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"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.