Doctor Sleep review

ImageWe all know that bad things happen to children, not just in Stephen King books, and childhood trauma can have life-long psychological effects on the adults they become.  Danny Torrance was six during the events of The Shining, so it’s hardly surprising that he is as emotionally damaged as anyone who has survived violence or child abuse.  By the time this sequel really gets going he’s in his thirties, alcoholic, prone to violent fits of temper and tortured by guilt over the things he’s done in his life.

In this novel, three stories happen in parallel: Danny is coping with assorted supernatural unpleasantness and battling his own shortcomings; we follow a little girl with a very powerful shine, and there is a group of people who prolong their lives, vampire-like, by ingesting the steam that comes from shining children as they’re murdered.  Needless to say, the stories converge and mayhem ensues.  As is often the case with King, we can see most of main plot events coming 100 pages in advance, but I’m still not going to tell you much more here.  You should read it yourself.

Although the ghost of The Shining dominates the book, I was more reminded of other early King works.  A lot of the second half is about a disparate group who are thrown together to battle the evil, in a similar way as Salem’s Lot; and the super-powered little girl is reminiscent of the protagonist in Firestarter.  It might also seem that he’s revisited the writing style of that era too, though I think it would be truer to say that King’s prose hasn’t really changed much in the last forty years.

Stephen King is an easy target for literary snobs.  He over-writes, tells us things twice and foreshadows more than is good for him.  He likes to make sure we get everything and his subtext isn’t usually very deeply buried.  Critics tend to compare him to great prose stylists like Peter Straub or Ramsey Campbell, and say that King is clumsy and overpointed by comparison, but really they’re all missing the point.

Stephen King is a storyteller, one of the best.  I read this novel quickly and enjoyed every moment.  It’s evocative, character-based, and highly readable, partly because of the repetition and overwriting.

For comparison, read this and then pick up one of Ramsey Campbell’s classics – maybe The Hungry Moon – I’m sure you all have that.  Campbell’s dense prose requires your full attention.  If you let your mind wander or your eye glide over a paragraph you’ve probably missed something important because there are no surplus words.  Any literary scholar will tell you that Campbell is the superior craftsman, but I don’t think it’s the case that King is less skilful than his more respectable peers – he’s doing a different job, and he’s damn good at it.

I’ve come up with half a dozen analogies to help me understand this myself, and my favourite so far is the food one.  Reading Campbell is like going to a Michelin starred restaurant and ordering the plat du jour.  You know it’s going to be brilliant, even if it’s not to your taste, and the flavours and textures will be expertly combined, though some of the touches will be subtle.  It’s as good as food gets.

But we can’t live on such rich fare every day – sometimes you want a cheeseburger, or a fish supper, or mince and tatties like your granny did it.  Perhaps Chez Campbell isn’t the best place for those treats.  That’s when we walk round the corner to King’s Diner and enjoy the meal just as much.

Don’t dis’ the King

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