It Chapter Two review

Over the weekend I saw It Chapter Two with my significant other and I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Like many of us, I remember the made-for-TV movie starring Tim Curry very fondly but there’s no getting around the fact that it mishandled the novel’s ending. In all fairness, the novel does have famously challenging ending, but the dialogue and animatronics in the early adaptation are just terrible.

While Tim Curry’s performance was truly creepy and convincing and was an undeniable strength, I don’t think Curry could carry the whole weight of the film himself. So as a fan of the book (my favorite King story after The Dark Tower novels) I’m just very happy that there is now an adaptation that treats the source material with reverence while maintaining its own strength as a film.

I realize that not everyone perceives this balance. Negative reviews typically state that the film was too long and packed with too much meandering minutia. I, however, was very pleasantly surprised with the streamlined pacing and editing.

It is a book that regularly moves back and fourth between the events of 1957 and 1984 so, since the two recent films cover the events chronologically in separate halves, a lot of structural re-interpretation is necessary.

One thing that might strike a fan of the novel as odd is that the beginning of the second film feels very much like the earlier chapters of the book with Mike Hanlon making his phone calls to the other Losers.

All of these chapters have somewhat long digressions that paint vivid pictures of the Losers as adults before getting to the phone call and it’s consequences. In It Chapter Two, each one moves very quickly and we find ourselves at the meeting at the Chinese restaurant in short order. At this point I was actually starting to worry that the film might be awkwardly short, which luckily isn’t true.

A necessary part of these structural changes is that the scenes must serve different structural functions than they did in the novel. In the book, we don’t get the restaurant scene until the middle after we’ve had several very long and dramatic 1957 flashbacks. As a middle chapter featuring the reunion of the main characters, it does the job of tying together several plot lines and giving the reader a sense of overall perspective over the sprawling events that have happened so far.

In It Chapter Two, the restaurant is continuing the introduction of the adult Losers, giving the audience time to get to know them before proceeding with the story proper. As far as the audience is concerned, the adult Losers are new characters they need to be acclimated to.

While we’re on the subject of the restaurant scene, the fortune cookie apparitions were vastly improved over how they were presented in the original novel (this film actually improves on a few different things that King handled awkwardly which we’ll definitely be getting to).

Each cookie has a separate part of a message that the surviving male Losers are struggling to put together while Beverly is becoming frantic listening to them argue. Beverly is actually our affective anchor in this scene- pretty much the viewpoint character. The tension of the hysterical arguing builds quickly and then stops to breathe before the monsters in the broken cookie shells hatch. Absolutely delicious pacing.

This is also our first glimpse of another way in which It Chapter Two improves in its source material: Beverly as an adult is handled far better than in King’s novel.

The uneven way that Beverly is written in the book is particularly annoying to me since she starts off on such a strongly sympathetic and memorable note. Her vulnerability is expressed differently from the other male characters for both overt and understated reasons. Beverly’s personality contrasts with the rest of the Losers in the role her father plays in her fears and anxieties. Most of the Losers’ have fears that are deeply impacted by their parents except, perhaps, Richie (and his dad still seems frazzled from his energy level).

Ben’s mother dismisses his emotional needs by playing to his emotional eating, Eddie’s mother has Münchausen syndrome and has convinced him that he has imaginary illnesses, Bill’s parents blame him implicitly for the death of his brother and Mike is dogged by his father’s feud with Butch Bowers.

Beverly, meanwhile, has an alcoholic father that works long hours and sexual abuse is implied. She comes and goes from home as she will since her father is often either absent or indisposed.

In modern terms, she’s a latch key kid. So while she lives in fear of her father and his unpredictable violent outbursts, she has nonetheless experienced more independence than the rest of the Losers and is better at spur of the moment decision making.

Perhaps for those two reasons, she has natural chemistry with another Loser of contrasting influences: Richie Tozier. Richie is impulsive to the point of being socially obtuse but is also a compulsive attention seeker. Both Beverly and Richie also seem to have a kind of easy access to solitary autonomy which may come from their respective alienation. This rapport between them is one of the strong, early indications that Richie’s manic sense of humor protects a serious vulnerability of his own.

This shared alienation between Beverly and Richie (largely during the theater scene) is one of the original novel’s most successful moments of subtlety. It’s an exchange that perfectly exemplifies showing and not telling.

Perhaps, since King pulled that off so well early on, he felt compelled to avoid explanations with Beverly as an adult to the point of making her obtusely blank- nearly featureless at times. For whatever reason, King could only write one chapter with adult Beverly doing interesting things on her own initiative and it was her first appearance.

While we’re on this subject, I think It the novel had two big experiments with characterization: Beverly Marsh and Henry Bowers. At least, the characterization of Beverly and Henry is executed differently than nearly all other characters in the book.

I’ve already outlined a few reasons why Beverly stands out from the other Losers during the childhood segments. As an adult, King seems allergic to lucidly pinning down character mechanics with Beverly. Like I said earlier, it’s possible that, since he succeeded so well at showing instead of telling with Richie, Beverly and Ben at the theater, that he became anxious about being too frank. The memory that Beverly has of orgasming at the sight of birds on a power line is particularly obtuse. At the risk of sounding misandrist, it almost seems like something a man would think who believes that female sexuality is fundamentally mysterious and therefore portrays it as a series of non-sequiturs.

Granted, lots of things seem very mysterious on a subjective level, but no other character gets the same explicit attention paid to their budding sexuality that Beverly does (a possible exception being Patrick Hockstetter). When Beverly is an adult, it’s as if Stephen King wanted very badly to get into her head but couldn’t quite pull it off. To me, it looks obtuse, but it’s also very possible that every single nuance is intentional, which is why I singled Beverly out as a glaringly experimental character.

It Chapter Two got rid of the unnecessary ambiguity along with a narratively distracting love triangle between Beverly, Bill and Ben. With a film this plot-heavy, anything that can be streamlined should be and the straightforward romance between Beverly and Ben really worked for the best. A shadow of the love triangle was maintained through Beverly’s mistaken belief that Bill wrote the “January Embers” poem and the kiss at the end of the first movie, but in general Beverly and Ben are the only two members of the romance.

Jessica Chastain also brought a personal magnetism that made her portrayal of Beverly an intuitive point of empathy for the audience along with Bill, Mike and Richie. The script for It Chapter Two also allowed Beverly to maintain her lucid apprehension and independence from childhood.

Streamlining the romance between Beverly and Ben is desirable not just for keeping stray plot threads to a minimum but also because the meandering, unclear portrayal of her sexuality and romantic pulls in the book is weirdly sexist. Or at least weirdly sexualized. Once or twice, novel Beverly will say things like “you were all my boyfriends back then” or something equivalent that is unclear enough to not be taken literally but romantic enough for the possibility to be real.

This seems to allude to the sewer scene at the end- an explanation that barely makes it any less weird than if it had none at all. I also don’t feel like I need to spell out why hyper-sexualizing the one female protagonist is regrettable and slovenly. And then there’s a sexual encounter between Bev and Bill whose plot or character function has never been clear to me. Given how visual the scene was, though, I can only assume it was important to King himself. Not to mention, Beverly’s easy relaxation into the romantic and sexual sharing between the male Losers (*giggle* male Losers) has no consistency with her childhood characterization. All of this is blessedly absent from It Chapter Two.

While Beverly in the novel is an experimental character, she’s an experimental character with rather few risks (to say nothing of that memorable little scene in the sewer). From a trope / narrative standpoint, she has no inherent tendency to rock the boat, but the experiment fails in spite of that.

Henry Bowers, meanwhile, comes with a handful of glaring narrative risks. The first and most obvious of these are his flirtations with becoming a one-dimensional spooky villain. The last time I read It, I remember thinking that he was on thin narrative ice in the scene with the rock fight. Especially when King tries to highlight his growing instability by describing him, as he hangs from a fence he’s climbing, as a “baleful spider”.

In the childhood segments, any sympathy Henry elicits is purely by implication. One may conjecture that he was unlucky and tormented by virtue of having a physically and psychologically dangerous parent, not unlike some of the Losers, but we scarcely see much of that from Henry’s own point of view. As an adult though, we get to see behind Henry’s eyes for the first time.

So far from the bristling menace of the childhood Losers, adult Henry is a terrified, vulnerable patient at the Juniper Hill mental hospital outside of Derry. From Henry’s perspective, we are given an interesting kind of characterization. Henry does not have the same kind of internal dialogues the other characters do: every word formed in the privacy of his own mind is clothed in the voices of others.

At its most abstract and generalized, this happens through the voice of the moon (Pennywise, obviously, but Pennywise can only work with what a mind is ready to offer her). Henry’s self-torturing thoughts happen in the imaginary voices of the Losers. Later, with the magic of Pennywise, Henry encounters an undead version of a childhood friend, Belch Huggins, that was constructed from his imagination.

And none of these imaginary vehicles for his thoughts have a two-way exchange with him: they either berate Henry or give him orders. While he is in a car with Pennywise, disguised as Belch, he starts to wonder if Belch holds him responsible for being left to die as a child. Henry attempts to apologize and the apparition simply turns its head and says “Just drive the fucking car.” This is as close as Henry ever comes to succeeding to “talk” to one or his mental mouth pieces.

Assuming that we often talk to ourselves in ways we are used to being spoken to, this clearly comments on the relationship between Henry’s internal life and how it’s been shaped by others.

While adult Beverly came out better in It Chapter Two than she did in the book, adult Henry rather lost out. Which is unfortunate considering how well-acted he was as a preteen in the first Muschietti It movie. The actor did just fine but the direction and editing just didn’t seem to have a lot of room for him. To the film’s credit, I was truly freaked out when Henry tracked down Eddie. I knew that Eddie survived the encounter in the book but Game Of Thrones has tempered my expectations of the willingness for on-screen adaptations to kill characters who don’t die in the source material.

Luckily, though, good pacing was the only reason to be startled by that scene. Henry Bowers’ involvement in the plot ends shortly afterward when Bill Hader’s Richie Tozier plants an axe in the back of his head as he attacks Mike Hanlon.

Which brings us to another noteworthy point of departure from the book. Like many stories in the haunted village sub genre (Silent Hill, Twin Peaks, ‘Salem’s Lot, etc.) the town itself constitutes a character of sorts.

In It, this was largely conveyed by the Interlude chapters that were written as journal entries and research documents done by Hanlon, with coverage of past visits Pennywise made to Derry. These Interludes gave us the story of the fire at The Black Spot, a World War II era bar for black military personnel. Mike’s father was a private stationed in Derry at the time and was present for it, and fans of The Shining may recognize a younger Dick Hallorann among the survivors. The Interludes also contain a retelling of a shootout prompted by the arrival of the Bradley Gang in the twenties and the explosion of the Kitchener Iron Works decades later.

Essentially, we get to know Mike as a narrator before we see him as a child become the seventh and final Loser. It Chapter Two attempts an inversion of his leader-scholar status by having him appear slightly unbalanced and maybe even dishonest. One narrative function this provides is that Pennywise is able to use Mike’s omission of the dangers of the Ritual Of Chud to drive a wedge between the Losers near the end and add a bit more drama to the final battle.

The way in which Mike learns about the Ritual itself helps streamline the plot somewhat, even if it partook of the wise visionary Native trope. Mike was able to see the arrival of the creature separate from the other Losers and relayed it back to the rest of them as adults. Specifically, to Bill, who later clues everyone else in. This enables the introduction and explanation of this concept to be an exchange between characters rather than just straight explication.

The Ritual itself was also portrayed very effectively: the Losers are separated into different, specialized temporal nightmares that they need to overcome in order to face Pennywise together. This is very good visual language that pins down something from the book that’s would have been nearly impossible to film otherwise.

I would almost go as far as to say that the visual unfolding of the final confrontation with Pennywise does more than supply images for the film to hang its hat on: it is potentially more compelling than what the novel describes. At least, it is more lucid and more accessible. Since the plot revolves around how Pennywise manipulates the fears of the Losers, the approach of desperate personal nightmares puts each character arc and it’s resolution on full display.

Speaking of character arcs, this might be a good time to mention the re-imagining of Richie Tozier.

Speaking purely as a fan of the book, I felt very validated by him being portrayed as gay. And his homosexuality is more than just hinted at in the film.  When we see Richie revisiting the heart he carved at the kissing bridge, it contains R+E, and there’s only one person that E could credibly be referring to.

As a fourteen year old reading the novel for the first time, I gravitated toward that interpretation simply because every character had conventionally heterosexual yearnings except Richie. I began to wonder more about it later since Stephen King seemed to struggle with fleshing out the specific nuts and bolts of the fears within Richie that leave him open to Pennywise.

When five of the Losers speak about Pennywise for the first time in the Barrens, they all share a story except Richie.  In a later flashback, we hear about the Paul Bunyan experience, which seems almost startlingly pedestrian after Eddie’s leper, Mike’s giant bird, Beverly’s bloody sink or Bill’s bloody photo album.  Even Ben’s recollection of the mummy is more interesting than the Paul Bunyan statue.  And it took until nearly half of the book to get to it, as if King knew it was something different but couldn’t quite pin down what.  If there is a commentary track on the DVD of It Chapter Two with Stephen King, I’d be interested to hear about anything he says about the process of creating Richie, although the plainness with which his homosexuality is made clear was probably a decision made by the screenwriter.

So it appears as if Stephen King wrote Richie knowing the way that Pennywise would exploit his fears would be different from the other Losers but wasn’t sure how exactly.  Richie’s mysterious but exceptional qualities continue to be apparent when the final confrontation starts and Richie’s onslaught was the attack that really turned the fight in the Loser’s favor.  Then there’s the easy access to independence as a child that seems to lead to a platonic bond with Beverly on top of the fact that he’s the only male Loser that doesn’t seem to have ordinary heterosexual desires or fantasies.  I’m not saying that homosexuality is the only thing that ties all of these traits together but you gotta admit it would fit the bill.

While I definitely have to cop to being happy over my adolescent fan theory being validated, I can see how this might not be totally welcome, especially since they chose to follow the book with Eddie’s death rather than going all the way with the romance.  And since many of the events of the book were switched around to serve new functions in this film, the murder of Adrian Mellon at the very beginning could prompt some viewers to look for a deeper LGBT thread in the film.  One of the Losers turning out to be LGBT could predictably satisfy that instinct. This was less of an intuitive prompting in the novel since it’s placement there was clearly intended to bookend the timelines with Pennywise’s first appearance in each: it begins with Georgie in 1957 and with Adrian Mellon in 1984.

In the end, this second half of Andre Muschietti’s film adaptation surprised me with how closely it followed the plot of the original book, stood on its own as a film and even improved upon the narrative weaknesses of the source material.  With so many book-to-film adaptations falling flat, something like It Chapter Two is a refreshing reminder of what could be done with the right creative team.

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).