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When you open an Eric R. Johnston novel, you are transported to a place of dark creatures and dreadful nights. There is no hope and no escape; only despair. Enter if you dare.

Series of Darkness

Monday, November 11, 2013

Doctor Sleep: Psychic Children and the Dark Tower series

Doctor Sleep, the unexpected (until Stephen King announced plans in 2009 to write it, anyway) sequel to The Shining. It became one of the most highly anticipated books of the year, especially after it's 8 or 9 month delay. So does it meet the expectations?

Now, I could state the obvious and mention how writing a sequel to a beloved masterpiece is walking a thin line between danger and insanity, but that has been noted by too many bloggers and reviewers to count. I could say there is no way he could top what he accomplished with his story about a haunted hotel, about the struggles involving alcoholism, about being a child who is much too bright and too inquisitive for his years, and a woman who desperately wants to save her family from a ticking time bomb of a husband. The Overlook Hotel so adequately served to give the characters the isolation they needed to face their demons and, in the case of Jack Torrance, be destroyed by them. The Shining was far from a perfect novel. Most notably, for me anyway, were the pacing issues, but it got the job done, and there has been nothing but nostalgia growing over this work in the past 30-some years since its publication, combined with many fans conflating scenes from the Stanley Kubrick movie with the book, scenes that became iconic in their own right. For example, "Heeeeerrrrreeeee'ssssssss Johnny!" is the movie, not the book. Jack swinging an ax around is the movie, not the book; in the book Jack has a roque mallet. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" is the movie, not the book. The hedge maze is the movie, not the book; the book features moving topiary animals. Jack freezing to death and shown as being part of the hotel history is the movie, not the book. In the book the hotel burns to the ground, Jack along with it.

So, Stephen King wrote a sequel to a book that has grown in our collective consciousness into something that it never was, so the curious thing is how could its sequel possibly live up to expectations?

I've been a Stephen King fan almost since I could read. The first of his novels I read was Pet Sematary, followed by It, then Cujo. But it wasn't until I hit upon the Dark Tower series did I fully understand what his creative work was all about. This was in the early 1990s. The only Dark Tower proper novels (I refer to Dark Towers 1-7 as Dark Tower proper because most of King's books are part of the Dark Tower series in some fashion) out were the first three. But I could see the connections between the stories developing.

But when The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass was released in 1997, it became very clear that all of King's novels were one long work, with the Dark Tower tying them together into a single comprehensive story.

With that said, the answer concerning Doctor Sleep comes from being familiar with Stephen King's work as a whole.

The basic premise of Doctor Sleep is that a tightly knit group of vampires called the True Knot are scouring the country for children who have the psychic power Dick Hallorann called "the Shining." Instead of blood, these vampires feast on what they call "steam," which is the substance released from these special children when they die. Throughout the bulk of Doctor Sleep's story, the True Knot are perilously low on steam and, as a result, are susceptible to illness and death.

The leader of the True Knot, a horrid woman known as Rose the Hat, discovers the presence of a very powerful source of "steam," a girl named Abra Stone, who has a "shine" brighter than they have ever seen. If they can just find her and harvest her "steam," it will solve their problems for the foreseeable future.

So that's the basic concept. The Shining dealt with a similar idea. The ghosts of the Overlook Hotel wanted to harvest Danny Torrance's powers for their own benefit, but if that was the last time we saw this same plot in a Stephen King novel, I wouldn't comment further, but it isn't.

We have actually seen this exact story at least twice beforein Black House and The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla.

Black House (a Dark Tower tie-in novel and "sequel" to The Talisman) is about a demon kidnapping a boy with a gift remarkably similar to "the Shining" in order to use what must be his "steam" to feed the psychic abilities of "the breakers," psychics (with another version of "the Shining," I assume) enslaved to "break" the beams holding the Dark Tower in place. Wolves of the Calla tells the story of the same creatures from Black House stealing kids with psychic powers from a town called Calla Bryn Sturgis for the same reasons.

While Stephen King has confirmed many of his books are part of the Dark Tower series ('Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Talisman, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, The Regulators, Bag of Bones, Black House, From a Buick 8, Hearts in Atlantis (specifically the novella "Low Men in Yellow Coats," among several others), he never, to my knowledge, included The Shining in that list, although I always suspected it had to fit in there somehow, and Doctor Sleep is a way for King to do that, but based on my reading of it, Doctor Sleep never directly touches on the Dark Tower, although all the elements are there in an unrealized fashion, which is, in my opinion, either a failure of the imagination or a catering to those who are only familiar with The Shining and no other King works.

So how does Doctor Sleep work as a sequel? It works fine enough, but as I've been dancing around in this post, such a question misses the mark. The real question readers should be asking is how does it function in the scope of the rest of his work. Unfortunately, for me, it comes too close to the edge of Dark Tower territory without actually crossing over, leaving a huge narrative hole that could have elevated this story from simply an entertaining rehash to an important read.

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