Thoughts on Anne Rice’s Prince Lestat novels (spoilers ahead)

Anne Rice’s newest novel, Blood Communion: A Tale of Prince Lestat was published on the second of this month and I’m sorry I missed it.  Ever since Anne Rice returned to The Vampire Chronicles I’ve never failed to get  my hands on the new books as soon as they’re available.  Anne Rice may not be my favorite living storyteller but she is definitely up there with my favorites.  Although she may not pull off a completely lucid success with every given story, she is always ambitious and her ambitions are always exciting.  I also think it’s a testament to her character as an artist that she is not afraid to follow sequences in narrative development and thematic complication regardless of where they end up. While I can think of previous works of hers that are more dynamic and successful examples of this, I also believe the three recent Prince Lestat stories are worth reading for their ambition and enthusiasm even if they’re essential success cannot be gauged yet (Rice has not specified at what point the new arc that these stories constitute will be finished but that she has at least a few more novels planned).

The first extremely bold challenge Rice takes on in these new stories is turning Lestat into a hero.  Lestat, at times, has been an anti-hero and at others has almost been a villain protagonist (I’m thinking of The Vampire Lestat and Tale of The Body Thief).  The first time I can remember reading a portrayal of Lestat that edged on unambiguous benevolence was at the end of Merrick, when Louis had attempted suicide by exposing himself to the sun.  While the novel largely hinged on Louis and his feelings of responsibility for what happened to Claudia in Interview, David Talbot is the viewpoint character and at times I think he took up more of the foreground than he should.  The resuscitation of Louis was one of those.

Some books in The Vampire Chronicles are standalone stories but Merrick is not one of them.  At a bare minimum, Merrick requires context from Interview With The Vampire, which makes it clear that Lestat is primarily responsible for the things that Louis feels tortured over.  The fact that Lestat revives Louis after he exposed himself to the sun and then sequesters himself away with him seems…troubling, to say the least.  But Rice chose  to frame it as unambiguously positive.  The change in David from a narrator into an actual protagonist allows the implications of this ending to fade into the background.  David’s attention is primarily on Merrick and Lestat which doesn’t give the reader much of a chance to consider Louis and how he feels about his “rescue” by the author of his suffering.

From this point on until Blood Canticle, Lestat occasionally took up the mantle of a morally ambiguous protagonist, or at least a key plot-mover, but his presence in the overall series became questionable for the first time.  My feelings about his presence and function within Merrick are deeply mixed but I believe it essentially works.  I don’t think Lestat’s intervention at the end of that book breaks any continuity or takes risks with suspension of disbelief, but it does tilt the story in a way I didn’t care for.  I believe his involvement in that novel works in the end, even if it creates an ending I don’t like.  Blackwood Farm is another situation altogether, though.  Blood Canticle brings us back to Lestat’s first-person narration in a lovely way but it also hinges on how Blackwood Farm brought him back to that foreground, and that for me is too bad.

Blackwood Farm begins with our protagonist seeking out Lestat for assistance regarding a problem at the center of the novel’s plot.  The function Lestat serves within the plot is to put the main characters in touch with Merrick Mayfair from the prior story, who is a medium capable of summoning and exorcising ghosts.  This is with a story that has the Mayfair family involved way before there is any surface level reason for Lestat to be anywhere near the main events, and we already know from the Lives of The Mayfair Witches novels that the Mayfairs are on comfortable terms with the supernatural.  Many vampires renounce their association with their mortal contacts after being transformed, but Merrick Mayfair probably would not.  There is no organic reason for the plot to require Lestat to bring her into fray, especially since this is only the second time the Mayfairs have had direct contact with vampires (first time with Merrick, second time with Mona Mayfair falling in love with Tarquin Blackwood).  Merrick herself would be sensitive to that.

Now, regarding the following book, Blood Canticle, there is nothing within it’s own pages that takes any unnecessary risks and the return of Lestat’s first-person narration is very welcome.  The problem, though, is that his central place in Blood Canticle hinges entirely on his involvement in Blackwood Farm.  

Needless to say, these are conclusions regarding the apparent nature of the final result and do not involve Rice’s own feelings and intentions.  I have read a lot about Anne Rice’s own thoughts regarding the internal process of her work.  She has very personal reasons for being attached to Lestat and has had a dynamic relationship with this character over the years, but I do not believe it is necessary to keep Lestat at the forefront of the Chronicles.  This is especially true since we have seen so many other character threads fade into the background.  Armand, Marius, Louis, Pandora and others have occupied the foreground of certain books never to be a protagonist again afterward.  We have seen characters do their part and then retire to the background.  I don’t believe the Chronicles would suffer if the same happened to Lestat.

While I do not think he is any more necessary than any other character, though, I see no problem with Anne Rice insisting that he is necessary by continuing to use him as a main character.  Keeping Lestat in his morally ambiguous niche would be a way to play this safe.  So while I haven’t really appreciated Lestat’s function in the later Vampire Chronicles, I do think Rice has chosen to take a very intriguing risk with him in the Prince Lestat stories, and Rice’s refusal to play things safe is one of the things I love most about her.

Not only do the Prince Lestat books see Lestat situated as a hero, we also see a very stark attempt at reversing part of the basic philosophical nature of The Vampire Chronicles.  Until this point, Rice’s vampire novels have had a fundamental relationship with alienation and otherness.  My favorite Anne Rice novel, The Vampire Armand, struck a very personal chord with me as a queer, dysphoric teenager, especially since there were places in the novel where Armand seemed to have something of a fluid gender identity and sexuality.

Many of Anne Rice’s characters show this kind of fluidity but The Vampire Armand was the first time I connected with one of her stories on that particular level.  Perhaps this part of my reading would have happened differently if I was born later, but one reason why I identified so much with Armand is that many of my own confused feelings about my own identity made me feel fundamentally insane, as if there was this world of health and function that I was shut out of.  Armand, for me, was a way of connecting with the possibility that there was something outside of what was conventionally sane or desirable.  Many friends of mine who are also queer discovered a similar resonance with Anne Rice.

Another form of alienation that is front and center in The Vampire Chronicles has to do with finding meaning in a world where your interaction with others is always slanted toward either withdrawal or destruction.  Not only are her characters often banished from human society at large but interactions with other vampires can easily slide into very hostile territory.  In this way, the Chronicles explore a search for values and a meaningful place in the world with protagonists who have the odds stacked against them.  Even before I read Armand’s novel, The Vampire Lestat had a special place in my heart for this reason.  The power behind the meeting between Lestat and Marius in that book, and later the confrontation between Akasha and the rest of the vampires, has to do with a clash between nihilism and philosophical optimism.

The odds, though, are always against you.  Another reason why The Vampire Armand is my favorite in the series is the confrontation between Armand and Marius at the very end, when Marius loses his faith in humanity and transforms two humans because 1) they want to be vampires and 2) humanity just isn’t worth being invested in.  I do not think the Chronicles in general are misanthropic but that particular character shifting closer to misanthropy is a powerful and important event in the story.

This moral struggle is another thing that Rice attempts to reverse in the newer stories.  I have not yet read Blood Communion: A Story of Prince Lestat but my copy is in the mail (yes I’m that much of a fan girl, I need hard copies and this one is signed ūüėõ ) and maybe I’ll change this assessment.  Maybe the struggle is simply changed, but as of Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis, it seriously looks like it’s being reversed.

In the decisive volume, Prince Lestat, the alienation of the vampires is challenged.  This possibility is suggested early in an innovative way that I thoroughly enjoyed.  Ever since Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, we’ve been aware that within the fictional universe all of these books have fictional authors and they disagree starkly.  Lestat rants about how unfair Louis’s portrayal of him was and I was also tickled by an argument between Lestat and Louis in Tale of The Body Thief.  Louis is insisting to Lestat that his apparent chance to be human again has got to be a dangerous trap of some kind.  Lestat says “if you don’t stop I’ll weep”.  Louis says “go ahead, I’d love to see you weeping” and Lestat replies “you described my weeping very well in your memoir in a scene which we both know did not take place” (forgive me, I’m paraphrasing).

In Prince Lestat we see spaces between Lestat’s volumes that include significant omissions.  Lestat had chosen not to describe the existence of vampire scientists who were studying vampire physiology and biology since, if vampires in general knew about it, they may have been singled out as a risk of exposure to humans, especially since they recruit prominent scientists who are humans and then later transform them.  We also learn that Lestat has a human family, of sorts: a victim of random circumstances whom he had “adopted” in a sense (Rose) and a genetic human son created without his knowledge by the vampire scientists.

We also see a character named Antoine for the first time since Interview With The Vampire.  Now for most of the duration of the Chronicles the brief mention of Antoine and his subsequent disappearance could easily be chalked up to an oversight on the part of Rice.  Maybe once she got going with The Vampire Chronicles she simply couldn’t find a way to include that character in a meaningful way and eventually the Chronicles started taking off without him.  That’s not the worst thing in the world: oversights happen, after all.  But including Antoine in a story that pointedly draws attention to Lestat’s unreliability as a fictional writer just makes it work.

What this means for the new series is that the framing of the entire previous narrative is being called into question, or at least is no longer canonical and definitive.  I’ve read parts of Blood Communion online already and we have Lestat stating that he did, in fact, author the books Prince Lestat and Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis.  That new wrinkle could go well or it could go badly, but until that point I was rather enjoying the possibility that the new stories were not going to use the device of the fictional author, especially since Prince Lestat calls the authority of Lestat’s authorship into question so much.

Bottom line: what was considered true and immutable in the Chronicles until that point is now no longer true.  And the change in how the fictional author is treated is a fun and interesting way of understating this.

One truism that we may be letting go of is how vampires do not seem to thrive in a communal setting.  In Rice’s prior stories vampire groups succeed best as small families.  Larger vampire communities, like the Children Of Satan, The Theater of The Vampires, the household of Eudoxia, the Court of The Ruby Grail and the priesthood of Akasha, exist only through the power of an autocrat.  Until now, it seems large groups of vampires need a single strong, dominant vampire cracking the whip all the time.  Now, we’re seeing the emergence of a fairly benign and consensual vampire government.  We also see characters like Gregory, who owns a large and influential pharmaceutical company, that are beginning to interact with humanity in the most direct way since Lestat’s rock career in the early eighties.  Even though the clinic and laboratories of the vampire scientists are run by their own kind, they choose candidates for transformation from among the human scientific community.

One of the most radical expressions of these dissolved boundaries fails to carry enough weight in the first volume, though, and that is Rose and Viktor.

One common plot device in the Chronicles is situating a story around becoming a vampire.  It was front and center in the first two books and has been used as one of the central plot details in several others.  We have seen a ton of Anne Rice stories about what it is like to become a vampire.  While reading Prince Lestat, it seems that Rose and Viktor are going to serve as a distinguishing new expression of this.  Something about their transformation into vampires is going to be different from all the others and is going to be in line with the other fundamental reversals at work.

It just now occurred to me that it may be possible to interpret this part of that book as a success, but it would have to hinge on the perspective of every other character except Rose and Viktor.

This may seem like a fine point, but everything about Prince Lestat begs you to think that this is a turning point in the Chronicles so fine points and the contrast with older precedents matter.  This is by far the least personal transformation we see.  While Merrick Mayfair was transformed “off camera”, we still see her immediately afterward and we learn what she thinks and feels as a vampire.  The transformation of Benji and Sybelle in The Vampire Armand constitutes a huge part of the ending’s momentum.  Not only do Rose and Viktor become Vampires “off camera”, we don’t even get the chance to spend any substantial time with them afterward.

Another complication with this is the traditional role of the Maker in Anne Rice’s stories (Maker: a vampire who makes another vampire).  In Interview With The Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, the main character is either transformed with not enough information (Louis) or against his will (Lestat).  Lestat’s egomania and toxic sense of possession of others also expresses itself in this way, not only with Louis but with Claudia and with those whom he wants to sweep in and “rescue” (Nicolas, his mother, Mona) and another instance that happens in a way that is non-consensual and violent to the point that it resembles rape (David).  Marius, in a way, takes sexual advantage of Armand as a young boy.  Vampire sexuality does not work the same way as human sexuality, but they do have a kind of sexual intimacy that has long-reaching and destructive consequences for Armand’s human life and essentially ends it.  Armand decides he doesn’t want anyone except Marius and, during a stretch of promiscuity, attracts the attention of a homicidally jealous man.  In the end, Marius needs to transform him into a vampire to stop him from dying, which itself can be construed as a consequence of a violated boundary in Armand’s childhood.

Not all vampire transformations in these stories are brutal or unwanted and not all of them have dark, sexualized undertones, but a lot of them do.  The role of consent versus non-consent and the ways in which a Maker takes charge of a fledgling’s early existence are high-lighted often. This inevitably involves the feelings of agency or non-agency in the newborn vampire. So, in Prince Lestat, in which so many fundamental things are being redefined and turned around, what are we to think of the transformation of Rose and Viktor?  Rose has been rescued from traumatic disaster multiple times by Lestat which already prompts her to think of him as a kind of super hero who can always protect her.  Never does she have full control over her life with no shadow of outside influence and then there’s the plot points that require her to be sequestered away with Viktor and eventually transformed.  Oh yeah, and Viktor has lived his entire life under the rigid surveillance and protection of the vampire scientists and has had even less of a shot at an independent life than Rose.

Now, with moments in stories that are meant to break with prior convention, there is an expectation that those moments have some sort of meaningful contrast with the older conventions.  One cannot escape comparing them.  With this in mind, I don’t see how it’s possible to read Rose and Viktor’s story in a way that’s not dismal.

Luckily, though, this so far is the only really bad thing I have to say about the Prince Lestat novels.  Hopefully nothing in Blood Communion will exacerbate this.  There are other details that one could construe as weaknesses, but only if one insists on reading Prince Lestat outside of the context of the prior works.  Every chapter involving a vampire from before that book requires the context of the larger series to fully appreciate it.  I can understand that some may take issue with this.  Since I am comfortable reading Prince Lestat in the context of all the other stories, though, I do not take issue with it.

I have to disagree with the general fan reaction in that I think Prince Lestat and The Realms of Atlantis was amazing.  The only complaint I can think of is that it would have benefited from spending time with Amel after his corporeal destruction and maybe a little bit of his initial contact with Mekare and Mararet.  I also really appreciated getting to know Amel fully as a fleshed out character beyond his oblique little communiques in Prince Lestat.  The manner in which the sacred core is placed into it’s own body also puts all of the onus of being the Prince on Lestat, since he no longer wields the unassailable protection of having the core in his body.  I also can’t help but wonder if the denizens of Bravenna will show up in any future stories.

Anne Rice has stated that many of her favorite writers are “messy” and that she thinks about her new vampire novels as “messy” stories.  I agree with both her choice of the word “messy” and the positive connotations she gives to “messiness”.  The new Prince Lestat stories have an unbridled feeling of possibility but it’s hard to determine their essential success or lack thereof this early in the new series.  At the very least, she has a deft grasp on the nature of the reversal that she is attempting, she is fully aware of how huge it is and so far I am enjoying seeing the adventure unfold.

Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider’ (TONS of spoilers ahead)

Ok…first post in awhile, I’ll try to be more regular about this.

Just lately I mowed through Stephen King’s most recent novel,¬†The Outsider, and while it was quite the page-turner for the most part I would still say it’s essentially mixed.¬† The overall thematic development is consistent and compelling throughout but sort of chokes on itself.¬† With the pointed¬†Dracula nods at the end, I can’t help but be reminded of Bram Stoker’s own botched ending.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.¬† Fairly early on Stephen King establishes clear parallels with an Edgar Allen Poe story called¬†William Wilson.¬† The wife of the main character even brings the story up with him, and in the same exchange we hear an Arthur Conan Doyle quote, which can be reasonably paraphrased as ‘when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains must be true, however improbable’.¬† Ralph Anderson, our main character, when discussing the Poe story remarks on the “damn good psychology” for “the nineteenth century”.¬† Here he’s referring to the story’s ending when William Wilson commits suicide, after being psychologically destabilized and overwhelmed by the lifelong presence of a doppelganger.¬† Anderson’s wife says that, when you look past the psychology, you’re left with the supernatural.¬† William Wilson had a deadly psychological reaction to something that, as far as the story is concerned, seems to have been physically happening.

This is the central thematic thread that I think Stephen King has trouble with.¬† Not long after Anderson has this conversation with his wife, the story makes a hard shift to supernatural fiction.¬† Holly Gibney, a character from King’s¬†Mr. Mercedes books, enters the plot fulfilling the role of Dr. Van Helsing, which I actually thought was pretty cool.¬† Since I finished¬†The Outsider, I’ve read¬†Finders Keepers and I’m currently halfway through¬†Mr. Mercedes largely because I wanted more of Holly Gibney.¬† Gibney even has a talk with Anderson and company about the need to overcome their assumptions about reality and the limits of the human mind, sorta like how Helsing prefaces one of his explanations by pointing out things in the natural world that, at that time, seemed improbable (like extremely old turtles).¬† Holly Gibney is also a film-buff and has a tendency to bring movie and book references into casual conversation (when they find out that the vampiric title character has a human servant, Holly refers to him as a “Renfield”).

While I’m going on about the iffy transition halfway through the book, I’d also like to add that it adds substantial depth to Ralph Anderson’s character arc.¬† At the very beginning, Detective Anderson directs a very public arrest of Terry Maitland, a high school teacher and little league coach, in the middle of a game because he is absolutely convinced that he raped, murdered and mutilated a young boy (a crime that we later learn was the work of the Outsider, or¬†el cuco, a Latin American variation of the vampire myth with more emphasis on shape-shifting).¬† Anderson feels like he knows, beyond any possibility of a doubt, that he has the right man, chiefly because of DNA traces and eye-witnesses before and after the killing.¬† The fact that Maitland’s reputation and alibis are squeaky clean makes him even more convinced, since an immaculate public front looks like careful denial or misdirection when paired with evidence that he did something monstrous.¬† Not to mention everyone has heard of the serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffery Dahmer, whose friends and neighbors were shocked after the arrests and said that they always seemed so nice.

I find it easy to think that, with this sort of beginning, the reader is going to assume that either Maitland did it or that Anderson is dangerously off-base and arrogant.  Personally, Anderson made my skin crawl early in the book.  At least part of that had to do with certain genre conventions, though.

 

A central conflict is hardly ever resolved at the very beginning.¬† If something looks all-important early on, then it cannot be.¬† At least, it cannot be with a lot of successfully written stories (if I ever write something¬†on this blog about¬†Final Fantasy XV, I’ll probably bring up the romance between Noctis and Luna as a huge problem for a similar reason).¬† With that in mind, I found it easy to assume that Maitland’s incrimination was simply a set-up for the bigger plot and that he is probably not guilty…which makes Anderson’s certainty appear repugnant.

It also doesn’t help that we hear Anderson trotting out the brutal death of the child to inspire fellow cops and the District Attorney to work for a conviction more than we hear about the actual killing.¬† I know that’s a bit of a technicality, and with stories that exploit subjectivity we are naturally shown perspectives of events rather than events themselves.¬† So, within this sub-genre, it’s a totally legitimate thing to do.¬† Just sayin’, it doesn’t make Anderson look any more sympathetic or justified.¬† What it does do, though, is prove to us that Anderson himself believes it, which makes it all the more compelling when he is forced to acknowledge that he’s wrong.¬† It also helps the reader connect with him when he and Holly Gibney are talking about the need to acknowledge that something is happening that transcends what Anderson is initially willing to consider.¬† In the end, when Holly and Ralph become the central heroes, we have seen Ralph Anderson go from someone on the brink of convicting an innocent man to a truly sympathetic protagonist.¬† Stephen King doesn’t always handle morally gray characters very well, but when he does he nails it.¬† (My favorite anti-hero of his being Roland Deschain…more on that if one or more¬†Dark Tower posts happen).

Having mentioned the essential quality of Ralph’s arc, though…the story becomes glaringly plot-driven once we discover the real nature of the Outsider, which both Holly and Yunel Sablo (a supporting character) compare to a shape-shifting, folkloric¬†monster called¬†el cuco.¬† On one hand, it’s nice to see people from the two opposing sides of the Terry Maitland fiasco working together (Anderson and Sablo manage to enlist the¬† help of Howie Gold, Maitland’s lawyer,¬†and a P.I. who works for him named Alec Pelley).

On the other…the tension and drama of the first half of the book hinged on the reasons for the starkly opposing pictures of whether or not Terry Maitland was guilty.¬† In other words, it was psychological tension.¬† Then the first half comes to a head and we hear Anderson’s wife remark, while talking about¬†William Wilson, that,¬†once you drop the psychology, you are left with the supernatural.¬† This is where the plot is supposed to¬†really thicken.¬† But the dramatic momentum of the first half just isn’t matched in the second.¬† I don’t think the second half is essentially¬†bad, but it does feel a little bit naked compared to the first.

The involvement of the alcoholic detective who turns into the Outsider’s “Renfield” is interesting until he dies in a gunfight.¬† Like Snakebite Andi in¬†Doctor Sleep, I was kind of left wondering what exactly the “Renfield” brought to the story (other than another character death in said gunfight).¬† When the snake that bites the alcoholic got it’s own sub-chapter, I thought it was gonna tie in with¬†el cuco….maybe he can telepathically manipulate snakes, kinda¬†like how¬†Dracula can manipulate wolves?¬† In which case, is he simply bumping off his “Renfield” because he’s ceased to be useful, or is something else going on?¬† Is¬†the “Renfield” going to get transformed into another vampiric creature or something?¬† When you use a specific sub-chapter for a snake that’s about to bite someone, you’re naturally prompting the reader to wonder about it’s significance.¬† If the significance is simply to provide a slow death to a character you don’t know what else to do with and make him shoot badly, then it’s kind of underwhelming.

If I wanted, I could get really snarky and say that these problems with the second half and ending are also halmarks of Stoker’s influence, since in the original¬†Dracula Van Helsing flips the lids on the coffins containing¬†Dracula and his brides before nightfall and just stakes them all.¬† I remember reading that book when I was sixteen and I thought it was one of the biggest anti-climaxes I had ever read.¬† Then there’s this little chapter at the end with everyone having families which, for sixteen-year-old me, just made it all the more fake and unsatisfying.¬† It’s like Bram Stoker just got performance anxiety at the end and choked.

While the Outsider’s death happens abruptly, there is one interesting detail.¬† In most vampire fiction, vampires are portrayed as formerly human with many aspects of their human identities and feelings still intact.¬† Since the Outsider changes shape so often and can create a ghostly avatar that creates the appearance of teleportation, we are tempted to think of him as fundamentally not human.¬† No more human than Pennywise.¬† One of Terry Maitland’s daughters even catches a glimpse of him without a disguise and sees him as having “straws for eyes”, which almost sounds like eyes on stalks.

But when Holly is talking to him in his cave, she says that without the memory altering (he can do that via telepathy) and shape-shifting, he is just a pedophile and a sexual sadist.¬† The Outsider loudly denies this, saying that he targets children because their suffering provides the most nourishing psychic sustenance for him, and that he leaves semen on the bodies of his victims (we learn earlier that he didn’t just do it with his most recent) in order to provide a DNA link to his chosen patsy (while assuming someone else’s shape, his DNA is also a perfect match for theirs, hence the DNA evidence against Terry Maitland).¬† Holly points out that there are other ways to do that, like with saliva, sweat or even his own blood.¬† Holly insists that he’s a sexual predator, provoking him into a sloppy attack and providing a chance for Holly to kill him.

While we were initially prompted to think of the Outsider as fundamentally non-human, the fact that Holly got him wound up by accusing him of being a pedophile and a sexual sadist is telling.¬† In the natural world, animal predators do not seem to have complicated and messy feelings about their prey that they are compelled to misrepresent.¬† Not that we have any way of knowing this, but shame and denial don’t seem to be in the equation with species-to-species predation.¬† The implication is that the Outside actually¬†was formerly human and was transformed.

There are a few other satisfying aspects to the ending, such as Ralph and Holly’s conversation at the very end.¬† In general, though…the book is just lopsided.¬† Not as lopsided as¬†Doctor Sleep, but still lopsided.¬† I also gotta admit that it’s more re-readable than¬†Doctor Sleep.

Random thoughts about Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’

In the last few months I’ve quickly mowed my way through both books Stephen King wrote about Danny Torrance and I think the contrast between them has interesting implications.  The dialogue between the two is intrigueing but the second one needs it more than the first, a little too much, actually.

Within the first few chapters of Doctor Sleep dealing with the True Knot characters the town Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned, to say nothing of the close resemblance between the True Knot and the way vampires are portrayed in both ‘Salem’s Lot and the fifth Dark Tower book.  The ‘Salem’s Lot nods contained within a Shining sequel is telling.  That this is a sequel about Danny Torrance as an adult emulating his father’s mistakes also adds to the implications here.

As a creative writer myself and a litcrit buff I found this interesting but not sufficient to carry the whole weight of Doctor Sleep.  The overly-formulaic story can only lead me to believe that Stephen King’s possibly unconscious wish to comment on his earlier work was his main motivation here.  The lack of balance and chemistry between the creative retrospective and the lazy plot construction is just too bad since a few characters are written very well and I enjoyed spending time with them (I’m thinking specifically of grown-up Danny, Abra, Abra’s Momo, Rose The Hat and Snakebite Andi- more on that last one later).  In the end I would give Doctor Sleep a C-.  I still enjoyed reading it, though, and may actually re-read it at some point.

Although the places King chose to place most of his effort made the book lopsided, the beginning is compulsively readable.  I think anyone who loved The Shining would find it easy to get sucked in early on, as it picks up with Danny and Wendy Torrance and Dick Hollorran three years after the events of the first book.  I also enjoyed reading about Danny’s tentative journey back to sobriety and almost every chapter that involved Rose The Hat or Abra.  Even if the book is unbalanced overall, it’s compelling in some places.  This, though, just leads me back to the weaknesses.  Near the end when Danny is checking up on the lock boxes “in his head” and the True Knot settles at the Overlook Lodge it seems like some special deep connection with The Shining or more satisfying tie-in with his early work is about to happen.

The reader has known that two of those three boxes contain two of the most memorable ghosts from what used to be the Overlook Hotel.  The mention of the boxes at that point prompts you to wonder about how your attention was directed early on: not only was our opening look at Danny, Hollorran and lock boxes three years after the events of the first book fun, but it told us centrally important things about the current story.  At that point I was wondering if the True Knot really was just an external danger that telepathically “bumped” into Abra at the right time to set the plot in motion- but now, with the plot converging at the former location at the Overlook Hotel and Danny considering opening the boxes up, it seems like the plot is finally coming together.  This place in the story even feels consistent with Dick’s cryptic message from the afterlife: all devils come from your childhood.  We even learn that Danny’s father impregnated Abra’s grandmother during an alcoholic blackout and that Abra is his niece.  It all seems to be coming together.  That the True Knot has an affinity for the Overlook Lodge even suggests a deeper connection from their end as well.

Also, since things from early in the story are now proving their relevance, it also seems like the ultimate function of Andi’s arc may be around the corner.  If this character we’ve been following for so long is supposed to have some sort of effect on the overall story and her shooting death truly was not the last word, then it seems like involvement of Andi’s lover at the end would open that up.  Ghosts are a thing in this story, after all, and when Andi died I wasn’t quite sure if she seriously went the whole story (as one of the True Knot members we see the most of ) without actually contributing to the plot or interesting participation with other arcs.  It seriously looked like Stephen King brought her in for no reason- now that Andi’s lover is doing things at the haunted place, though, now it looks like we’re gonna see why that character was in the story.

Anyway we don’t.  Normally, shutting down the whole antagonistic half of a story without giving a compelling reason why the antagonists are there is a bad enough move.  The best understanding we are given is that the vampire-like people found the psychic little girl.  The True Knot just happened to wander in from the outside.

Now I don’t think that passive protagonists are always a bad idea.  Granted, they need to be handled more carefully than active protagonists, but that doesn’t mean they never ever work: they’re just trickier to do, and Doctor Sleep doesn’t pull it off.  There is no organic reason outside of the True Knot for Danny and Abra to be in the same story.  One of the reasons why this stands out in such a bad way in this book is that, as a sequel, you’re just tempted to remember the precedents set by the first story.  In The Shining, all characters and plot elements had clear purposes and the development of the story does not require a spontaneous outside force- everything that happens throughout The Shining happens with all of the things we started the story with.  Now sequels can break rules and conventions set down by their source material if the sequel is a totally sufficient story on it’s own and does not need prior context, but Doctor Sleep is not self-sufficient.

While plot-movers that arrive randomly from the outside are not necessarily bad all the time (any more than passive protagonists are bad all the time) they are generally not a safe bet- random outside occurrences within a story need extra work, sorta like how passive protagonists need extra work, and many writers who use both of those tropes do not realize that.  Since Doctor Sleep needs The Shining for context and since The Shining did not take these extra risks, the fact that Doctor Sleep takes them and fails is hard to get around.  So if Doctor Sleep does not work as a follow-up to The Shining and is not written in a way that makes it wholly self-contained, this sorta leads me back to my suspicion that a wish or need to look back on older work was Stephen King’s real motivation.

A weakness in this that I can cop to immediately is that this whole assessment hinges on my opinion that Doctor Sleep fails as both a sequel and a stand-alone story.  That’s totally my opinion, but if I think that a book fails in the roles it is presented in, then it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a motivation at work that is not connected to how it is presented.  If a book that appears to be a sequel does not work as a sequel and cannot be self-sufficient on it’s own, then I think it’s reasonable to suspect that the author had some other feeling or intent in mind.

Since the relationship with early Stephen King novels is front and center, I don’t think it’s going too far to think that this is largely a statement on The Shining.  Another statement on \ interpretation of The Shining, the Kubrick film, prompted Stephen King to make his own statement in the form of the 1997 miniseries adaptation.  King has felt the need to comment on The Shining in a way that he does not comment on a lot of his other works.  While he likes little understated world-building nuances revolving around The Dark Tower, he does not normally make frank connections and statements.  Maybe there’s something I’m not getting but I think The Dark Tower is the only other story where King felt the need to say something himself in his own work (granted, that was way more literal than the Danny Torrance stories).