A Tale of Two Stephen King Novels: Our modern day Dickens at his best
I recall my first experience with the universe of Stephen King. I was a small child, who vividly remembers the brightly colored paperback covers that my parents borrowed from the local library. King was also a popular presence on the video store shelves back then, with each latest film adaptation being a surefire rental in my household. I was 12 when I read my first King novel, Needful Things. The lure was the author photo on the back: here was a nerdish looking gentleman who wore glasses, just like me. Silly, I know but the strangest things often serve as spurs in a young boy’s mind. After reading that book, I promptly started mowing my way through whatever King novels the library had and what my godfather loaned me. I was a King fan for life.
For years, I often wondered whatever happened to Danny Torrance, the young 5-year old antagonist terrorized by a cabal of malevolent ghosts in Stephen King’s classic 1977 novel, The Shining. King must have been wondering the same thing, for in 2013, he delivered the answer in his latest novel, Doctor Sleep. The result is one of King’s best novels; a briskly paced and often terrifying tale of humanity, horror and family ties.
Doctor Sleep begins approximately three years after the horrifying events of The Shining. The malevolent ghosts that terrorized young Danny in the Overlook Hotel have followed him and his mother to their new home. Luckily, former Overlook chef Dick Hallorann visits and teaches now 8-year-old Danny how to make mental lockboxes within his mind that can trap the ghosts permanently. Fast forward another 20 years, Dan Torrance has followed in the drunken footsteps of his father Jack. Dan hits rock bottom and, with the support of a kind-hearted employer, finally sobers up. He settles into a new job: night watchman at a rest home. He also has an unofficial job, which is where the title of the novel comes into play.
Like Charles Dickens often did in his best novels, King has some other intriguing storylines playing out simultaneously. One involves a young girl named Abra Stone, who has an extremely potent form of the same shining Dan Torrance possesses. We also find out more about those evil ghosts, who are part of a group of creepy half-beings known as the True Knot. I can already foresee some questions: What plans do the degenerates that make up the True Knot have for Abra? How does Dan connect to all of this? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out the neat twists and turns King pulls this material to.
In an afterword to Doctor Sleep, King warns all potential readers that his 1977 novel is the true history of the Torrance family, rather than the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film. It really should have preceded the main novel since those who have seen the Kubrick film and have never read The Shining will be surprised. For instance, Hallorann was killed in the 1980 movie but survived in the book. There are other small subtleties in King’s novel that Kubrick’s film omitted. You really should read The Shining before even attempting to start Doctor Sleep. It will be a much richer experience.
Usually sequels seldom equal the first installment, but Doctor Sleep is a worthy conclusion to a great original. As is his wont, King uses the first 200 pages as setup, giving us plenty of backstory and information. At first, this lengthy setup seems superfluous, but as is the case with King, it pays off later as you delve deeper into the novel. There are many times when I first started reading King’s work that I often had to flip back and re-read sections just to reabsorb some of the smaller details that didn’t seem important at the time. With King, every detail is important and pays off later in the book. King’s writing often hooks the reader and make them lose all track of time. Even in these slower pages, King’s writing leaps out from the page and hooks the reader. With Doctor Sleep, I once sat intending to read for only a few minutes. When I looked at the clock, two hours had passed by. If that isn’t an indicator of how good a writer King is, I don’t know what is.
The nice thing about Doctor Sleep is how King finds the humanity in all characters, even those who are evil. Much like Dickens. The True Knot is a pack of half-human murderers who feed off the energy of psychic children, dubbed “steam”. Yet they are not without some small traces of humanity, albeit very twisted. Dan Torrance starts out as a tragic figure that gains redemption after hitting rock bottom. Abra Stone is an engaging young antagonist, wiser than Danny was when the ghosts terrorized him, but still a child in danger. The rapport between Abra and Dan forms the heart of the second half of the novel and leads to a final revelation that makes for a moving finale.
Doctor Sleep wasn’t King’s only 2013 novel to deal with the telepathic phenomenon known as shining. It also slyly appears in his other 2013 offering Joyland, a hard-boiled thriller released straight to paperback last June via the Hard Case Crime label. I had missed Joyland when it was released in June. I found it at the local library quite by accident. While perusing the science section, lo and behold, there was Joyland, misplaced.
I read it immediately after finishing Doctor Sleep. I found that doing so gave Joyland an even deeper resonance than it might not have had otherwise. This isn’t the first time King has released several novels in a single year that somehow connect together. In 1996, King released The Regulators and Desperation, which featured the same set of characters in different situations. That same year was his classic serial novel The Green Mile. King is also known for cross-referencing characters and plot elements from other novels – take The Dark Tower series as the primary example.
Joyland is set in 1973 at a small-scale amusement park somewhere in North Carolina. An unsolved murder spree climaxed at Joyland years earlier and rumor has it the ghost of the latest victim haunts the Haunted House. Young college student and recent Joyland hire, Devin Jones, finds himself embroiled in the mystery. When Devin encounters a young boy who claims he can see ghosts, you just know this isn’t going to end happily…
Joyland is quite different than Doctor Sleep. At 288 pages, it’s a slim tome compared to the 531 pages of Doctor Sleep. Instead of lengthy set-up, King tries something different and gradually reveals the backstory details just as the protagonist figures everything out. The writing is more hard-boiled and brusque. The tone of the story is less optimistic. King intended Joyland to be a quick read, so he delivers a lightning pace from start to finish.
The fantastical elements come into play in the second half of the book, when Devin befriends a dying child named Mike. King slyly alludes to the idea that this child has the shining, as Mike can see the ghost of the woman who was murdered at the park. He can also read minds and feelings, much like Abra Stone in Doctor Sleep. King reveals these elements with subtlety, not even calling the kid’s abilities by the term shining, mentioning the term shine once. I do recall from various interviews, The Shining was originally titled The Shine. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the shining connection. But it’s there and I think it’s valid.
Despite what the literary snobs claim, Stephen King is one of our best novelists. He is the modern day Charles Dickens. Do yourself a favor and do like I did. Pick up Doctor Sleep and Joyland and read both back-to-back in that order. You won’t regret it. See if you agree with me or not about how these novels connect together.