Saturday, 19 October 2013

Stephen King's "Dr. Sleep", much ado about nothing

I'm happy to be one of the millions of Stephen King fans, one of his Constant Readers. I had looked forward to reading Dr. Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, but I found the novel disappointing. Don't get me wrong, I totally enjoyed reading it, it was just not one of my favorites. Even worse. I mean The Dead Zone wasn't one of my favorites either, but it was an awesome book. The same with 11/22/63. But Dr. Sleep is nowhere near The Dead Zone or 11/22/63

Dr. Sleep reads like a collage of previous Stephen King novels. It reminded me how much I loved the Stand, and Dreamcatcher, and Insomnia. But when you peel off the stuff King borrows from his earlier works, there's not much left for Dr. Sleep to be, except a small puff of steam dissipating in darkness.

Let's just say that Dr. Sleep is much better than a Dean Koontz novel, and not as boring as Bag of Bones.

But it's not a good Stephen King novel. 

Dr. Sleep is about Dan Torrance. The kid from The Shining is now a grown man fighting alcoholism and a bad temper. While he tries to stay sober, he decides to redeem his sins by using his shining in a positive way. That is, working in a hospice, he helps sick people die peacefully. After being coached by Dan, a.k.a. Dr. Sleep, old people manage to give their last breath "the gasp" and there is a red steam rising out of their mouths, nose and eyes. The mist hovers around their body and then fades mysteriously. 

Now, Dan gets in touch with another prodigy who has the shining, Abra Stone. Her paranormal powers are even greater than Dan's. But that's what makes her a perfect prey for a group of psychic vampires called the True Knot. These vampires don't look like Dracula, no fangs or capes, but they appear as boring RV people traveling around. Their leader, Rose the Hat, deposits their victims' steam or psychic gas in canisters she keeps hidden in her Earth Cruiser. She feeds her crew from time to time, when they get hungry and there's a shortage of "steamheads". Now, their supply is running low and they go after Abra, "the mother of all steamheads". The girl's shining, especially if extracted by severe torture, will keep them going for a few hundred years at least. 

Predictably, Dan joins forces with Abra and defeats The True Knot forever and ever. 

Two aspects of the novel stand out as original: the characterization of the True Knot, and the psychic wars between Abra and Dan on the one hand, and the circle of the True Knot, on the other. King moves away from the image of evil beings roaming the earth under the guise of a traveling carnival; an idea going back at least to Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. King keeps the idea that satanic groups are nomadic, but instead of equating them to the roaring Hell's Angels, he portrays them as the Mild Angels, the placid RV people. They get away with their crimes because they blend perfectly in the environment, nobody pays attention to them: 

"You hardly see them, right? Why would you? They’re just the RV People, elderly retirees and a few younger compatriots living their rootless lives on the turnpikes and blue highways, staying at campgrounds where they sit around in their Walmart lawnchairs and cook on their hibachis while they talk about investments and fishing tournaments and hotpot recipes and God knows what. They’re the ones who always stop at fleamarkets and yardsales, parking their damn dinosaurs nose-to-tail half on the shoulder and half on the road, so you have to slow to a crawl in order to creep by. They are the opposite of the motorcycle clubs you sometimes see on those same turnpikes and blue highways; the Mild Angels instead of the wild ones."
The only difference between this group of vampires and the normal RV people is that vampires don't have dogs. 

"They don’t like dogs, and dogs don’t like them. You might say dogs see through them. To the sharp and watchful eyes behind the cut-rate sunglasses. To the strong and long-muscled hunters’ legs beneath the polyester slacks from Walmart. To the sharp teeth beneath the dentures, waiting to come out. They don’t like dogs, but they like certain children. Oh yes, they like certain children very much."
That is, tasty children who have the shining, like Abra Stone. 

King is very inventive in his account of the parapsychological war between Abra Stone and Rose the Hat. Abra is able to jump bodies and see through other people's eyes, while others see through her eyes. This is what she and Dan call turning the wheel. Using this trick, Abra is able to fool Rose the Hat, not once, but twice, by giving her the wrong location. That is, in one instance, Abra jumps into Dan's body and gives Rose the impression she is where Dan is, that is on her way to Colorado, when in fact she's at home in New Hampshire. These mind games are reminiscent of the ones between Jonesy and Mr. Grey in Dreamcatcher.
While these aspects of the novel are original and entertaining, the story doesn't have enough emotional depth to make the reader care for the characters. I never cared for Dan Torrence as much as I did for Ralph Roberts in Insomnia, for instance. The depiction of Dan's struggle with alcoholism and with the demons of his dad and the Overlook Hotel is powerful and gripping. But then, we don't know enough about his gift of helping people die peacefully. How did Dan stumble upon this gift and how does it work exactly? Also, how can it go wrong? What if someone doesn't die peacefully? What's so terrible about that? Is the dull red mist that raises from the dead man's head, their soul? Is it going to go to Hell or Purgatory? Or keep roaming the earth aimlessly? If the novel explored this part of the story more, it would have been much better. 

Similarly, the author doesn't tell us much about the True Knot. And there must be a lot to tell, since they've been around for centuries. They are empty devils, concerned only with staying alive and finding new recruits and having lots of sex. But their characters, including their leader, Rose the Hat, are not really fleshed out. What's it like living such long lives? What keeps them going? What do they believe in? Do they feel loneliness, anxiety, fear? When they die there's no mist hovering above them. Their bodies just disappear. Does that mean they have no souls? King is silent on that point. 

All in all, one gets the impression that King wanted to fit too much in a book which ended up being about nothing. One reason why the novel doesn't work is that Dan's mysterious ability to help people die peacefully doesn't fit with his helping Abra against the True Knot. The only moment his strange power comes into play in the battle against the Knot is when he manages to trap Abra's great-great-mother cancerous steam in his mind and then release it against the members of the True Knot. But that's just a clever artifice. There's nothing substantial drawing these two essential strands of the book together. Maybe this book should have been two books? Or three books? Either way, on its own, it fails. But it can serve as a reminder of how good other Stephen King books are.

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