King Shines On?

Joshua Rothman raves about Stephen King’s new novel, Doctor Sleep, a sequel to The Shining:

In place of its predecessor’s unsettling familial violence, “Doctor Sleep” has thrilling gunfights, absurd satanic rituals, and wildly entertaining telepathic showdowns. In a chatty author’s note, King more or less admits that he didn’t try to make “Doctor Sleep” as terrifying as “The Shining”: “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare,” he writes, “especially if administered to one who is young and impressionable.” Instead, he says, he set out to tell “a kick-ass story.” He succeeded.

“Doctor Sleep” underscores an interesting fact about King: he’s not really, or not exclusively, a horror writer. If there were a Stephen King Plot Generator somewhere out there on the Web, it would work, most of the time, by mashing up ideas from all of what used to be called speculative fiction—including sci-fi, horror, fantasy, historical (and alternate-history) fiction, superhero comic books, post-apocalyptic tales, and so on—before dropping the results into small-town Maine. Often, too, some elements of the Western, or of Elmore Leonard-esque crime fiction, are mixed in. “Horror,” in short, is far too narrow a term for what King does. It might be more accurate to see him as the main channel through which the entire mid-century genre universe flows into the present.

Alexander Adams, on the other hand, argues that King has lost his touch, calling the book “pedestrian and painfully formulaic”:

It is perhaps an indication of how far expectations have fallen that one finishes Doctor Sleep not with a sense of disappointment with such a predictable story but a feeling of relief that one didn’t see a favourite disfigured by a sequel (the way Star Wars fans did with Lucas’s prequels). King is a talented writer who has not written a wonderful novel in many years, perhaps not since Misery in 1987. He has written far too much – no novelist has 50 decent (let alone good) novels in him. Although evoking horror is an important component of King’s talent, reliance on the magical and supernatural weakens his writing. Doctor Sleep confirms that King is at his best in short stories and novellas, where his problem with plotting and his reliance on deus ex machina do not intrude too much.

Update from a reader:

I was a fan of King from the day I read The Shining over one glorious weekend.  I was probably fourteen or fifteen and was home alone that Saturday night.  I read the guts of the book that night.  Every light was on and whenever I got up to use the bathroom or get something to eat, I advanced through the house very carefully.

I was a fan for many years, but the man can no longer write a new story.  I lost interest about a decade ago, but for some reason I kept reading his works.  The last three books have been monumentally disappointing for me.  I was done reading him, but I kept getting lured back in by promises that each new book was something different.  He had broken the mold and Book X wasn’t like anything King had ever written.

The only problem is that all of those claims were fundamentally untrue.  I wonder if the marketing geniuses realize that King has nothing left in the tank, that he’s trotting out the same story over and over again.  Thus, they keep repeating now the claim that he’s done something new.

11/22/63 was sold this way.  It wasn’t.  Joyland was sold this way.  It wasn’t.  And, now, Doctor Sleep was sold as King’s return to true horror.  Only it wasn’t.  A man who wrote some great, great stories in his prime has become a one-trick pony.  The same set of characters facing off in the same battle of good against evil.  It’s a shame, but it also points to another reality.  Creative people only have so much creation in them.  Most musicians have only a handful of great works in them.  It seems the same with authors.

Recent Dish on King’s new novel here.