Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Redemption swansong (Doctor Sleep)

Really, what would SPOOKTOBERFEST be without an appearance by Stephen King? Lucky for me a new SK novel was released in September, and it is not one of the man’s forays into literary fiction with tinges of genre. Doctor Sleep is pretty much straight horror (I’ll elaborate on the “pretty much” part presently) and more to the point, it’s a direct sequel to The Shining, one of the all-time horror classics. Or should that be two of the all-time horror classics? Because there’s Stephen King’s The Shining, a 1977 novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a 1980 movie. Technically the latter is a film adaptation of the former, but they really are two entirely distinct stories. (Yes, I've been over most of this before.)

I got heavily into Stephen King fandom when I was in high school, and when I took a public speaking class my junior year and had to give a biographical presentation, I chose the horrormeister as my subject. So doing research on the man behind the books became part of my homework, and I threw myself into it. Fortunately this was not hard, since Stephen King is a popular and not particularly press-shy subject, and resources concerning his life and life’s work are thick on the ground (particularly in the early 90’s, when said resources constituted their own thriving bookstore industry). Point being, not only did I read The Shining before I saw the movie, I read plenty of interviews and analyses illuminating the fact that King never really cared for the most renowned (at the time) film based on one of his works. He didn’t like the casting of Nicholson as Jack Torrance because the original story was about a good but flawed man driven insane by an otherworldly evil, and Nicholson radiates “crazy and probably evil!” from the first frame he appears in. King also felt like Kubrick didn’t really get the novel, and that the two men perceived the world around them in fundamentally different ways, and their divergent philosophies inform their respective works in very telling ways. So, with my loyalties firmly in King’s camp, I came to Kubrick’s Shining with great skepticism, and only slowly came around on its merits with time.

Stephen King can basically write anything he wants at this point (and has gone so far as to prove that once or twice). But picking up the thread on a story like The Shining is tricky. It’s 36 years old, for one thing. And it’s insanely beloved by fans. And, whether King likes it or not (he doesn’t), there’s the legacy of Kubrick’s version, which has also managed to stand the test of time.

The good news is that Doctor Sleep does not feel like a desperately cashgrabbing and unnecessary extension. It’s an organic continuation of the story of Danny (Dan, as a grown-up) Torrance, who was the protagonist-by-default of The Shining (he is the one with the psychic power referenced in the title, after all). Fair enough to wonder how little Danny turned out after the harrowing ordeal at the Overlook Hotel, and the answer is a mixed bag: on the one hand, he’s a decent human being who works in hospices because his telepathy and spiritual sensitivity give him a gift for easing end-of-life transitions; on the other hand, just like his father, he’s an alcoholic with rage issues. There are references a-plenty to the events from The Shining, but there are new elements as well: a young girl named Abra who is astronomically more powerful than Dan ever was, whom Dan befriends and ultimately must protect, and a subculture of evil creatures in human guise known as the True Knot. The True Knot are functionally immortal, so long as they periodically consume the psychic energies of children with the shining. So they roam the highways in RVs, locating gifted kids, then kidnapping, torturing and murdering them to release their sustenance.

So that’s the major horror element of Doctor Sleep, and the reason why I qualified it at the outset is that it’s a good concept that really functions only as a secondary element. I was reminded (and this will shock you, I’m sure) of the Dark Tower novels, which had their own scary and disturbing motifs (demons and slow mutants and witches, oh my) but were primarily adventure stories, good versus evil and the battles they must wage. Doctor Sleep is really about Dan and Abra (and some other allies) versus the True Knot, which makes for an entertaining yarn but not a particularly frightening one. Because the True Knot never, at any point, has the upper hand. The True Knot start off arrogant and callous, they underestimate Abra, and they remain ignorant of Dan. Dan comes up with a plan to defeat the True Knot, and it more or less goes off without a hitch. I was making mental bets with myself as to who would die before the end, because what’s a horror novel without one of the protagonists dying? Would it be Abra, the young life cut tragically short (though she was probably too good and too powerful for this world anyway)? Would it be Dan’s septuagenarian friend Billy (whose life Dan already saved once and who was thus living on borrowed time)? Could it possibly be Dan himself, unable to escape the shadow of death that had dominated his world since he was five? Spoilers! None of those. The good guys unambiguously win, with nary a skeletal not-dead-yet hand thrusting out of a shallow grave as the conquering heroes walk away to speak of.

I don’t have any objections to a comicbook-y tale of virtuous psychic humans taking on vile psychic monsters and coming out on top; for 500 or so pages (a brisk romp for Stephen King!) I was entertained and, honestly, by the end I was relieved. (Sometimes King’s books are not exactly what I would call fun.) But I did find myself wondering throughout Doctor Sleep why King bothered. Yeah, as I led with, he can write whatever he wants, but why was this what he wanted?

I think the answer probably comes near the end of the book (More Spoilers!) as a combination of fate and circumstance dictates that Dan’s showdown with Rose, the leader of the True Knot, takes place on the unhallowed grounds where the Overlook Hotel once stood. And at the moment when Rose seems to have the upper hand, and is on the verge of killing Dan, a ghost intervenes on Dan’s behalf. The Overlook may have burned to the ground at the end of The Shining, but the supernatural forces which had been stored in it like charges in a hellish battery hung around. The helpful ghost turns out, of course, to be Jack Torrance, whom Dan recognizes fleetingly before the spirit vanishes.

Just to be clear, let’s connect the dots here: in the novel The Shining, Jack succumbs to the malignant forces which have supersaturated the Overlook, and tries to murder his wife and child, but they ultimately escape, in no small part because the Overlook has a defective boiler which needs to have its pressure manually regulated. Jack forgets about the boiler while he’s stalking his family, but at the last moment the good man in him regains enough control to remember his caretaker responsibilities (in both senses) and he runs to the basement to release the pressure valve. He gets there too late, dies when the boiler explodes, and the Overlook is destroyed, but Danny and Wendy are able to escape in the precious moments when Jack leaves off the hunt. In a sense, the Overlook was trying to kill the whole family, but Jack sacrificed himself to ensure that it only got one out of three. Then the movie The Shining came out, and Jack was re-imagined as incapable of that kind of self-sacrifice. Danny and Wendy get away because Danny is able to trick his father and manipulate his murderous single-mindedness. And Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze, cold and miserable, unloved and unloving. This becomes the prevalent popular conception of Jack Torrance. Which must have driven King crazy, not only because it undermines his intent but because, obviously, there are certain autobiographical elements in the original novel. JT and SK are both writers, both alcoholics, and both have sons. Clearly King, like every other reproducing human being ever, feels like he’s had his moments where he’s let Joe down as a father. But he’d also like to believe that when the chips were down he would put his son’s life above all else.

So after decades of stewing about this, King writes another novel in which Dan thinks often of his father, and their complicated relationship, short yet fraught, and ultimately realizes that he loves his father. Dan also goes through AA, just as King has (though he hadn’t back in ‘77). And Jack Torrance gets another chance to save his son’s life, while King gets to have the final word about what happened in Colorado and what it all meant. There are loftier reasons to pen a novel, but there are worse reasons as well, I suppose.

In an afterword to Doctor Sleep, King outright acknowledges that Kubrick’s Shining is a thing that exists, and that anyone who had never read the source novel, but saw that movie, and was looking to Doctor Sleep as a sequel to that story would be very confused and most likely disappointed. Fair enough. King also takes one more shot at Kubrick, saying that he’s aware that people often cite the film of The Shining as one of the scariest movies they’ve ever seen, which is something King cannot wrap his head around.

That insight alone would be worth the price of the hardcover edition to me. (OK, I bought it at Costco, but still.) It comes down to those fundamental philosophical differences again. To King’s mind, if I’m understanding him correctly, the movie The Shining may be a visual tour-de-force of singular accomplishment, but it’s not scary. Scariness is distinct and separate from other emotional states. Kubrick’s Shining is alienating and disturbing, no question. It is a polished strand of the stuff of nightmares captured by the lens. But it’s also heartless. King maintains that the way to scare a person is to give them something to care about and then threaten to take it away (and possibly actually follow through on the threat). King finds his own version of The Shining scary, if he does say so himself, because Jack is relatable and sympathetic and readers get attached to him before he is lost to the darkness in the Overlook. Kubrick skips all that and goes straight for the uncanny. It has a lot to do with the differences between novels and films as narrative vehicles, certainly. But it also has a lot to do with approach. And as for me, I respect Kubrick’s approach, but I’m still a bigger fan of King’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment