Welcome to the Cephalopod Coffee House for December. The point of this meet up is to write about the best book you've read in the past month.
This month I'm going to cover both Doctor Sleep and The Shining, by Stephen King. Full disclosure: I actually finished Doctor Sleep at the end of November, but while I was reading The Shining I thought, This is a perfect example of how a writer grows and changes over time. Let me try to be ambitious and cover both. I'm still very new to trying to write quality book reviews, so please bear with me.
You may also be wondering why I read Doctor Sleep before The Shining. That's my library's fault. I wanted to read The Shining first, but there was only one copy in the system (it's not a big library system) and I had to go on a waiting list for both books. Surprisingly, Doctor Sleep came in first. Ok, with that bit of background sorted out, let's begin.
The Shining is a story ingrained into the American consciousness, on the level with Star Wars and Jesus. Even if you have never read the book, or seen the movie, you know Darth Vader is Luke's father, and Jesus comes back. In the case of The Shining (King's third published novel) you know it's about a family trapped in a haunted hotel. The kid's creepy, the dad's an alcoholic writer, and the mom is Shelley Duvall.* The dad goes crazy, tries to kill the wife and son. You've got the gist of the story.
Doctor Sleep is King's - I don't know, 50th? novel - published 36 years after The Shining. It's a "sequel" in that it features Danny Torrance, all grown up, and at some point he returns to the original location of the Overlook Hotel. Dan Torrance grows up to be an alcoholic, just like good old dad, and the book starts with him hitting rock bottom. Once he has gone as low as he can go, he sobers up, gets a job at a hospice, and earns the nickname Doctor Sleep, because of the rumored way he helps the terminally ill residents move on. He connects with a young girl named Abra Stone, who also has the shining, but she's much more powerful than he ever was. Abra's being hunted by a group of supernatural beings called The True Knot, who live off of the psychic essence of people with the shining. Dan and Abra join forces to fight The True Knot, and in the process, Dan learns to reconcile the years of pain, hate, and fear he felt for his father and the Overlook.
Reading Doctor Sleep first, then The Shining, I was struck by the difference in writing styles. The Shining is a true, good old fashioned horror story. The creeping evil of the Overlook Hotel, and Jack Torrance's slow descent in to madness is woven into every paragraph of the book. There isn't one instant while you're reading when you don't think, "This is not going to end well". King is also much more succinct in his earlier books; the copy I read was 447 pages, while the sequel was 531 (which for any of you familiar with Stephen King's work is still pretty short). From the supposedly dead wasps, to the thing in room 217, to Jack Torrance hunting down his family, I was completely enthralled by the horror. Doctor Sleep, meanwhile, while a good book, wasn't very scary. It was interesting, and a page turner, and I read it in three days, but I was never afraid that things wouldn't turn out ok for Dan and Abra in the end. The horror just wasn't there. I had bad dreams after reading The Shining. My subconscious apparently completely dismissed Doctor Sleep.
I wondered if the difference was because I "knew" that The Shining is supposed to be scary, whereas I didn't have any preconceived notions going into Doctor Sleep. I spent a while thinking about it, and I came to the conclusion that The Shining is just better at hitting all the right freaky buttons. The only time I was even vaguely creeped out during Doctor Sleep was when a young Dan Torrance (post Shining) finds the thing from room 217 oozing around his own bathroom. I am not saying that the later book isn't any good, but it is a completely different novel from its predecessor.
In his afterward for Doctor Sleep - his note to the Constant Reader, which I always look forward to (no skipping ahead) - King notes that The Shining and Doctor Sleep are two very different books. In addition to the 35+ years between publishing dates, and the obvious changes a person goes through in that time, The Shining was written by a "well meaning alcoholic", while its sequel was written by someone who's been sober for a long time. With that in mind, you get the feeling (as it is with so many of his earlier novels) that The Shining is a tiny peek into the author's mind, his own very self-aware observations of how addiction can destroy a man and his family, while with Doctor Sleep you have none of that pathos. I suppose that's why I didn't find it so scary.
In summation - if you've made it this far - I would say that The Shining is the superior of the two novels. BUT Doctor Sleep is no slouch either, and is a great read for any fan or even non-fan. It would just go over better if you don't have the first book in mind.
All right, I'm done. Stop on by to visit some of the others in the coffee house to see what they've been reading:
*I am in complete agreement with Stephen King regarding the difference between his character Wendy Torrance and her portrayal in the Kubrick movie. Hell, his whole criticism in the linked video rings true to me.