First things first: I refused for years to read any Stephen King. In my defense this was mostly during the 80s and 90s, and my argument ran thus: “Stephen King is consistently on the bestsellers list. You know who else is on the bestsellers list? DANIELLE STEEL. People are not to be trusted, and I am an angsty teenager who refuses to follow the herd. Therefore, I shall not be reading any King, or indeed any other bestsellers. Nyah, nyah.” But then a friend of mine in college handed me a collection of King’s Bachman works, and I read The Long Walk, and it was over. I was a junkie. I’m still not sure whether I love or hate my friend for that.
Fast forward a bit, and join me (if you will) during the Dark Tower years. If you’re a King fan you’ll know what I mean–the years when he was finishing up the Dark Tower sequence, when we were all waiting with baited breath for the next installment, and then the final book came out and we all ran right out and bought it and read it…and if you’re anything like me, that’s about the time when you started idly wondering what the penalty for justifiable homicide was. That’s when it fell apart, in my opinion–for a long time Stephen King had been known for his amazing character development, tight world-building, and plotlines that made it very nearly physically impossible to stop turning pages (I don’t even want to talk about how many times I’ve fallen asleep with a King novel in my hand because I just…couldn’t…stop…reading); but then it’s like, I dunno, all the magic ran out. He and his editor had a huge fight, maybe, or he was waffling on re-upping his contract with the devil. I have no idea what happened, but it just kinda all dried up.
So for a while we slogged along, picking up the occasional new King novel with the same despairing hope that makes the cocaine-addicted rat keep pushing the button long after the researchers cut off his supply, and we got subjected to book after book that made us curse and weep and wonder why, just this one time, he couldn’t pull something together that didn’t rely on the last-minute discovery of a previously unmentioned magical talisman that would Deus Ex Machina the whole damned story, or why he couldn’t, just this one time, create a character that didn’t feel like a Dollar Tree version of a character we’d seen 300 times already.
And then word trickled down that he was about to publish a sequel to The Shining. And I blinked.
And blinked some more.
Because look, man, when you have been on the ropes for a while and your audience is starting to lose their last shreds of faith that you’ve still got the writing chops that made them love you in the first place, latching onto a piece of your canon like so much literary driftwood is risky, risky stuff.
But y’know what? It worked.
Praise god and glory hallelujah, it worked.
Doctor Sleep is not The Shining Part II; it’s a standalone that just happens to bring back some characters who were in The Shining. If you haven’t read the original, you’ll have a little catching-up to do with vocab and you’ll miss some references, but you’ll be ok. But if you have read the original, you can slide right into this one like your favorite pair of jeans. And all those fears that The Champ Was Down Forever will drift away–the fully developed characters, the rock-solid pacing, the drumhead-tight worldbuilding, it’s all there. It’s like Modern King found a magical spellbook that allowed him to summon the spirit of Classic King from the ether to write this book for him, and I literally sighed with satisfaction when the novel drew to its close.
Now, let me be clear here, lest I lead some of you astray by mistake: this book is probably not going to keep you up at night, full of dread about what might be lurking in your closet. You’re not going to find yourself developing any new phobias about storm drains or anything like that. You’re still safe to go to the humane society and look at the dogs (as safe as you ever were! Bwahahahaha). So maybe it’s missing that element of Classic King.
But y’know what? Who cares? This is a fine, fine novel, and I for one am perfectly happy to go back to my rampant, unfettered button-pushing in the hopes that the next book, whatever it may be, will have the same magic. Because praise the lord and sound the trumpets, the King is back. Long live the King.
TL;DR: The recent phoning-it-in King has been replaced by a resurgence of Classic King’s brilliant characterization and compelling plot. Please, Santa Claus, please say we get to keep this Christmas puppy forever.
Rating: 9/10 Muddy Hoofprints, though that might be slightly skewed toward the high side by my unbridled glee.