book look like a total shining underachiever. He couldn’t move crap with his mind if his life depended on it. If Abra had been the one to show up at the Overlook Hotel so many years ago, those hotel ghosts would have FREAKED! They would have had like a massive ticker-tape ghost parade up and down the creepy hallways. This isn’t the shining she has–it’s a full room-and-board scholarship to join the X-Men.
And here’s another of those questions-you-don’t-want-answers-to: if a shining-kid can pick up spoons and make them float in the air, doesn’t she start to have a few too many things in common with, um…ghosts? Don’t ghosts do that? What would happen if a ghost was trying to scare somebody by making a spoon float in the air, and then a shining kid showed up and added a second floating spoon to the equation? Would that not be a rather sloppy, awkward scenario? I mean, what would the ghost think? Would the spoons float in the exact same manner—smoothly through the air, not all wobbly and stuff? Does ghost telekinesis exhibit different motion properties than shining telekinesis? Too many questions!
And yes, I’m aware I’m kinda going out on a limb here, but my point is that these are valid, askable questions, and by their being askable they create a familiar phenomenon I’d like to take this moment to christen “PSA” (potential scene awkwardness). When there’s a lot of PSA in a novel, the reader starts to cringe with every turn of the page whilst issuing aloud a monotone prayer to the author “please don’t go there, please don’t go there, I’ll freaking pay you to not go there!”
The shining shouldn’t involve telekinesis, I don’t care how many midi-chlorians the kid has. The cool thing about the shining as a “power” was that it was sort of its own thing. It wasn’t the same thing as what Carrie had. It wasn’t what Jean Grey from the X-Men had. It wasn’t the same thing as the head-exploding “Scanners” had. It was just a weird, extra creepy version of regular telepathy. More specifically, the shining was a kind of telepathy that was less like an amazing gift, and more like having your head possessed by half-a-thousand ghosts. That kind of telepathy.
Despite my qualms about the the True Knot being the villains—as opposed to some new batch of ghosts—I actually found myself enjoying Dr. Sleep as a stand-alone novel. For a while, that is. I particularly enjoyed King’s many AA anecdotes, as shared through recovering-alcoholic Danny. I even laughed out loud more than a few times. Stephen King has the recovering alcoholic character down pat.
Like always, I allowed myself to think that maybe this would be the late-career novel that King hit out of the park, start-to-finish. There was an exceptionally creepy scene where the True-Knot captures a powerful shining-having kid and mercilessly tortures him in order to extract his shining “steam.” Creepy. Disturbing. Classic King. By jove, there was a point where I was actually concerned for the safety of the main characters. Poor Abra! Poor Danny! I wondered, What happens when these villainous True-Knot people finally close in them? Who will live? Who will die? Please don’t hurt them Mr. King!
And then, as expected, King seems to get bored with his own novel at just about the mid-way point. Suddenly we jump into a much quicker, by-the-numbers tempo. King has spent so many pages setting up what I considered to be a fairly entertaining story crisis, but now it’s time to actually “do something” with said scenario.
From then on, the novel feels very much like just about every other Stephen King novel starting from the mid-point onwards. It feels like King not only made it up as he went along, but repeatedly settled for all of his first-ideas. At times, it feels like he didn’t dig very deep at all–he simply picked up whatever he found lying there in on the ground by his shoes. He settled for whatever ideas he’d managed to come up with before Tabitha King popped her head in the room and said, “Hey Steve, time for lunch.”
Oh, we’re not done yet. In fact, the best is yet to come. Stay tuned for the concluding Part 3.
Continue to Part 3.
Re-read Part 1 of this review here.
And, as always, to keep things nice and balanced, check out this unaffiliated Dr. Sleep Review.