Scared Hitless: Doctor Sleep

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.

Via Wikipedia

Via Wikipedia

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.

The Characters

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.

The Setting

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.

The Resolution

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.

The Pacing

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.

The Take-Away

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?

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Scared Hitless: The Shining

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.

Say what you will about Stephen King (and trust me, an awful lot has been said), but one thing you certainly can’t argue with is that the man is prolific. He’s written somewhere in the vicinity of three bajillion words, encompassing a vast writing career that just keeps going. There’s something to be said about the amount of story he just keeps cranking out, and certainly the man can be appreciated for the fact that he just keeps churning out story after story after story, even after all of this time. His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1973, and not even a major life-threatening accident has done much to slow down King’s pace.

Another thing that is hard to argue, when looking at King’s legacy, is his success. His books have all done very well, especially in light of the fact that they often fall into the dreaded “horror” genre, and stories that he began decades ago have enough life of their own to receive continuations years later. While there are many that complain about King’s style, his impact has certainly been felt, spawning a series of authors taking some level of inspiration from his work the same way that he was inspired by those that came before him. It would also be remiss to ignore the numerous movies, whether complete originals or adaptations, that found their way to the silver screen after starting out as keys furiously pounded away on King’s typewriter.

It is one of those stories that I’m looking at this week. A story that not only survived the years to get a sequel (which will be discussed next week), but one that received a film adaptation often heralded as one of the best films of all time. And while Kubrick may have altered the story for the film to make it work into his style of storytelling, the pieces that started it all were all set by King. Without further ado, lets take a look at:

Via theviewspaper.net

Via theviewspaper.net

The Shining, by Stephen King

For those that are somehow unaware of the story behind The Shining, it is the story of the Torrance family, their task as caretakers for the Overlook Hotel, and the horrors that are found therein. On its surface, The Shining is a simple ghost story, weaving a tale of a haunted location and how it warps those who have taken up residence within it. However, especially in the hands of a younger King, one more heavily playing towards the visceral horror audience than he has been of late, that isn’t all that’s there. King plays with the standard horror angles of the haunted house genre, but throws in plenty of the paranormal flavor that marks his early writings to craft an original take on the genre.

The Characters

The main characters of The Shining are the Torrance family. There’s Jack, the father and writer with a history of abuse and alcoholism, who has been bouncing from job to job and trying to make amends for the mistakes of his past. His wife Wendy is struggling to make a life with her husband and son, all the while fearful of what one could do to the other. And finally, there’s Danny, the young boy who looks up to his father in spite of their personal history, and who is stricken with clairvoyance. This group of three is rounded out with Dick Hallorann, the hotel chef who first shows the Torrance family around the Overlook, but eventually becomes an advisor to Danny, having a bit of the “shine” of his own.

Of course, the humans are far from the only characters in the book, as the Overlook Hotel (and its grounds) certainly counts as a character in its own right. The hotel, which is perfectly mundane when there is plenty of foot traffic in and out, takes on a life of its own during the closed-up winter months. Danny’s abilities magnify the hotel’s powers, but the spirits of the place focus mostly on Jack, luring him away from his sanity while drawing him back towards the dangerous aspects of his own past. The hotel pits itself against the humans, bringing its full arsenal of spirits and psychic tricks to bear, trying to make at least one of the Torrances part of its own continued, tortured existence.

The Setting

For all intents and purposes, The Shining takes place in our world, albeit one where the paranormal is lurking just below the surface for many of us. It’s a hallmark of much of King’s writings, and that familiarity helps draw his readers in. The bulk of the story also takes place during the long winter, inside the Overlook Hotel, which gives an overall claustrophobic feeling to the story, and helps fill the reader with a sense of dread about how the Torrance family might find escape. After all, with the mountain roads mostly shut down around the hotel, the cast of characters is kept small, and the options to get away from the Overlook are few and far between. A haunted house story often needs an air of entrapment, and placing The Shining in a mountainous winter setting keeps the family, for all intents and purposes, tied to their location.

The Resolution

One thing that King sometimes seems to struggle with is how his resolutions sometimes seem to come out of thin air. That isn’t the case with The Shining, as he laid the groundwork well in advance for the moments that helped Danny and Wendy find their freedom. Yes, you might call into question Hallorann’s return, but again, this is a novel where clairvoyance is a key component, and where Danny’s connection to Hallorann was already established. The thought that one might get a “feeling” that the other is in danger is no stretch of the imagination, or at least cannot be any more of a stretch than a world where spirits are actively able to create alcohol out of thin air and topiary animals come to murderous life. Over the course of the story, Jack is beaten down, and his own past failings are brought before him in haunting detail, along with every dark thought he’s ever had towards his wife. No one is able to escape the Overlook unscathed, but it is the Overlook itself, or rather unstable machinery within it, that leads to our characters finding what freedom they do.

The Pacing

The pacing of The Shining is strong, especially for a third novel. King spends enough time at the beginning allowing the reader to get to know the characters before plunging them headlong into the terror of the closed-up hotel. He takes moments throughout the story to give hope spots, pausing in the carnage to give the Torrance family (specifically Wendy and Danny) a breather before stepping up the pace again. When it comes time for King to reach his conclusion, he presses straight through, until the finish, finally letting up only in the final moments, allowing Danny, Wendy, and Dick to see what has occurred.That said, King’s pacing is also set in such a way that, once you start seeing everything fall apart, it’s hard to pull back. He tries to bounce from quieter moments to times where the dread is high, but he never quite lets off the gas enough for the quieter moments to truly feel safe. Letting the safer moments actually feel safe, giving the story a chance to breathe, or even allowing the Overlook to work its insidious tricks, albeit in far more subtle ways against the entire family, would have given the audience a chance to lower their guard, making the eventual punch that much stronger.

The Take-Away

Reading The Shining in 2014 was an interesting voyage. On one hand, it was looking at how a writer, who has clearly changed their style, was producing works at the start of their career. It showcased a King that wanted to push more towards visceral, physical horror, before he turned towards more of the psychological aspects of his recent works. It was also a way to look and see, perhaps, a bit of an autobiographical main character, with Jack, the writer, battling alcohol and struggling with his emotions towards his child. The enclosed space of the story almost forces the reader to dive into Jack’s head, and try to see things from his perspective.

On the other hand, reading The Shining recently, as a father myself, made me wonder exactly what so many other readers wondered before me, “What happened to Danny?”. Admittedly, I don’t have anywhere near the demons lurking in my life that Jack had in his, even before the Overlook, but I can’t fathom anything that would make me lash out at my child the way he did. For me, probably the most powerful scene of the book comes near the end, when Jack has the strength to not only realize what he’s doing, but he gets control long enough to try to get Danny to safety. The Shining may have been a story about a man broken by a demonic hotel, and the family that barely escaped, but it was also about a man finding the strength to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect those he truly valued the most.

As for that question about Danny? Come back next week, as I’ll be taking the time to look at the answer.

Scared Hitless: Horns by Joe Hill

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.

How do you follow up a highly successful (and truly scary) debut novel? For a lot of authors, there is an effort to recapture some of that same lightning in a bottle, seeing if continuing with more of what brought them to the dance will get them another go around. For others, it’s time to shift gears somewhat, and see what else is waiting in your pen. Joe Hill took the latter approach, and stepped aside from the more visceral horror of his debut with the release of his second book, Horns. That isn’t to say that Horns doesn’t have horror elements to it. It’s just that the story is more centered around a personal tale, laced heavily with dark fantasy. Think more along the lines of Gaiman, and less like King, and you’ve got a good idea of where Joe Hill took his second book.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before Horns made its way to the big screen. This review isn’t about the film version, however. After all, in the case of direct adaptations from one medium to another, one really needs to spend time looking through the original first, and analyzing whether or not it worked, before one can proceed to take in the alternate version. There are definitely merits to the different types of medium, and what works as a novel may not work on the big screen, or vice versa. This is a lesson that Hill’s father had to learn a few times, and it remains to be seen if that lesson was passed along to the son.

via Wikipedia.

via Wikipedia.

Horns, by Joe Hill

What would you do if, one day, you awoke with supernatural powers? What if those powers came along with literal horns growing out of your head? That’s along the lines of what Joe Hill’s main character, Ig Parrish, has to figure out when he awakes with just that exact set of circumstances. The horns are invisible to others, and yet they present Ig with a strange set of powers, which both cause him more grief, and allow him to unravel a mystery from his own past that’s been haunting him for years.

Those aren’t the only questions that Hill presents in the book, however. By gifting Ig with the specific circumstances he has, he also makes the reader wonder whether or not one of the greatest villains in all of literary history is actually worth, in a bit of a paraphrase of the Rolling Stones, sympathy. Are powers like the one’s Ig displays, often associated with evil, truly coming from a place of darkness? Or can they be used to good as well? This is part of what lies at the center of Horns, and part of what makes it a worthwhile read.

The Characters

The main character of the story is Ig Parrish, the younger son of a famous musician. Ig spent much of his life growing up living in the shadow of his older brother, Terry, and stayed generally in the public’s good graces. That all came crashing down with the rape and murder of Merrin Williams, Ig’s girlfriend. Now, year’s later, despite being innocent, and never even being accused of the crime, Ig lives a life where his every move is watched carefully. The public knows who killed Merrin, and they aren’t going to let little things like facts get in the way. Deep down, Ig is a good person who’s struggled with the suspicions thrust upon him, and the horns give him a glimpse into what might be a way out.

Along with Ig, the story also follows Lee Tourneau, who is set up as Ig’s nemesis, Ig’s brother Terry, who has been along for the critical junctures in Ig’s life, and, through flashbacks, Merrin, Ig’s long-lost love. These characters all weave through the story to help support Ig’s choices, either through their current actions, or through their concealed thoughts. However, even when the story focuses on these individuals, they are still largely seen through Ig’s eyes, driving his role as the main character.

Then, of course, there are the eponymous horns. They are more of a plot device than a character, and yet they do have a bit of a personality of their own. They provide Ig with his supernatural powers, and seem to try to drive him towards terrible acts, but none of these acts can be things that the victims haven’t considered for themselves. Also, while Ig is pushed towards getting others to give in to their own darker sides, he is by no means forced to do so. In many ways, the horns present him with more choice about how to proceed, making sure to lay as many of the cards on the table as possible. They aren’t specifically good or evil; that choice is up to the bearer to do as he sees fit, with the new information provided.

The Setting

The town of Gideon, New Hampshire, as presented in Horns, is recognizable as being similar to many other cities across America. An abandoned, run-down foundry, filled (naturally) with snakes, serves as a sort of home base for Ig as the story weaves towards its conclusion. The nearby river is home to some of Ig’s best memories of his childhood with Lee, Terry, and Merrin, and is critical in some of his worst moments during his adult life. However, laced through the fairly mundane aspects of Gideon is a definite supernatural thread, best represented by the Treehouse of the Mind. By inserting this space into Horns, Hill not only makes it clear that Gideon is not completely of our world, but he also provides a potential connecting point to his later stories. However, keeping the setting of the world relatively realistic helps connect the reader with what is happening to Ig, and allows them to wonder how they would react in a similar situation.

The Resolution

Ig is walking a dark path before the events that lead to his horns sprouting, and he remains there for a short time after. Over time, however, he is able to use his new gifts to actively ferret out truths that had been concealed from him for years, including why his relationship with Merrin was broken off all that time ago. In some ways, Ig is able to become something of an anti-hero, using questionable means to ultimately yield better results for the community around him. His presence wasn’t allowing the people of Gideon to move on. Through his own trial by fire, both literal and figurative, Ig is able to give Gideon the fresh start that it needs.

The Pacing

The story is broken up into sections, each detailing different aspects of what is happening. The beginning tells of Ig learning that he has new horns sprouting from his head. The second section ventures into the past, showing how Ig, Terry, Lee, and Merrin all knew each other in high school. For the third section, details of Merrin’s murder are released, Ig’s power grows, and the Treehouse of the Mind is introduced. The fourth section focuses on Lee Tourneau, and his life. Finally, the fifth section brings the story to its conclusion, wrapping up the loose threads handily. Through this segmentation, Hill is able to break up the pacing of the story, and do so in a more natural way than simply jumping through time from chapter to chapter. In fact, the story almost feels as though it was written for episodic television, with each section being its own major plot point. In fact, it is either after a a shocking moment, or a huge revelation, that the segments jump to the next, giving the reader a bit of a built-in break, allowing for time to set the book down, step away, and catch their breath. The pacing of Horns suits the story that’s being told, with the momentum following Ig’s own journey.

The Take-Away

Horns is not a standard horror novel. In fact, many would be hard-pressed to call it horror at all. What Horns does, and what makes me consider it in the horror vein, is that it tells a very personal story, and breaks down a lot of the main character with darker means. Put yourself in Ig’s shoes, realizing that you suddenly are privy to what others have been hiding from you all of these years, including their personal feelings, and you can see how the story tucks nicely into the horror genre, even if it is milder and more personal. The story also is specifically crafted to make you question whether evil really is evil, or if the evil is simply lurking inside of everyone already, and can be coaxed out.

In a lot of ways, what Horns did, at least for me, was think about perception, and how that can fuel reactions. Whether accurate or not, your perception of another person will color your interactions with them. If you truly believe that someone is working for good, you will always give them far more than their fair shake. If you think they’re corrupt, you will never believe a word that they say. Ig’s case takes it to a heightened level, but we all deal with perception (and misperception) day in and day out. Perhaps reading a book like Horns will encourage people to look with a more open mindset.