Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Photo: The book's cover, from goodreads.com


That's really all I was going to write.  After months of anticipation, after all that time reading its 528 pages (well, okay, that took me just a few days), even after being the tome that drove me to the bookstore to write the most recent blog entry--yeah, "eh" was all I was going to write.

But then I got disappointed.  Really, really disappointed.  I mean, this is how Danny Torrance ended up?  Not bad, but...eh?  That's it?  After everything he went through in The Shining, this is the denouement of his life?  (Or, probably, the Act IV before the Act V resolution.)

Okay.  Speaking of The Shining, this book is obviously its sequel, and the comparisons, while impossible not to make, are unfair.  As King himself wrote in his afterword, "...people change.  The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining..."  True enough.  And on the same page, he makes the point that the first real scare will always be the best (He compared Hitchcock's Psycho to Mick Garris's good, but not as good, Psycho IV).  This is also true enough.

But the disconcerting thing is that I wasn't expecting the genius of The Shining.  I believe, as King said above, that that man is gone, never to return.  I don't expect the genius, the scariness, of The Shining, of IT, of a few others, ever again.  And that's not necessarily a bad thing.  The creepiness and the wistful and sad nostalgia of the last third of Insomnia (which I thought was a different kind of greatness) could not have been written by Shining's King, for example.  Other good parts of other better books could not have been written by 70s King, including Bag of Bones (which is very underrated) and any of the four novellas of Different Seasons.  So different and new is not always bad.

What is bad here is that this book does not scare.  At all.  In fact, only three small sections were even creepy--and I'm not sure if it's because of how he wrote them, or because of the imagination I brought to them, of how I interpreted them and imagined them.  I'm pretty sure that the images I gave myself after I read those three small parts creeped me out more than the parts themselves did.  So the book does not scare at all.  It only barely creeps you out.  And it's got a little of that sad nostalgic thing he's been doing for a long time now, but even that was miniscule.

Unfortunately, what it does do is judge.  There's a lot of author intrusion there, mostly upon the RV People.  (What else is there to call them?)  They're called lots of bad names, and often not just by the characters.  King often seems to jump in the fray and cuss at them, too.  Of course, they're killers (and, most notably, child killers), so you don't feel bad for them, per se.  But the way he draws them, what else could they be?  They're not really people, but they once were, perhaps, and there's the rub, maybe.  But maybe not.  Essentially, they were all once victims of somebody else, like a vampire who kills by sucking blood exactly, and only, because they were victims of a vampire themselves.  At that point, they're no longer fully responsible for what they have to do to survive.  Maybe such creatures kill themselves in Anne Rice's world (or in Stephanie Meyers' world), but that's not "realistic."  Something needs to be done about them, of course, but with such anger and hatred?  Very unlike King.  It's very distasteful.  Especially when you consider that King portrays them all as so human otherwise.  Some RVers are funny; some are smart.  Some are annoying.  A few are physical goddesses.  There's an old man who smells, and a computer geek who loves the newest technology, and a numbers guy who you'd love to be your own accountant.

And there's Andi, the victim that the book practically starts off with.  She's been raped and molested by her father for years, and then she finally kills him, and to survive, she steals money by (sort of) seducing men--who we're blatantly told she doesn't like--and while she doesn't kill them, she leaves a visible calling card on their faces that they won't soon (if ever) forget.  The problem here is that the reader sort of likes that about her, and when she becomes a victim of the RVers, we don't like it, and we wish better for her.  And then the book virtually ignores her as it focuses on the sex goddess in charge (see the cover), and we don't see Andi again until about 80% to 85% of the way through the book.  When we do, it's all over so fast that we wonder why we got to know her to begin with.  And if you're like me, you won't like how that happens, either, or the meanness behind it.

The three creepy scenes, for me, happened in the first quarter or so of the book, and the rest is just...this happens, and then this happens, and then this, and then...without fanfare, creepiness, chills or thrills.  Really, after the scene with the woman and her child after the first 25%, it's all plot, little character (except for the RVers, which is part of the book's problem right there), and---eh.  I hate to say it, but if you were to put the book down halfway through, you really wouldn't miss much.  Seriously.  Send me an email and ask me how it ends, if you'd like, but, I'm tellin' ya...

--A little aside: Maybe I can start a part-time business like that.  I read the books, and if people don't want to finish them, they email me for how it ends, because you always want to know that, right?  For this I charge a minimal fee.  You get your ending, I get my money, and I feel that I haven't totally wasted my time reading the book, since I'm also making money from it.  Maybe I could do that for movies, too.--

Anyway, I digress.  I just didn't like it.  I hate to say it like that, but there it is.  There are maybe three or four very good scenes--and, again, I don't know if that's more reader imagination than author's writing--and all the rest is just eh.  Not bad, exactly, but not really good, either.  Sort of like the difference between an A student, who tries very hard, and a C-, D student who wants to pass, but doesn't really give a damn.  The kinds who pass, but who don't learn anything.  The ones who sit there all day long, emanating eh.

You'll see Dick Halloran, and Wendy and Jack Torrance (the last at the very end, and huh?), but you'll see them for such a short time, and with such varying degrees of solidity that you wonder why they're there at all.

And here's where I have an answer I don't like.  I think King wrote this for three reasons--and in hopefully this order:

1.  He was actually seriously wondering what Danny Torrance was doing these days.  (Who hasn't been after they read The Shining?)

2.  He wanted to write about his alcohol and drug recovery.  (AA stuff takes up a vast majority of stuff space in the book.)

3.  He wanted to distance his characters from the Stanley Kubrick movie of the same name.

The first reason is solid.  The second reason is okay, too, but maybe not for the boy from The Shining.  Yes, his father was an alcoholic, and we learn that his grandparents, etc. were, too (though only the men, apparently).  But his mother wasn't, and neither was anyone on her side of the family.  And that story was more Jack Torrance's than his son's, anyway.  But if I'm Stephen King, and I'm curious about what Danny was doing, and I wanted to write about my own addiction and recovery, and that life, then why not put them together?  I didn't like the result, but maybe it was doable.  Okay.

But the last reason is maybe not as okay.  King notoriously dislikes Kubrick's movie, and I don't blame him.  I like the movie, but I don't love it.  I read the book first, and it's so unlike the book that I can only like the movie if I completely forget about the book.  Sometimes I can do that; others, I can't.  In short, the reason King and I both dislike the movie is that King's book is about a good, but very flawed, man, who has his weaknesses used against him by the evils of the Overlook Hotel, but who redeems himself by sacrificing himself at the end to save his son.  The movie is about an A-hole who becomes more and more of an insane A-hole before the movie ends.  Add into that the fact that Wendy Torrance in the book is a very blonde, beautiful, tough chick, and that Shelley Duvall in the movie was a sniveling whiner (and viewers need to give her a break, as that characterization was all Kubrick's, and he was literally driving her crazy) who nobody could stand (and the same might be said of the movie Danny as well), and there you have it.  King and I agree that the movie was visually stunning (as every Kubrick movie is), and perhaps worth seeing for that reason alone, but it's not the book, and the very spirit of the book is lost with it.  The book was a five-act Shakespearean tragedy (King himself describes it that way) and the film is a stunning movie with characters who didn't at all come from the book, which changes the texture of the whole thing.  And, considering all this, it must have been especially annoying for King when you realize that a great percentage of the movie's dialogue comes directly from the book.  I'm talkin' verbatim.

Having said all that (and sorry if I insinuated above that King and I have actually had conversations about this), Doctor Sleep ultimately fails because it also lacks consistent characterization.  Dan Torrance does not develop after about a third of the way through.  Once he settles in NH, it's all happenstance.  The characters who actually take over the character arc are the RVers, and this is yet another example lately (Under the Dome was the most recent, and don't even get me started on the bad book and the even worse tv show) of Stephen King focusing more on his antagonists than on his protagonists, as if even he is bored with what his main characters have become.  Notice that through the whole second half, the RVers are the only characters who change.

And are they really solid antagonists?  You'll have to be the judge, but I vote Nay.  They went not with a bang, but with a whimper.  And with relative ease.

So...that's it.

Huge disappointment.


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