Random thoughts about Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and ‘Doctor Sleep’

In the last few months I’ve quickly mowed my way through both books Stephen King wrote about Danny Torrance and I think the contrast between them has interesting implications.  The dialogue between the two is intrigueing but the second one needs it more than the first, a little too much, actually.

Within the first few chapters of Doctor Sleep dealing with the True Knot characters the town Jerusalem’s Lot is mentioned, to say nothing of the close resemblance between the True Knot and the way vampires are portrayed in both ‘Salem’s Lot and the fifth Dark Tower book.  The ‘Salem’s Lot nods contained within a Shining sequel is telling.  That this is a sequel about Danny Torrance as an adult emulating his father’s mistakes also adds to the implications here.

As a creative writer myself and a litcrit buff I found this interesting but not sufficient to carry the whole weight of Doctor Sleep.  The overly-formulaic story can only lead me to believe that Stephen King’s possibly unconscious wish to comment on his earlier work was his main motivation here.  The lack of balance and chemistry between the creative retrospective and the lazy plot construction is just too bad since a few characters are written very well and I enjoyed spending time with them (I’m thinking specifically of grown-up Danny, Abra, Abra’s Momo, Rose The Hat and Snakebite Andi- more on that last one later).  In the end I would give Doctor Sleep a C-.  I still enjoyed reading it, though, and may actually re-read it at some point.

Although the places King chose to place most of his effort made the book lopsided, the beginning is compulsively readable.  I think anyone who loved The Shining would find it easy to get sucked in early on, as it picks up with Danny and Wendy Torrance and Dick Hollorran three years after the events of the first book.  I also enjoyed reading about Danny’s tentative journey back to sobriety and almost every chapter that involved Rose The Hat or Abra.  Even if the book is unbalanced overall, it’s compelling in some places.  This, though, just leads me back to the weaknesses.  Near the end when Danny is checking up on the lock boxes “in his head” and the True Knot settles at the Overlook Lodge it seems like some special deep connection with The Shining or more satisfying tie-in with his early work is about to happen.

The reader has known that two of those three boxes contain two of the most memorable ghosts from what used to be the Overlook Hotel.  The mention of the boxes at that point prompts you to wonder about how your attention was directed early on: not only was our opening look at Danny, Hollorran and lock boxes three years after the events of the first book fun, but it told us centrally important things about the current story.  At that point I was wondering if the True Knot really was just an external danger that telepathically “bumped” into Abra at the right time to set the plot in motion- but now, with the plot converging at the former location at the Overlook Hotel and Danny considering opening the boxes up, it seems like the plot is finally coming together.  This place in the story even feels consistent with Dick’s cryptic message from the afterlife: all devils come from your childhood.  We even learn that Danny’s father impregnated Abra’s grandmother during an alcoholic blackout and that Abra is his niece.  It all seems to be coming together.  That the True Knot has an affinity for the Overlook Lodge even suggests a deeper connection from their end as well.

Also, since things from early in the story are now proving their relevance, it also seems like the ultimate function of Andi’s arc may be around the corner.  If this character we’ve been following for so long is supposed to have some sort of effect on the overall story and her shooting death truly was not the last word, then it seems like involvement of Andi’s lover at the end would open that up.  Ghosts are a thing in this story, after all, and when Andi died I wasn’t quite sure if she seriously went the whole story (as one of the True Knot members we see the most of ) without actually contributing to the plot or interesting participation with other arcs.  It seriously looked like Stephen King brought her in for no reason- now that Andi’s lover is doing things at the haunted place, though, now it looks like we’re gonna see why that character was in the story.

Anyway we don’t.  Normally, shutting down the whole antagonistic half of a story without giving a compelling reason why the antagonists are there is a bad enough move.  The best understanding we are given is that the vampire-like people found the psychic little girl.  The True Knot just happened to wander in from the outside.

Now I don’t think that passive protagonists are always a bad idea.  Granted, they need to be handled more carefully than active protagonists, but that doesn’t mean they never ever work: they’re just trickier to do, and Doctor Sleep doesn’t pull it off.  There is no organic reason outside of the True Knot for Danny and Abra to be in the same story.  One of the reasons why this stands out in such a bad way in this book is that, as a sequel, you’re just tempted to remember the precedents set by the first story.  In The Shining, all characters and plot elements had clear purposes and the development of the story does not require a spontaneous outside force- everything that happens throughout The Shining happens with all of the things we started the story with.  Now sequels can break rules and conventions set down by their source material if the sequel is a totally sufficient story on it’s own and does not need prior context, but Doctor Sleep is not self-sufficient.

While plot-movers that arrive randomly from the outside are not necessarily bad all the time (any more than passive protagonists are bad all the time) they are generally not a safe bet- random outside occurrences within a story need extra work, sorta like how passive protagonists need extra work, and many writers who use both of those tropes do not realize that.  Since Doctor Sleep needs The Shining for context and since The Shining did not take these extra risks, the fact that Doctor Sleep takes them and fails is hard to get around.  So if Doctor Sleep does not work as a follow-up to The Shining and is not written in a way that makes it wholly self-contained, this sorta leads me back to my suspicion that a wish or need to look back on older work was Stephen King’s real motivation.

A weakness in this that I can cop to immediately is that this whole assessment hinges on my opinion that Doctor Sleep fails as both a sequel and a stand-alone story.  That’s totally my opinion, but if I think that a book fails in the roles it is presented in, then it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a motivation at work that is not connected to how it is presented.  If a book that appears to be a sequel does not work as a sequel and cannot be self-sufficient on it’s own, then I think it’s reasonable to suspect that the author had some other feeling or intent in mind.

Since the relationship with early Stephen King novels is front and center, I don’t think it’s going too far to think that this is largely a statement on The Shining.  Another statement on \ interpretation of The Shining, the Kubrick film, prompted Stephen King to make his own statement in the form of the 1997 miniseries adaptation.  King has felt the need to comment on The Shining in a way that he does not comment on a lot of his other works.  While he likes little understated world-building nuances revolving around The Dark Tower, he does not normally make frank connections and statements.  Maybe there’s something I’m not getting but I think The Dark Tower is the only other story where King feel the need to say something himself in his own work (granted, that was way more literal than the Danny Torrance stories).

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