It's strange, being a near-exact contemporary of a famous fictional character. The five-year-old child, Danny Torrance, in Stephen King's 1977 horror novel, The Shining, and depicted in Stanley Kubrick's immortal 1980 film of the same name, grew up this fall. King's sequel, Doctor Sleep, depicts Dan Torrance as an adult. The book debuted on 24 September 2013, and immediately became a best-seller.
Shelley Duvall as Wendy with Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in The Shining. In this scene, Danny Torrance wears an Apollo sweater which fueled Illuminati conspiracy theories that director Kubrick had participated in a moon landing media hoax. Image Source: Warner Bros. via NY Daily News.
I just finished reading The Shining and Doctor Sleep. I was struck by Dan Torrance, a character whose cultural world was almost exactly contemporary to my own Gen X experience; and I was impressed by how Stephen King made him grow up. The first book is pure 1970s. And, as several characters in its sequel state, 'we're in the twenty-first century now.'
Artwork for Doctor Sleep. by Glenn Chadbourne. Image Source: The Overlook Connection.
King states in the afterword of Doctor Sleep that he changed a great deal in the thirty odd years between writing these two novels; he is also preoccupied with how his characters change, and how the world changed in that time. This is horror for the new Millennium.
Artwork depicting scenes in Doctor Sleep. Image Source: Cemetery Dance Publications.
How have things changed? At first glance, the themes here are eternal, rather than brand new. The Shining and Doctor Sleep are about evil spirits and vampires, a war between good and evil, child abuse, and a genetic curse of alcoholism running alongside paranormal gifts. These are recurrent King themes. But these themes are also window dressings for a deeper meditation on families and generations. King is mainly interested in how continuities work. What does - what does not - what should not - endure from one generation to the next? How much of a legacy do we carry from our parents? How much of that is inevitable? And to what degree can we carve our own destiny?
This book is not just about generations in families. It also deals with generations between mentors and students. As Hallorann served as a guide for Danny in The Shining, Dan must grow up to become a teacher himself. But first he has to have a reason for taking on that mantle.
No spoilers here, but in the afterword, King thanks his son, Owen, for insisting "that we see Dan reach what recovered alcoholics call 'the bottom.'" The book presents that rock bottom moment early on, and oh boy, does King deliver. He brings all his abilities as a seasoned writer to bear. Without revealing the details, this scene establishes Dan Torrance as the most substantial of all the well-crafted characters in the novel. King's portrait of Dan takes us from the talented, brave little boy we know, who confronted the horrors of the Overlook Hotel, to the middle-aged man who bears the burden of that horror.
The adult Dan has some things he is not proud of under his belt. We see how he loses his innocence. And to witness this sterling young character descend into the muck of adulthood's worst experiences truly is depressing. King challenges Dan Torrance in every possible way to make his character mature. The reader inhabits Dan's reality enough to know his success as an adult is not a sure thing. He's not going to overcome the past, simply by trying. He inherits all the family flaws - and strengths. At every step on the road, he has to choose between one or the other.
Dan can't escape these tests by running away, or drowning his sorrows and his talents in drink. At the end of the day, all distractions and anesthetics fail. King says with Dan: you are stuck with yourself, warts and all, and you have to make that mess work:
That ... made ... [Dan] think of some poem or other, one about how you could spend years running, but in the end you always wound up facing yourself in a hotel room, with a naked bulb and a revolver on the table. (DS, pp. 471-472)
Dan eventually starts working in a hospice and can see the lives of those who die pass before his eyes. These provide some of the most poignant and touching passages in the book. The epic action of Doctor Sleep lies elsewhere, but the scenes in which Dan earns the nickname 'Doctor Sleep' (or 'Doc'), and shepherds the dying off this plane cement complete sympathy around his character. King put his best observations of common people into these interludes, and establishes a hero who treats the small, fading dreams and memories of his adopted townsfolk with total consciousness and kindness.
It is a fascinating portrait of growing up. And it is also a story about a Gen X character's dualistic alienation and compassion. Dan additionally projects this particular generation's cultural sensibility because King's portrait of him runs alongside a background world that is increasingly tech-driven, where email and cell phones compete with telepathy.
Dan becomes a superhuman who accepts the limits of human life. Yet he promotes its longer hopes by helping a young girl - Abra Stone - Shine, just as Dick Hallorann once helped him. In so doing, he is balancing between a wrecked past, while dealing with how that lost time still informs everything in the present story. Abra says:
"Because that was then and this is now. Because the past is gone, even though it defines the present." (DS p. 485)
By contrast, the vampire-like villains of the book live only for vicious, totally selfish, immortality in a permanent Winnebagoed present. And these Millennial villains are far worse than the Overlook's 20th century phantoms. It is as if this harsh new century has made everything that should be virtual and immaterial much more solid. Just as technology quietly makes everyone able to 'Shine' in tangible fashion, so the villains are semi-human and corporeal. They are dead real, and they are not going anywhere. They impersonate the stratum of senior citizens who travel the USA's interstates and campgrounds in luxurious camper vans: the Overlook's haunted house is now America's haunted country.
Scatman Crothers as Dick Hallorann and Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in The Shining (1980). Video Source: Warner Bros. via Youtube.
There will be a Doctor Sleep film. I wonder how quickly they can make it and whether they can manage it successfully. Stephen King has expressed dislike for Kubrick's Shining film, but the differences between the book and film reveal that Kubrick understood the artistic requirements of an effective horror film as well as King understands the somewhat different demands of horror fiction. King particularly dislikes Shelley Duvall's film portrayal of Dan's mother, Wendy ('lost boys' anyone?). The writer felt that his characters in The Shining loved one another. The horror of the original story came out of all-too-human insanity, addiction and family legacies worsened by pooled evil influences, not from a destruction of love.
King intended Wendy to be an intelligent and substantial character. Even Dan's father, Jack, gets his measure of redemptive qualities. By contrast, King felt Kubrick's characters were cold and hollow caricatures. There are two passages from The Shining that bear this out.
In the first passage, Jack, a writer, struggles over an abhorrent child molester character, Monkey DeLong, whom he has created and whom he genuinely likes. Monkey is a murderous molester, but compared to the 20th century catalogue of psychiatric deviants, he's bizarrely presentable, especially when Jack considers that he has given Monkey a mitigating hellish childhood background:
Paranoids, schizoids, cycloids, semicatatonics, men who claimed to have gone to heaven in flying saucers, women who had burned their children's sex organs off with Bic lighters, alcoholics, pyromaniacs, kleptomaniacs, manic-depressives, suicidals. Tough old world, baby. If you're not bolted together tightly, you're gonna shake, rattle and roll before you turn thirty. Jack ... could sympathize with the parents of the murder victims. With the murdered children themselves, of course. And with Monkey DeLong. Let the reader lay blame. In those days he hadn't wanted to judge. The cloak of the moralist sat badly on his shoulders. (Shining, pp. 379-380)
During filming of The Shining, Stanley Kubrick directed Shelley Duvall harshly, leaving the actress a nervous wreck. As a result, her Wendy is more accurately an abused wife. When we encounter her at the opening of the film, Duvall looks like she has already been walking on eggshells for years (here). And while Rebecca De Mornay did a great job of playing Wendy - much closer to King's vision - in a 1997 miniseries remake, Duvall was able to broadcast shattered nerves (here), and then pure, fractured terror (here) like few others have ever done on screen. Somehow, this pure, harsh picture of abuse and terror was not what King wanted. But wasn't Kubrick striking the heart of King's subject matter with deeper truth and no excuses?The world's a hard place, Danny. It don't care. It don't hate you and me, but it don't love us, either. Terrible things happen in the world, and they're things no one can explain. Good people die in bad, painful ways and leave the folks that love them all alone. Sometimes it seems like it's only the bad people who stay healthy and prosper. The world don't love you, but your momma does and so do I. ... [S]ee that you get on. That's your job in this hard world, to keep your love alive and see that you get on, no matter what. Pull your act together and just go on. (Shining, pp. 658)
Certainly, King seems to have struggled with whether one can excuse or forgive the most terrible of human crimes. His condemnation of the villains in Doctor Sleep, who are also child abusers, is total. But he wavers over the retribution they face in a curious way at the book's conclusion. We'll see if the film-makers who adapt Doctor Sleep can find King's hoped-for balance between humanity and horror. In the meantime, fans are already demanding another novel from him, a sequel to the sequel.
Danny Lloyd today, aged 40, wouldn't mind a cameo in the inevitably upcoming Doctor Sleep film. Image Source: NY Daily News.
See all my posts on Generation X.