The Doom of Repetition: Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep”
By Roger LuckhurstOctober 2, 2013
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
STEPHEN KING HAS been in a retrospective groove for a while. He first attempted the long novel Under the Dome in 1972 and couldn’t fix it until it was finally published in 2009. His Kennedy assassination novel, 11/22/63 had a similarly lengthy gestation. Earlier in 2013, his “Hard Case Crime” novel Joyland retrospectively narrated spooky events in a carnival in 1973 in a gently nostalgic haze. The announcement that Doctor Sleep would return to the characters of The Shining was perhaps no surprise, since the story of Danny Torrance in the Overlook Hotel remains one of King’s finest formal achievements and yet carries with it lots of unfinished business.
It is odd for one of the best-selling authors on the planet to exhibit anxiety over his legacy, and yet The Shining clearly still riles King because the authorship has become shared with Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s film appeared in 1980, and although initially reviled by the critics it has steadily grown in reputation as one of the most evocative horror fictions of modern times. Needless to say, King hated the film passionately for its major departures from the novel, and loudly denounces it whenever possible. “You know what?” King asked at the time of release. “I think he wants to hurt people with this movie. I think he really wants to make a movie that will hurt people.” Kubrick’s disdain for source material – and for scriptwriters – was sufficiently wounding for King to produce and script, seventeen years later, a five-hour TV mini-series of The Shining. It is certainly more faithful to the book, but utterly dreadful and perfectly vindicated Kubrick’s decisions in adapting the book for screen.
In the Author’s Note at the end of Doctor Sleep, King is still smarting: “Plus, of course, there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.” This is a kind of wilful blindness to its effects, surely, but he adds, aggressively: “If you have seen the movie but not read the novel, you should note that Doctor Sleep follows the latter, which is, in my opinion, the True History of the Torrance Family.” To even need to state this suggests that King knows that ultimately the cultural memory of The Shining will forever mingle his and Kubrick’s visions of the text. Nevertheless, Doctor Sleep wants to wrestle the narrative back. “The Overlook wasn’t done with him”, Dan Torrance realizes early on in Doctor Sleep. King’s own struggle with legacy adds an intriguing extra level to a plot that concerns psychic possession and dominion.
The Shining was about the legacy that fathers pass on to sons: once isolated for the winter in the snow-bound Overlook, the alcoholic Jack Torrance recovers the memories of the beatings his father had dished out, and these are the traumas that the malevolent spirits of the hotel work on to turn him into a man set on murdering his wilful son Danny. King understood how cycles of abuse recurred through generations a long time before this trauma paradigm became a psychological truism in American culture. The Shining ends with a partial victory over the violent patriarch: the son survives, aided by his wounded mother and one of King’s “magical negroes”, the telepathic cook, Dick Hallorann.
Doctor Sleep opens with the adult Dan Torrance as a hopeless alcoholic, bottoming-out in a degrading scene of moral abandonment that will haunt him for the rest of the novel. His father’s legacy of self-medication with booze has proved too powerful to overcome. His only talent is a deathly one: he works in hospices to soothe the dying across the threshold to the beyond, hence his nickname as a child, Doc, shifts to Doctor Sleep. This is a job he consistently loses to drinking binges, and King slyly makes him repeat some of his father’s exact phrasing at the “officious pricks” who hire and fire. His mother is dead (and there is no sign of any interest in wanting to trace her subsequent character development). So, it transpires, is Dick Hallorann – although that doesn’t stop him from speaking out every now and then. We catch Dan Torrance arriving in the small town of Frazier, getting a rare psychic flicker that tells him to stay. Frazier is the beginning of Dan’s entry into the twelve-step world of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA provides a fragile recovery that stretches over a decade: it is the philosophy of the twelve steps that will support Dan when he in turn has to play the responsible father-figure to a young girl in town who has an awesome capacity to shine telepathically. That spells trouble, for there is something coming out of the ground of the Overlook to come and get her. Dan Torrance, like so many King heroes before, will be the flawed last human redoubt against a metaphysical evil.
King makes the wise decision to push rapidly past the echoes and network of references to The Shining, efficiently bringing the story up to the present day. He does this by inventing a new menace: the True Knot. Headed by Rose the Hat, the True Knot are a band of psychic vampires, who feed off the “steam” of evaporating souls as they pass from the dying body. They are nomads, disguised as retired folks pottering around in RVs, but who have lived for hundreds of years and accrued vast wealth by supping on the young (a neat satirical reflection on baby boomers, perhaps, currently dying in luxury whilst the rest of America plunges into poverty). The True Knot particularly favour visiting sites of atrocity to feed – there is a chilling scene of the True Knot gazing across the water at Lower Manhattan on 11 September 2001, sucking up the smoke that rises from the towers of the World Trade Center. But their home base is a camping site which is founded on the cleared ruins of the Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. They are a dying breed, but the powerful psychic energy they catch in Abra, the girl in Frazier, may just replenish their feeble band. Battle is set: gun-fight at the OK Overlook.
King writes just as nimbly and flexibly as he always did about the impossible psychic spaces that continually overlay the “realist” America of truck-stops, strip malls and AA meetings in village halls. For much of the latter half of the book, Dan and the young Abra are bi-located, able to switch minds across vast physical distances, strange effects that are realized in simple concrete metaphors of stone wheels turning, or unsprung steel boxes on dusty shelves that figure dissociated traumatic memory. The True Knot dip in and out minds, push and persuade people to sleep, kill without compunction and suck in souls. They are Dan’s dark half, another moral trajectory for his cracked power. Twilight, as one of the characters points out, it ain’t.
It is a worrying sign, though, that the nastiest ghost in Doctor Sleep remains Horace Derwent, the undead corrupt owner of the Overlook from The Shining (King evokes him with the line “Great party, isn’t it?”, the line that Kubrick, of course, isolated so brilliantly for the crescendo of the film). He is revived for a memorable curtain call in the closing stages. This may be a matter of personal taste, but I always found The Shining impressive because the ghosts of The Overlook were meticulously worked out as grounded in the history of The American Century, a world of corrupt capitalists, mobsters and vacuous wealth, revealing the foundational violence of the American Republic that sits behind the family romance of the Torrance family. Rose the Hat and the other members of the True Knot (Billy the Chink, Snakebite Andi, and so on) have no historical grounding: they are mythical creatures. We have no idea where they come from, only that they represent the obverse of small town American virtue. “We are the True Knot, and we endure”, they keep chanting, but we have no grasp on the why and the when of their endurance. The resonances of the names, their nomadic life, their marginal status overlooked on camping sites and reservations, and the fact that they are dying of measles caught from one of their murdered children, might have unfortunate echoes for some (although Kubrick laid more emphasis on the Navajo designs and origins of the Overlook than King). The True Knot sashay out of King’s Dark Tower series much more than from the careful integration of the supernatural into the fabric of American life typical of Salem’s Lot or Carrie.
Above all, Doctor Sleep is a novel about addiction and the fight to overcome it. “The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser.” Dan must struggle against the doom of repetition from grandfather to father to son. King has written in directly autobiographical pieces about the addictions that powered his writing in the 1970s many times; what Doctor Sleep reveals is how much the home-spun, modest, unpretentious, vaguely-God-y-but-not-God-squaddy philosophy of his books depends on twelve-step principles. Here all that stuff about “the God of my understanding” flows through the book, openly cited from sources like The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, which supplies the epigraphs. King is not interested in the dark, nihilistic visions of the Lovecraftians, the kind of blank materialism that has excited a new “philosophy of horror” (as in Eugene Thacker’s recent nasty gem of a book, In the Dust of This Planet). King’s vision of the supernatural is something that hovers numinously on the edges of the awareness, something that needs a cautious and respectful watching at all times. There will be skirmishes, minor battles, victories and losses, but no end to the long term war. Exactly like a recovering alcoholic thinks of booze.
Roger Luckhurst’s BFI Classic on The Shining appears in time for Halloween, October 2013.
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