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Review: Doctor Sleep, By Stephen King

All work and no play... has the master of horror lost his shine?

It has been a golden age for Stephen King’s readers. Whether he is advancing his literary ambitions with Lisey’s Story or the brilliant 11.22.63, or kicking it old school with Cell, it seems there is nothing he can’t do. Just when you thought this mature period couldn’t ripen any further, King announces the sequel to The Shining: a novel so unnervingly good that not even Stanley Kubrick could mess it up.

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The reign had to end some time, and it saddens me to say that Doctor Sleep is the usurper. My disappointment is inevitably intensified by exalted expectations. Like its brother in bathos The Phantom Menace, Doctor Sleep could probably never match the anticipation surrounding its release. But the anti-climax is made more poignant by the novel’s opening which promises so much.

Danny Torrance and his mother Wendy have survived the Overlook Hotel, and the breakdown of Danny’s father, Jack, fuelled by alcohol and thwarted literary ambitions. Danny is still besieged by phantasmagorical visions (including the old faithful, “redrum”), but learns to lock them away. This repressive process inspires Danny to follow in his father’s footsteps – not by becoming a writer, but by becoming an alcoholic. King describes the degradations of the habitual drunk with stomach-churning vividness.

Our hero is rescued by several soon-to-be interwoven plots. There is the sort of genial, blue-collar American town that King describes so well, where he finds a life-saving AA group. There is a job of noble public service: Danny works in a hospice, where his Shining helps dying patients shuffle peacefully off this mortal coil. Finally, he becomes a mentor: to Abra, a psychic young girl who is to the Shining what Luke Skywalker is to the Force.

Then, all hell breaks loose – not in the plot so much as with King’s plotting. Enter The True Knot, a band of RV-driving vampires who view Abra as a lifetime’s supply of food (or Steam). The True Knot are, one supposes, meant to turn the pages. But they are so hackneyed, fragile (they are dying of measles) and fundamentally unscary that Abra has probably faced greater threats choosing which socks to wear. The endless longeurs about their rituals, and more tediously their vehicles, stall the book.

In his “Author’s Note”, King vows to tell a “kickass story”. Yet, kicking narrative ass seems low on Doctor Sleep’s priorities. This is a novel driven by character arc rather than gripping suspense. King’s higher power in this is not his literary guide, On Writing, but Alcoholics Anonymous. This shapes Danny’s cyclical journey of redemption and the teacher-pupil (sponsor-addict) relationships that propel its characters through the story.

The central pairing of Danny and Abra proves especially unconvincing. In one section, King isn’t focused on pedagogy so much as paedophilia, fretting nervously about middle-aged Danny’s encounters with a lively adolescent. Their alliance, which begins with hints of grooming, albeit of the psychic variety, soon shifts to the apparently safer ground of secret internet liaisons and furtive meetings by the town library. I am not suggesting anything untoward about Doctor Sleep. Rather that King seems curiously uncertain about his characters.

Nowhere does his usually infallible radar malfunction more grievously than in his narrative voice. At his best, King’s confidential tone, mixing bad jokes, pop-culture references and home-spun wisdom, could convince you of anything from undead pets to a girl with a temper and telekinetic abilities. But in Doctor Sleep, this “aw-shucks” persona presides to the point of tweeness. Page 121 staggers under down-home similes: the evening is colder than a “witch’s belt buckle. Or a well-digger’s tit”; a hospice patient is as “lively as a cricket”. One sexual innuendo – “The ass of a man is the piston that drives the world” – suggests that King can’t tell his ass from a phallic symbol. Worse still is Danny’s sombre conviction that “Empty Devils” is the most “terrible phrase” he has ever heard – which seems unintentionally truer than he knows. It’s not even the most disturbing line in Doctor Sleep: “Dead fingernails scratching on wood” is surely far creepier.

The novel’s well-intentioned tale of redemption through sobriety, work and family seems to have profound personal significance for King, himself a recovering alcoholic. Perhaps it is too personal. The Shining had terrified by marrying a recognisable young family to claustrophobia and an unflinching portrayal of a loved one becoming a monster. Doctor Sleep’s soupy, supernatural atmosphere reads like horror inspired by fantasy and salvation drawn from therapy. In this, the story doesn’t escape its own contrivances. Abra herself is a pleasant but all-too-familiar mix of Carrie White and Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone. I won’t spoil the major plot twist: its unoriginality does that on its own. I have no doubt King will be back.

Until then, I’m off to read The Shining.