A Pair of Disturbing Revelations

October 31, 2013   •   By Amy Goldschlager


Joe Hill

Doctor Sleep

Stephen King

WHEN AN AUTHOR yields to temptation (creative, financial, whatever) and returns to a story that he or she had rather decisively ended, a frequent strategy is to up the stakes. Thomas Covenant defeats Lord Foul in The Power That Preserves, only to discover the Land in even worse shape in The Wounded Land. Garion wins what he believes is a final victory for the Prophecy of Light in  The Enchanter’s End Game, then is told in Guardians of the West that actually, no, the ultimate final battle between the two Prophecies has yet to be fought.

Stephen King is thankfully far too savvy to attempt that strategy in Doctor Sleep, the long-awaited sequel to The Shining; as he writes in his Author’s Note, he knows that the first visit to a story-universe is always the most powerful, and to try to provide horrors greater than those delivered by the haunted Overlook would be impossible. Doctor Sleep does not explore new frontiers in terror; but what it does have to offer is worth considering.

One of the elements that most distinguishes King’s iconic novel from Kubrick’s equally iconic film adaptation is that King’s characters are fully dimensional people with human relationships, while Kubrick’s characters are pawns. Kubrick’s Jack Torrance is a twitchy ogre, but King’s Jack Torrance truly loves his son Danny, even if that love is nearly choked off by alcoholic rages and Outlook-fueled madness. In the film, Dick Hallorann, the Overlook’s chef, says, “Hey, kid, you’ve got the shining,” and later brings working transport up the mountain; he’s then promptly dispatched by Jack, his purpose fulfilled. Conversely in the book, he helps get them out of the hotel and then is a primary figure in their healing process, acting as Danny’s protector and mentor.

This essential difference is the string that King plucks in Doctor Sleep: The new novel serves as an extended emotional coda of The Shining, the charting of Danny’s redemption and his path toward a genuine happy ending. You want so much for the severely traumatized little boy of The Shining to find the contentment he’s so clearly earned, and without a sequel, you can optimistically, foolishly, desperately imagine he finds it. But King can’t and won’t make life so easy for his characters, not if he wants to remain true to them. Perhaps that kind of closure isn’t possible for the child Danny—maybe it requires reflection upon those events through a mature lens. While Danny’s gift allows him to perceive adult thoughts and emotions, he can’t truly understand them, and adult thoughts and emotions don’t gain resonance until he’s felt them first-hand, as an adult. Or perhaps he needs to experience being a parent, at least by proxy.

Tormented by his memories, the shining’s often disturbing revelations, and, perhaps more profoundly, by tendencies he regrettably shares with his late father—alcoholism and a very loose hold on his temper—the adult Dan Torrance of Doctor Sleep spends his twenties as a drunk, occasionally violent drifter. But Dan is made of stronger stuff than his father, and the essential goodness of the child we remember from The Shining still exists within him. So after hitting bottom, it’s the shining (via his “imaginary friend” Tony) that gives him a boost upward, indicating the New Hampshire town that will offer him a home, friends, an AA sponsor, a job…and, eventually, the chance to accept the responsibilities that Dick Hallorann once took on for him.

As the years pass, Dan finds his way toward sobriety, and gains some renewed sense of self through his work at the local hospice, particularly through his unofficial but highly valued role as psychopomp, the “Doctor Sleep” of the title, gently (and telepathically) conducting the dying through to the other side.

But Dan doesn’t achieve true wholeness until he meets 12-year-old Abra, a local girl who possesses abilities even greater than his own. He helps her both to come to terms with her gift and to confront the True Knot, a gang of ancient psychic vampires who roam the country in RVs, kidnapping children with the shining and feeding off the “steam” they emit when they’re tortured to death. (It’s a credit to King that he makes this conceit plausible and frightening instead of laughable.)

And as Dan completes his journey to redemption by taking on a parental role, I start to wonder if there’s not another conversation about parenthood and legacy going on here. Five months ago, one of King’s two novelist sons, Joe Hill, published NOS4RA2. Hill has taken great pains to establish a literary reputation separate from that of his father’s—and has succeeded in that aim both critically and commercially. NOS4RA2 is dedicated to Hill’s mother, the novelist Tabitha King, but the book makes more than one sly reference to his father’s oeuvre. The plot concerns Victoria McQueen, a woman with a supernatural gift who confronted an evil force as a child—a man named Charlie Manx, who drives around the country in a Rolls-Royce Wraith, maintaining his unnaturally long life by stealing children’s souls. Later, Victoria descended into addiction and other self-destructive behavior. She is attempting to pull her life together when her own son is threatened by Manx.

Just in case the reader of both books misses the thematic similarities, King mentions Charlie Manx within the first 15 pages of Doctor Sleep.  This is not to suggest that the two works are uncomfortably similar; to the contrary, each offers its own distinct twists and turns, shocks, and pleasures. Hill’s novel is far darker, closer to what I think of as “Classic King” than his father’s current book, without being derivative.

It’s a classic but incredibly insulting mistake to make unwarranted assumptions about a writer based on the fiction that he or she writes. King is a writer who’s struggled with alcoholism. That doesn’t make him Jack Torrance or Joe Hill, Dan Torrance. But when these two books are considered together, there is certainly there is a sense, if not quite of torch-passing—King has claimed he’s retiring before, but shows no real sign of doing so—of a creative heritage shared between father and son, and a deep mutual understanding of both
the importance of breaking an addictive cycle and the bond of parenthood.