Doctor Sleep takes the ambitious but risky role of succeeding Stephen King’s arguably most famous novel The Shining. For many, The Shining established what makes King’s books so appealing: characters who struggle with their darker sides, menacing environments that make even the mundane threatening, and a growing tension to amplify the terror. Indeed, the setup for Doctor Sleep provides such framework as Danny has dealt with a more dysfunctional life even after leaving the Overlook, and the villains are seemingly harmless travellers who hunt children with the shining. The formula captures the same spirit, but the difficulty is in meeting expectations of reader so familiar with it.
The first overall problem is that many ideas and plot points introduced, but few are developed or even relevant to the main plot. For instance, Danny’s role in the hospice as ‘Doctor Sleep’ provides the title; he visits certain dying people in the hospice, aided by a cat that senses them, but we don’t find out why the cat has this ability, and it has almost no relation to the main plot. Additionally, the shining itself, a key part of Danny and Abra’s character, is questionably handled. Its powers extend beyond mind reading and prophetic visions to full-on mental battles, mind control, astral projection and anything that’s conveniently necessary for the story. Its limits are vague, especially with the shining prodigy that is Abra, whose power makes the villains’ seem pathetic in comparison, killing any tension by the end.
The pacing, crucial to the novel, is also too slow to build the tension required to amplify the terror, which is mostly due to the initial heavy focus on Danny’s back-story. The True Knot are quickly introduced, but they are sadly overshadowed by the need to go into meticulous detail of Danny’s descent into drinking, fighting and memories of Overlook, which aren’t nearly as interesting. Much of this detail is unnecessary and diminishes the foreboding terror of the True Knot’s introduction. Abra is also subject to this, as King feels the need to show at least three occasions of her using her powers to reassure us of her abilities. This extensive exposition undermines the build-up, making what should be a chilling, gripping story initially a chore to read. Indeed, the proportion of pages dedicated to unnecessary exposition leaves little space for other, more interesting aspects to be developed.
So if the sense of dread is lacking in Doctor Sleep, does it at least handle Danny’s character well? Much is made of him following in his father’s footsteps of alcoholism and recklessness, but it initially feels like just a convenient excuse to use the same character arc again. While there are enough differences to make it excusable later in the story as Danny eventually overcomes his problems and sorts his life out in the way his father couldn’t, it’s still disappointing that the characters are so similar. The other characters are sadly underdeveloped. Abra is characterised merely as an intelligent but childish figure, and is bizarrely unchanged by the events in the book. While there are likeable characters, such as Billy Freeman who helps Danny get back on his feet when he’s unemployed, most suffer from having little depth or development throughout the book, villains included, illustrating how the heavy focus on Danny hurts the overall quality of other characters in the story.
Doctor Sleep starts off with good ideas, and there are strengths present in the book; the True Knot are initially very creepy and Danny as an adult does have strong development. Unfortunately, a lot of its ideas are not fully developed, leaving an experience which pales in comparison to its predecessor and eclipses its own merits.