The most successful horror movies pale in box office to marginally successful films of other genres. Horror video games will never break sales records set by first-person shooters. And horror novels will generally be relegated to lower places on the bestsellers lists. This column is not going to say that horror doesn’t have it’s hits. It’s just that, in the grand scheme of things, in comparison to other genres, horror fans are generally left Scared Hitless.
Sometimes, an author reaches the end of their tale and sets the story aside, content that they have told all that they needed to for that particular group of characters. Other times, those characters have more tales to tell, and the author is forced to return to their world again and again, finding loose ends and new narrative threads that just have to get pulled. Of course, there are times where the author and audience truly believed that the story they just finished was all that there was to be revealed, only to discover years later that those characters have gained new voice, and are again asking to have their reality opened to others.
Naturally, the longer that an author has been writing, and the more characters and tales that they’ve piled up, the more susceptible they are to that final option. Stephen King has seen it happen to himself with the characters from the Dark Tower series, who, even after he wrote their final words, asked to have more of their middle told. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that it also happened to King thanks to a character from another of his early works. The original work is The Shining, and the character is Danny Torrance.
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King
According to King, one of the questions he was asked frequently was “What happened to Danny?”. Given how the events described at the Overlook Hotel would be sure to shake anyone, and given that Danny, a mere child, had strong psychic abilities, it seems natural that readers of The Shining would be curious as to the aftermath. For years, King was understandably reluctant to even think of stepping foot back into Danny’s troubled mind, given the high estimation that many readers have of The Shining. Would a sequel do it justice? Would Danny still be recognizable? Would it satisfy the readers and their insatiable curiosity?
In many ways, the answer to all of those questions is yes, and that is due in no small part to the fact that King has grown, and his writing has changed. Where once there was an emphasis on more visceral horror, King has evolved into an author that plumbs the psychological depths more often than not. That isn’t to say that his books don’t still have a horrific punch, but that he doesn’t need to rely purely on blood and guts to move his story forward. They say that “with age comes wisdom”, and that wisdom, combined with the ability to navigate more subtle terror, helps make Doctor Sleep a worthy successor to The Shining.
To start things off, we’ve got Dan Torrance (no longer Danny), a man who survived his experiences with evil, only later have to survive his experiences with alcohol. Dan’s “shining” is still in full effect, and receives the nickname “Doctor Sleep” because he is able to help ease the pain of those about to pass away, using his power to do so. Of course, that isn’t the extent of his “shining”, as he is also has the spirits that plagued him locked away in his mind. Dan eventually meets (first psychically, and then physically) Abra Stone, a young girl with a “shine” brighter than Dan’s. As a toddler, she foretold the 9/11 disaster, and has allowed her powers to slip out often through her young life, much to the dismay of her parents. In fact, it is Abra’s “shine” that first sheds a light on the villains of the piece, the True Knot.
The True Knot are a group of psychic vampires in all senses of the word. Led by Rose the Hat, the True Knot travel the country in R/V’s, searching for psychically gifted individuals (generally children) that they can torture and kill to gather precious “steam”. That steam is the life essence of these psychic individuals, and it is what powers the True Knot. The Knot is a “family”, so to speak, and has fallen upon hard times, even before they find themselves afflicted with a very human disease. It is the panic over their impending doom that sends the Knot into their frenzy as they ignore caution in their hunt to get Abra, who they believe possesses their cure within her powers.
King uses a close simulacrum to our world; one so similar that it can be difficult to spot where ours ends and his begins. It’s actually a concept he touches on in the Dark Tower series, utilizing a sort of multiverse approach to the concept. Make no mistake, however, this IS King’s world. References to his previous works pop up intermittently, making it clear that this world of paranormal horror is different enough from the one we experience daily. It is in the similarities that King’s work strikes the strongest chord, however. Who doesn’t want to imagine that there is a kind-hearted individual who can help our transition from this world when it’s time to die? Who doesn’t occasionally wish that they had psychic powers, the kind that allow them not only precognition, but a sort of telekinesis? And who hasn’t caught themselves daydreaming about monsters lurking in the dark, demons around the next corner, and vengeful spirits trying to exact their justice? By tying his world to ours so closely, King has made some of those thoughts into as close to reality as they will most likely ever be, and it is one of the ways he keeps his readers coming back, story after story.
Unlike The Shining, King also uses up a LOT of real estate in the travels of his characters over the course of Doctor Sleep. It should surprise no one that he eventually returns to the sight of the Overlook Hotel, but that is just one part of the whole. Doctor Sleep populates the continent with dread, given the relative ease that the True Knot has when traveling, and makes it clear that, to combat these nomads, Dan and Abra need to become something of nomads themselves.
When reaching the resolution to a story like Doctor Sleep, a number of parts must be satisfactorily juggled. There is a need to pay homage to The Shining, given the location, and Dan’s own origin. There is a need to serve the story and characters of Doctor Sleep itself, because doing otherwise would make the entire novel pointless. Finally, there is a need to cater somewhat to the wishes of the audience. King handles the first two aspects well, even dredging up the spirit of Horace Derwent as he approaches the finale. As for the third aspect, that is left to the individual reader, as to what type of ending they were looking for. That said, had Doctor Sleep been written shortly after The Shining, by a much younger King, the end result would have almost undoubtedly been different. The altered focus to King’s storytelling as he has aged allowed him to conceive of the ending that Doctor Sleep has, and his younger self most likely would have gone in a more brutal direction.
One thing about King’s writing is that it often feels almost conversational. The ebb and flow of his narratives almost takes on the life of an uncle telling old ghost stories around a campfire, as opposed to a professional author intricately weaving a plot. In The Shining, it often felt as though even King himself was bored by the mundane, wanting to rush through it to get to the exciting parts. In Doctor Sleep, King takes the time to luxuriate in some of the quieter moments, giving Dan and Abra a chance to breathe and connect. When it comes time for King to ramp up the tale, ramp it up he does, accelerating until he reaches the climax, but having given the characters a chance to simply exist in more peaceful times allows the reader to know them better. There are still times where King forgets to let the pace serve the story, but, especially with a more psychological bent to this tale, his current style allows a bit more lee way than his earlier efforts.
As mentioned above, young King was a man who seemed almost obsessed with demonic influences, visceral horror, and lots of blood and guts. The older King is still willing to play in those realms, but he is also one who wants to take a more cerebral path. His own earlier struggles with alcoholism can be seen as reflected somewhat in Dan’s experiences, before he found his own way to sobriety. Dan Torrance isn’t Stephen King, but the two are reflected in each other.
In many ways, at the heart, Doctor Sleep is about family. The family that we create, that family that we discover, and that family that we are given. King makes it clear that not all families are good, but he also wants us to know that far from all families are the opposite. It is family that molds us, shapes us, and helps us discover who were will choose to be as adults. Given the familial theme running through Doctor Sleep, it isn’t much of a surprise that it is the first of his stories to connect overtly with the work of his own son, Joe Hill. Through it all, King weaves a story that helps connect his worlds, draws us in, and makes the reader once again think about family, all while answering one simple question.
What ever happened to Danny?