The Shining vs. Doctor Sleep (WARNING: Vague Spoilers For The Hypersensitive)

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

The weird thing about Doctor Sleep is that it doesn’t feel like a sequel to The Shining, but rather a rebuttal of it.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a follow-up whose themes have been exactly so opposite of its parent book; it’s almost as if Stephen King regrets having written The Shining, and wanted to write something to reflect his new-found philosophies.
Which is not to say that Doctor Sleep is a bad book.  It’s an okay Stephen King book (and how weird is it that there are so many of them that we can rank them to each other?) – maybe a C or C+ in the King repertoire.  But there’s absolutely no reason why this book had to star Danny Torrance and not some other generic alcoholic with a shady past – the Overlook barely features in Doctor Sleep at all.  What really drives Danny Torrence is not seeing his father turned into a monster and devoured by the Overlook Hotel, but rather the seventy bucks he stole from a mother when he was deep in an alcoholic bender.
Realistic?  Maybe.  Danny was five when all of the Bad Things happened.  Maybe what would haunt him would be what he did when he was twenty.  But aside from a (very) brief trip back to the Overlook and a little action that feels uncomfortably too close to Ghostbusters territory, this lead character could have been just about any alcoholic with a psychic twinge.  (And it’s not like both “alcoholics” and “people with psychic twinges” haven’t featured prominently in the King mythos.)
But even more than that, I read the first hundred and fifty pages of The Shining to Gini on the way back from Connecticut, and it’s striking just how dissimilar the stories are.  In The Shining, Danny Torrence’s “gift” is erratic, not a thing that works consistently or well, full of vague dead-ends and ugliness that he can’t control.  In Doctor Sleep, the shine is treated literally like a superpower, where two people with the Shining communicate cross-country with it like they’re having a conversation.
In The Shining, the family is on the verge of breaking, like a barely-healed fracture to a three-year-old’s arm, but recovering; their history is always close at-hand, always throbbing like a cancer, always waiting to resurface.  In Doctor Sleep, Danny has some bad times – very bad times – but fixes them quickly, and that history becomes nearly background material once the new threat emerges.
In The Shining, everything is very claustrophobic; they’re swallowed by in the Overlook and its harsh winter, and cannot get out.  In Doctor Sleep, wild travelling is just a part of the deal, and it’s mentioned explicitly that maybe they could escape by running but dangit, they have to end this.
And in The Shining, the threat brings up inner demons that destroy the family, and secrets devour them wholesale.  In Doctor Sleep, the threat brings them together as a family, and the secrets revealed are ones that really needed to be brought out into the light.
There’s a few similarities – both The Shining and Doctor Sleep revolve around issues that literally would resolve themselves if the protagonists weren’t fuelling it with their shining – but mostly, they’re at odds.  And to restate, it’s not that Doctor Sleep is terrible – like pizza and sex, substandard King is usually decent – but it’s that I had difficulty relating the one book to the other.  Because it really did feel to me that Unca Steven looked back at The Shining and regretted his alcoholic days, then set out (unconsciously, as is his way) to write a book where he told the story of how it would be if he’d handled alcoholism the right way and listened to people and got into the Twelve-Step program, and still try to make it scary.
And make it scary he does, at times.  The True Knot are pretty terrifying villains, even if they turn out to be a bit Warren Ellis-esque in the end.  Yet still, why did this have to be a sequel to The Shining, one of his greatest books?  Why did this have to be Danny Torrance?  Why is the last three-quarters of the book – the one with the crazy psychic fireworks – not nearly as compelling as watching mundane old alcoholic Danny struggle towards the light?
For the third time: it’s not bad.  But as a sequel, it’s bad.  And I don’t think this’ll be one of the stanchions of the King canon.

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