Saturday, January 17, 2015

Doctor Sleep

What would Stephen King do without dreams? No, I'm not talking about the dreams he personally has when he sleeps, that may or may not influence his writing. I'm talking about the dreams of his characters, the ones that advance the plots of his books and convey important narrative information. There's also the dreams that contain a vague phrase or line of dialogue that's only properly explained later on (probably once King figured out what its importance should be_.

I also wonder, when the dead show up to speak in King's tales, why they're so cryptic and vague instead of explaining exactly everything the living characters need to know. I imagine it's because if they did, the book would be a lot shorter, but I can only imagine how much trouble they'd save everyone if only they were more clear.

I kid Stephen King. I'm a fan, but he does rely on a few convenient storytelling devices too often in his work. Doctor Sleep (2013) contains its shares of dreams and important messages from beyond the grave, and that's to be expected when so many of the characters have psychic and telepathic powers.

A sequel to The Shining, King's third novel, Doctor Sleep picks up, after a couple of scenes, with an adult Dan Torrance, traumatized by his experience at the Overlook Hotel and now an aimless drifter drowning his grief and psychic (or his shining) with booze, the very same weakness the ghosts exploited to drive his father insane. He ends up in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire, gets into AA, and finds a job at a hospice where his psychic abilities help comfort the dying, and he ends up with the nickname "Doctor Sleep."

Dan develops a telepathic bond with a girl named Abra Stone, who was born shortly before Sept. 11, and is now a pre-teen. Her skills far surpass Dan's, and she clues into a group of psychic vampires known as the True Knot. This group, led by a woman known as Rose the Hat, feeds off "steam," the psychic essence of children with the shining, and when the group learns about Abra and Rose decides to go after her, Dan tries to protect her.

Doctor Sleep is a quick read. I enjoyed it and was interested in seeing how it would play out, but I doubt it's going to go down as one of King's better works. The earlier chapters of Dan working to overcome his experiences at the Overlook, coupled with Abra's growing realization and strength of power, work the best. The connect between the two is small initially, limited to a few occasional back and forth messages (Abra somehow writes hers on a chalkboard in Dan's room).

The novel falters with the True Knot Society. Frankly, they're not very scary or interesting, which for a group of (somewhat) immortals who travel the country over hundreds of years kidnapping children and torturing and murdering them so they drain their "steam," that's disappointing. The group travels around in winnebagos and have accumulated fortunes stowed away, but outside of Rose, whom is described by the other characters as the most beautiful woman they've ever seen (who always wears the same top hat at a gravity-defying angle and who gets angry when someone touches it), none really stand out. They have names like Barry the Chink and Snakebite Andie, but the group apparently has dozens of members, and most references to the underlings are fleeting.

Rose goes into fits of rage when things don't go her way, and when she feeds on steam, her mouth opens unnaturally large, showing a single, massive, discolored tooth, but despite all the talk about how you don't want to meet her or cross her, she doesn't come across as very threatening. The only time she is menacing is when Abra sees a projection outside her window in the dark; now that's creepy because it indicated how powerful her mental powers are and how she used to get inside people's heads.

Of course, Abra is a problem herself. I'd didn't find her irritating; she is a nice character, but she's too powerful. I rarely thought she was in any real danger. She uses her powers to stomp a number of the True Knot (I keep wanting to add Society to the end of the group's name for some reason.). The only time she's vulnerable is when she's drug and kidnapped, but even that doesn't last long.

I think what might have worked better would have been to keep the True Knot in the shadows, cut back the number of chapters and passages describing their work, and keep them as this mysterious group. Focus the book on the relationship between Dan and Abra, and let them find out gradually learn there's this evil group out that preys on psychic children.

Even in his afterward in the novel, King said Doctor Sleep was unlikely to be as scary as The Shining, and he's right; it's not. When it focuses on Dan, now grown up from the troubled boy in a haunted hotel, and how he tries to fix his life, the book is a good read. But once the True Knot shows up, the characters and plot get pushed aside for a chase and a showdown with a not particularly compelling evil

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