“His daddy had been a scary man, and how that little boy had loved him.”
– Stephen King, “Doctor Sleep”
There is something deeply broken at the heart of “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s sequel to one of his single greatest works, “The Shining.” In the early part of King’s publishing career, there was a sort of white-hot intensity to it all, like he had to get it out of his head, onto the page, into the minds of his readers.
When I just recently spoke with Kimberly Peirce about her new adaptation of “Carrie,” we talked about the voice of that book and the insistent, urgent nature of it. King seemed like these voices were pouring out of him, and when you read “The Shining” today, it is amazing how white-hot passionate it is. There are few books to ever deal more effectively with the way anger and addiction can rot away a marriage, and even without the involvement of the supernatural, “The Shining” would be a powerfully disturbing read.
King has long been critical of the film that Stanley Kubrick made from his novel, and it’s one of those things that I feel dishonors both ends of that equation. It makes King look like a crank, because “The Shining” is a straight-up great movie. It is a liberal adaptation of the book, to be sure, but it is a damn fine film taken just as a film, and there are things Kubrick did in the film that are meant to be giant subversive stabs at the heart of the horror genre.
For example, Dick Hallorann is an important figure in the novel and in the film, the person who first recognizes Danny Torrence for what he is, a powerful psychic positively dripping with what Hallorann describes as “the Shining.” Kubrick cast the film beautifully, and Scatman Crothers plays his scenes with young Danny Lloyd like a master musician, not only crushing his own solos but also perfectly supporting the performance across from him. He makes Lloyd better in every scene. In the book, Hallorann is Danny’s one lifeline to the larger world, and when shit goes south during his family’s stay in the Overlook, it is Hallorann who Danny reaches out to from across the country, sending a psychic distress call so powerful it almost gives Hallorann a stroke.
In the book, Hallorann is able to finally get to the Overlook so he can help Danny and his mother Wendy. He’s a hero, and as finely accomplished a deus ex machine as I’ve ever seen. Kubrick must have hated that, because in the film, Hallorann gets the call, goes through the same struggles to get to the hotel, gets inside, and then gets killed with an axe before he can do anyone any good at all. It is a grim punchline to the character’s arc, and Kubrick must have positively cackled when he and Diane Johnson came up with the idea.
Things like that must eat at King, and he is very careful to establish in the first stretch of “Doctor Sleep” that the continuity of the novel is all that matters. Dick Hallorann survived in the book, and he is alive and well in the opening pages of this new book as well. It actually starts not long after the events of “The Shining.” Danny is still young, and the ghosts of the Overlook have not renounced their hold on him yet. They have followed him to a new home with his mother, and he has to call on Dick for help. It’s not just a middle finger to Kubrick’s movie, either. Bringing Hallorann back allows King to emphasize the importance of a mentor/student relationship when it comes to something like the Shining. If Danny ever meets someone as powerful as himself, he owes it to Dick and to everyone else who came before him to try to help this next person, to pass down any advice or knowledge he has.
Enter Abra Stone.
If Danny Torrence is a car phone from the ’80s, Abra Stone is the latest iPhone. She is way more powerful, and evolved to such a degree that it’s almost not fair to compare what she can do to what Danny can do.
The thing is, by the time she meets him, Danny is middle-aged. The book jumps forward decades, and Danny is now Dan, a haunted drifter who has spent most of his adult life wrestling with the same temper and the same alcoholism that led his father to ruin. He is very much the product of his father’s decisions and desires, and if the first book is a smart metaphorical take on a dissolving marriage, then this is an excellent way to explore what we hand down to our kids and how someone traumatized as a child can learn to live past that event to become something more.
In Kubrick’s film, Danny’s imaginary friend Tony is never really given physical form. Instead, he is referred to as “The Little Boy Who Lives In My Mouth.” That is evocative, to be sure, and Danny Lloyd has a very creepy Tony voice that he uses for those scenes. In the book, though, Tony was actually Danny’s imagined version of himself ten years older. He’s using his middle name by that point, Anthony, because he’s left the frightened, confused, unhappy Danny behind.
In “Doctor Sleep,” Danny never became Tony. He never really healed. In “The Shining,” it was fairly overtly stated that Jack was who he was because of his father, so of course it makes sense that Dan is who he is because of his father. I’ve always found Jack Torrence to be a crushingly sad antagonist. He’s not the bad guy. Not really. He’s weak. He’s made a lifetime of shitty choices. And he allows the hotel to get hold of him. But the Overlook is the real villain of that novel, all the stuff from around them that gets into the joints and the bones of his marriage, eating away at it from the moment they’re left there by themselves for the winter. I honestly think I could do a bang-up job as a hotel caretaker like that, but it is straight up madness to take your family. Nicholson’s not the only one who is crazy from the start of that film. Why would anyone agree to something like five months of isolation with just your family? I love my family deeply, but I’m not an idiot. I know what five months is going to do to the group.
Jack Torrence and his wife and his son all make bad choices heading into “The Shining,” and like “Carrie” or “The Dead Zone,” I find the stories so sad that I’m not particularly scared by them. I feel terrible for these people. Seeing where Dan Torrence has ended up wasn’t something I felt like I needed, but I’m really glad King wrote the book now that I’ve read it. I think it’s a pretty wonderful companion piece to the original. It is not the equal of that book in terms of pure feverish voice or raw power, but the first book is King when he was at his absolute sharpest. This is a tremendous book by the standards of recent King, and a genuine treat for long-time readers of his work. This is so clearly an example of his voice, the tap turned all the way to open, that it is almost creepy to see him bring these characters back to life.
Wisely, the book is not just a series of encounters with ghosts we met in the earlier novel. At the very start of the book, the woman from 217 makes a guest appearance, but when Danny Torrence starts running, he never looks back. He creates plenty of new bad memories and bitter ghosts along the way, picking up his own baggage, his own heartbreaks. By the time he enters AA, he is in free-fall, and King writes very convincingly about the struggles to become sober that Dan undergoes.
Once he stops trying to destroy himself every night, Dan actually has to find some place for himself in the world, and he ends up working in a hospice, where he has a sort of openly-secret ability to assist people as they make the transition from life to death. He helps them treat it as a deeper sleep, a step to take, and he is able to reach into them, to soothe that fear and the panic and the pain when he has to, and that is such a gift that it seems Dan has found, for lack of a better word, a calling. There’s a cat who lives in the hospice who works almost as an alarm clock for Dan. When the cat hops up on your bed, you’ve got a ticking clock. You are on your way out very soon, and it’s just a matter of hours. That’s when they call Dan. That’s when he gets to play Doctor Sleep.
This is the man who meets Abra Stone. She’s a little girl when they have their first psychic encounter. She is drawn to him because she is young and wide open and broadcasting and curious, and Dan’s shine is the brightest she’s ever encountered. From the very start, her shine is infinitely more powerful than his. Here’s a very serious question for King fans. In King’s cross-over universe, do Carrie White, Charlie from “Firestarter,” Johnny Smith, the various powerful psychics in the Dark Tower books, Ted Brautigan, Danny Torrence, Dick Hallorann, and Abra Stone all share some sort of reference point for their powers? Because it seems to me that the world King has created is a world where some people simply shine brighter, and some people call it one thing and some people call it something else, and whatever they call it and however they wield it, it seems like King handles it with a certain amount of continuity. There are so few people who have ever published as many words interconnecting a larger fictional world as King has that it’s hard to even fully judge it as a whole yet.
Instead, for me, it’s story to story. I get it by now. I started reading King’s work in 1980. I started to devour everything of his that I could find, and I bought everything new the moment it was released. I started pre-paying his books little by little with lawn-mowing money so I could own them new each release date, and I would read them in a weekend, no matter how dense. I still read everything today, and for the most part, I’m glad to see that he is still writing, still slugging it out. I’ve enjoyed recent books like “Joyland” and “11/22/63,” and I think he’s still possessed of one of the great modern fiction voices. King is often an example for me of enjoying the storytelling so much that I don’t mind if the story doesn’t totally work. I learned that at some point with King. His endings are often sort of a jumble of “time to wrap it up” ideas that don’t satisfy anywhere near as much as the stories leading up to that point. “Doctor Sleep” is actually a satisfying, well-contructed story by King, controlled in a way that many of his aren’t, and surprisingly focused.
The True Knot are introduced early, and for a while, they’re living out their own story parallel to the one Dan is living, and there’s no real obvious intersection. The True Knot are sort of invisible nomads, the people you see but don’t notice on the freeway, in campgrounds and motor home parks, all over America, always on the move. They seem fairly benign from the outside, but they have a secret, and a hunger, and they will do anything it takes to feed.
Saying much more than that about the plot is unfair. King’s built something fairly tight and tidy this time, and once characters start to bounce off of one another, things accelerate quickly. Dan Torrence emerges as a great complicated hero, determined not to be defined by who he was the first time he met the monster. By the time we find out where the True Knot have their main campground hideout, King has made this feel like a very organic and earned continuation of what happened in “The Shining.” He’s not trying to offer up a checklist of answers to questions. Instead, he’s treating that story as true, and he’s trying to imagine what that does to you as you grow older and you still have that rattling around inside of you, tearing you up over and over again. Imagine dreaming in vivid detail every night of your father chasing you, trying to kill you, trying to kill your mother.
It is as primal and horrible a fear as there is, and King made much use of it in “The Shining,” enough so that even without Jack Torrence as a character, this is very much a book about how he haunts Dan. I was impressed that King actually seems to have some empathy to spare for Jack all these years later. Jack is still a monster who went berserk, but there is some degree of understanding in the approach that King takes to writing about Jack. King’s always been a bit of a softie, deep down, but it’s gotten more pronounced in recent years. I think he fell so hard for Abra when he created her that he writes from a very defensive place. You can tell that King doesn’t want anything to happen to her. It’s that same urgency that marks much of his best work, and seeing him love these characters the way he so apparently does makes me like King all over again.
“Doctor Sleep” was never going to be the equal of “The Shining,” because how could it be? How can you reach back and intentionally create a second masterpiece? But so often, these late-in-the-game sequels end up disappointing, and that is absolutely not the case here. “Doctor Sleep” should please King’s longtime fans, and it also feels like a simple, direct, cracking good yarn that anyone could appreciate. It is proof that sometimes it pays to look back, especially when you’re still engaged enough to then look forward as well. I hope King has this same fire in his belly for as long as he still is willing to share with us.
“Doctor Sleep” is on shelves and in stores and on devices everywhere right now.