Stephen King’s novel Doctor Sleep, child of The Shining, is a fun, inventive book that falls short of the abject terror for which its father is hailed.
The Shining terrified me when I first read it years ago, and it terrified me again when I reread it recently in preparation for the sequel. King has a knack for making human monsters, and often he makes monsters out of people we normally trust: fathers, neighbors, cops. The Shining does this traumatically, turning Jack Torrance, beloved father, into a ravening murderer thirsting for his family’s blood—but this is where Doctor Sleep ultimately fails: its monsters aren’t scary; they’re no longer even human.
The antagonists of Doctor Sleep call themselves the “True Knot”: a nomadic band of vampires that feed off the psychic force of children gifted with the shining, which the True call “steam.” At first the True Knot seem terrifying, what with their cult-like bond and special paranormal abilities, like locating people, or making people fall asleep on command. They also like to torture their young, gifted victims to maximize the harvest, and they practice a bizarre induction ritual: to become one of the True, you have to inhale steam; you have to die and be reborn by “cycling” between our world and . . . somewhere else. The descriptions of this cycling are particularly disturbing, as the different layers of the inductee’s body become transparent; sometimes all you see is her skeleton, or her eyes and brain.
As the novel progresses, we learn more about the True. They travel around the world in RVs, and here King makes a chilling point: no one pays attention to the RV people. We see them all the time—coming into town, heading out of town, at local diners and campgrounds—but they’re almost invisible to us. It’s this very camouflage that allows the True to kidnap gifted children without sounding any alarms. And if they do raise suspicion, the True simply leaves town. So instead of making us fear the people we’re supposed to trust, King attempts to make us dread the people we don’t see. And it works. The idea is truly unsettling, and I’ve been keeping an eye on real-life RV people ever since. But another concept ultimately saps the True of their potential horror, because, despite looking human, they aren’t.
Unlike the murderous Jack Torrance in The Shining, the True Knot aren’t people; they’re vampires. The characters make this point very clearly: humans don’t cycle in and out and disappear when you kill them. Unfortunately, vampires aren’t nearly as scary as people, because as far as we know, vampires are make-believe, whereas humans, as far as we know, are real. Ghosts aside, this is what makes Jack Torrance so terrifying in The Shining. He’s a real warm-blooded human being with understandable, if not relatable, human flaws. Not only that, Jack is someone we know, someone we’re close to—someone we’re supposed to trust. We already know we shouldn’t trust vampires, so the fact that they’re child-murdering steamaholics is no surprise. Even the human touches King gives the True—loyalty, familial bonding, human frailties, and human stupidity—fail at rendering them human enough to keep me up at night, praying Daddy isn’t out doing the Bad Thing.
In the end, while Doctor Sleep isn’t entirely terrifying, it is a fun novel containing some of King’s most ingenious inventions: steam and its deathly counterpart; death flies; mental lockboxes for ghosts; and tons of psychic shenanigans. The novel also has a great cast of characters, endearing yet flawed, and it develops interesting themes of addiction, heredity, and the inescapable darker side of human nature found even in good people. All in all, you should crack Doctor Sleep expecting to be, if not totally traumatized, then at least thoroughly entertained.
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