Sunday 18 March 2018

Review: Stephen King: 'Doctor Sleep'

Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

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Stephen King is the world's No 1 horror writer and one of his most iconic books remains The Shining, not least because of the movie with Jack Nicholson doing his "Here's Johnny" axe through the door bit as the demented writer marooned with his family in the remote hotel closed up for the winter.

So the interest in this sequel is naturally going to be enormous. In it, the little boy Danny with the gift of "shining" (being able to see and hear awful events from the past) is now middle aged. But he still has his psychic powers. And the horrors are not far away.

For much of his career, Stephen King was dismissed as the MSG of popular fiction – a cheap filler stifling young writers by hogging all the space on the book stands. He was to publishing what the Big Mac is to fine dining and was worthy of even less respect.

That stunningly ignorant appraisal of his work found its nadir 10 years ago this month, when Harold Bloom raged against King receiving the 'Distinguished Contribution' from the National Book Association, which finished with him sniping that: "My friend Philip Roth, who will now share this 'distinguished contribution' award with Stephen King, is a great comedian and would no doubt find something funny to say about it."

Which said an awful lot more about the literary critic's fragile ego than anything the author could have retorted.

King has, over the course of more than 40 years, managed to frame lives that look a lot like our own but where, as a short-lived character in It says of their hometown: "It's always 13 o'clock."

He has been knocking on that particular witching hour all his career, with an ability to find the horrifying in the mundane that can turn a child's chalk marks on the ground into the secret signals left by low men who hide in plain sight.

But even those who like to boast that they are far too mature to engage in anything as frivolous as being scared will be aware of movies like Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and, of course, the under-appreciated Apt Pupil. Surely then they cannot deny that this is a man who is primarily interested in that oldest of clichés, the human condition.

It was this obsession with the human condition that led King to so intensely dislike Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of The Shining. Because while King's Shining was about the descent into madness of a drunken, angry, failed writer and husband who is pulled apart by malevolent forces in the isolated hotel – the author makes no secret of the autobiographical nature of the book – Kubrick's big screen version saw the flawed Jack Torrance inhabited by a carpet chewing Jack Nicholson who played him with all the depth of condensation on a mirror.

Maybe that sense of having one of his most treasured and painful books taken away and reimagined so differently always rankled. Even Frank Darabont's The Mist received a resounding endorsement from King, despite the hugely controv-ersial and completely different ending. (Watch the movie, read the book, enjoy them differently.)

So why, some 36 years on, is he going back there? King, rather lamely, explains his decision to write this sequel to The Shining by saying that he was endlessly being asked questions by his loyal Constant Readers about what happened to the kid on the trike after The Overlook hotel burned down.

Constant Readers won't be surprised to learn that all these years later, young Danny is now a grown-up drifter with a drink problem – running from his own ghosts much like his father before him.

Upon finding a job and making some friends in a small town, he puts down roots and returns to his natural calling – working in a hospice where his ability to ease the pain of the dying earns him the nickname of the title.

The shining is still there (the psychic abilities that allowed him to see the horrors from the past in the original book) and things begin to unravel when a young girl, Abra, starts to communicate with him telepathically.

This would normally be enough to have King's critics rolling their eyes, but by that stage we have already discovered more about Danny's squalid, fractious earlier life and Abra's precocious gifts.

Most compellingly, we learn of 'The True Knot', a group of ancient creatures who survive on the 'steam' produced by the pain and fear felt by psychic children as they are tortured to death.

The True Knot, who travel across America in the guise of old people on vacation in camper vans, have set their sights on young Abra.

What follows is familiar to anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of King's work. For those who devour his books with all the voracious hunger of The True Knot sucking up steam, seeing how young Danny grew up will undoubtedly be of interest. But as the man himself might say, it's no great whoop.

The origins of The True Knot could have been fleshed out a bit more, and their possible origins in the Thinnies of The Dark Tower are echoed when Danny repeats the Tower phrase: "There are more worlds than this."

Instead, the members of the Knot are barely fleshed out – in more ways than one – and there's never any great indication as to just how powerful an enemy they are.

But aside from wanting to know more about the provenance of the bad guys, Doctor Sleep is a pleasing conclusion to a story that began all those years ago and one which, I'd guess, King felt the need to tell much more than we needed to read.


Doctor Sleep

Stephen King Hodder



Irish Independent

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