One of the reasons for The Shining‘s success is that it was not simply a horror story, but the story of a family struggling to make a go of it, in a situation which becomes horrific.
A hopeful but hesitant mother: “For the first time she let herself believe that this might be exactly what the three of them needed: a season together away from the world, a sort of family honeymoon.”
A determined but unsure father: “As he got behind the truck’s wheel it occurred to him that while he was fascinated by the Overlook, he didn’t much like it. He wasn’t sure it was good for either his wife or his son or himself.”
And then there is Danny, a child caught between knowing and understanding. “’But I don’t understand things!’ Danny burst out. ‘I do but I don’t! People…they feel things and I feel them, but I don’t know what I’m feeling!'”
Danny is at the heart of The Shining (named for the ability that Danny possesses, to feel and know what other people are feeling and knowing), at the core of this family’s experiences wintering in a mountain hotel where his father acts as a caretaker over a single, unforgettable season.
The novel is presented from a variety of perspectives, but Danny is such a memorable character that over the years Stephen King was asked many times what happened to the boy after the events recounted in that 1977 novel.
It was a question that remained unanswered for many years. In revisiting the story to write its sequel, Doctor Sleep, Stephen King also had to return to the other powerful presence in the novel, the Overlook Hotel.
The story that Danny’s father planned to tell, which he was inspired to research while working as a caretaker, is something else entirely, but it bears considerable resemblance to the story that has now been told.
“One hell of a story. A little frantically, he took out his notebook and jotted down another memo to check all of these people out at the library in Denver when the caretaking job was over. Every hotel has its ghost? The Overlook had a whole coven of them.”
Those ghosts literally haunt Danny, as a boy in The Shining and later as an adult, as described in Doctor Sleep. “What mattered was they were never getting out. He was safe.”
Readers familiar with Danny’s history will understand the nature of his struggle, will suspect that there is no such thing as “safe” for Danny.
Readers just meeting Danny for the first time in Doctor Sleep will quickly sympathize with the age-old struggle of a man haunted by choices that he had hoped to make differently, choices that he now regrets, even if they don’t know the details of his experiences in The Overlook.
There are many parallels between the two novels, some outwardly stated and some subtly demonstrated.
Like his father, Danny struggles with the influence of the Overlook, then as a child, and lingeringly as an older child (recounted through memory) and, also, as an adult. He, too, makes notes.
“Of course, he also thought he would never take a drink, not after seeing what it had done to his father. Sometimes we just get it wrong.”
And he exists for some time “under the influence” as well, often opting for oblivion over emotion. (And, with the barrage of sensation he faces, this is understandable but the outcome is regrettable nonetheless.)
“The mind was a blackboard. Booze was the eraser.”
Like his father at the beginning of The Shining, Danny is looking for a position which will afford him the opportunity to make amends for mistakes he has made in the past. Jack had an experience which forced him to reconsider his relationship with alcohol; when Danny grows up, he finds himself at a crossroads too.
“A queer thought came to him. Once upon a time, his father had probably sat in a room like this, being interviewed for the position of caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. What had he been thinking?”
And, like Jack, Danny struggles to define what is real and what is imagined, what is remembered and what is experienced. “Was that another Overlook memory? Dan thought it was. But why now? Why here?”
But there are many broader parallels in the author’s principles of storytelling as well.
Stephen King roots his horror in the everyday, in relationships, in character. This is true across his body of work, whether the story is about a group of boys in one 1950’s summer, a teenage girl attending her high-school prom, or an overly enthusiastic novel-reader with a cabin. (“The Body”, Carrie, Misery)
The details matter, but they are displayed in such a way that the reader is encouraged to invest in the broad strokes.
A single scene, like a young boy walking home from a baseball game, is designed to capture a swell of universal emotions in a moment or two in that character’s life; Stephen King accomplishes this brilliantly.
In The Shining, readers respond viscerally to the cook, a figure slightly distanced from the narrative and, perhaps because of that distance, a representative of something trustworthy and solid in a environment otherwise menacing and frightful.
In Doctor Sleep, readers have the character of Momo, sketched succinctly with a similar intent: experienced and spry, honorable and strong-hearted. “Momo answered on the second ring. She was eighty-five, and her sleep was as thin as her skin.”
Danny remains at the heart of Doctor Sleep (he *is* Doctor Sleep, but the meaning is not understood when the novel begins).
But there is also another character who possesses the twinned sense of wisdom and vulnerability that Danny possessed in The Shining, another child who recognizes that sometimes “parents needed to be protected”.
This character’s portion of the narrative is as substantial as Danny’s. (I can imagine readers will be asking, some years hence, “What happened to…?” and I already want to know. And, as the novel progresses, other voices become equally vital and important.
Just as Momo’s character is sketched swiftly and powerfully, readers have a number of characters whose perspectives add to the breadth of the story in Doctor Sleep. Connections are drawn hard and fast, and the reader’s engagement is, once again, secured in the basis of relationships.
With more than fifty novels behind him, it’s no surprise that Stephen King can weave a good story with a variety of narrative voices designed to embrace readers as dramatically as they recoil from the horrific elements of the stories he tells.
Doctor Sleep is not only a worthy companion to The Shining, but it even makes it burn a little more brightly.
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This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.
Have you read this novel? Do you plan to?