At its heart, Doctor Sleep is a story of breaking the cycle of addiction. It doesn’t take long for Dan Torrance to fall into the alcoholism that plagued his family, and like his father it nearly ruins him. Much of the first half of the novel is about how he finds the right place and a healthy way to get sober and stay sober. Like his father in The Shining, there is a moment that scares him, but this time it isn’t death. It’s the potential ruining of a child’s life due to a one-night stand where his hookup stole his money for cocaine and Dan was going to steal it back, but a child coming in at the last minute doesn’t stop him. This child makes him pause, only for a moment, but it is enough to haunt the man for much of the rest of the novel. Dan’s journey to sobriety, like Jack’s fall, is an autobiographical element put into writing, just as blatant as King’s other work and perhaps a bit distracting, but not enough to make it unbearable. It makes Doctor Sleep a personal book for King and that personal connection makes it incredibly readable. Dan Torrance is a character who the reader becomes endeared to as he’s already gone through hell and there’s further hell waiting for him.
Dan earns the name Doctor Sleep once he settles down and works through addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous. He uses his shining to help people in hospice move on as a janitor/orderly, with a cat who allows him to see who is at death’s door. He provides comfort to those ready to depart. This is all in preparation for his true purpose, to be a teacher, as Dick was to him, to another who shines. Doctor Sleep is also a book all about Abra Stone, who we follow from birth. Abra shines like Dan, but is much stronger and spent more time honing her powers. She communicates with Dan several times, making him and Tony her own imaginary friend. She also has a darker side, feeling several other children who can shine be killed. As much as Doctor Sleep is a novel about redemption, it is a coming of age story for Abra, though going for a more student/teacher flair then King’s usual work with that type of story. Abra isn’t the normal social outcast like many of King’s child characters, but embodies perfectly that feeling of being misunderstood by one’s parents and almost a normal amount of growing up. Sure there is a reveal later in the book which feels a bit forced and a bit too coincidental, when King meant it to be sweet, but it undercuts a message of being able to break the cycle right in the epilogue to the book.
King’s villains of Doctor Sleep are the True Knot, a group of psychic vampires who feed on children who can shine, living off their ‘steam’ to keep themselves young. They are like an evil carnival of what King calls ‘RV folk’: incredibly rich and riding across the country in campers, never really being noticed. Many of the members of the Knot are one-dimensional, getting a backstory and some good lines and scenes, but not much else. The leader, Rose the Hat, is the exception to the rule, as she is an incredible villain. She embodies the ruthless leader, going towards her goals and having no qualms about killing, but an Irish charm about her. When she offers people to join the Knot, King writes her as an excellent seductress, not in any sort of sexual way mind you, but this way that makes you trust her. They also do horrible things to children which are described in detail, yet Rose still seems sympathetic. She shouldn’t, she really shouldn’t but she does. Overall, Doctor Sleep isn’t The Shining. It isn’t on the same level of storytelling (it’s not really a horror story though there are horror elements), but it’s still a worthwhile read from King and a book I’d happily recommend. 8/10.