The Need for Challenge: On ‘Doctor Sleep’ and ‘The Shining’

The-Shining-Danny-Rocket-sweater

The Shining had a big effect on me when I read it as a teenager, so I was excited for its sequel, despite that, as King himself points out in the afterword, it’s hard for a sequel to stand up to something that you remember scaring you at some point in the past.

And yeah, Doctor Sleep is more one of those King books that’s not scary so much as interesting, the way I felt his Cell became at about halfway through, where things stop being so heavy on danger to the characters or the unknown evil workings of the antagonists. Still, it was engaging, although if there was something that felt like an underused opportunity in Doctor Sleep, it was Dan Torrance’s alcoholism.

On re-reading The Shining, I was reminded of just how intense Jack Torrance’s struggle to maintain his sobriety is. “White-knuckle sobriety” is an incredibly apt descriptor, and he’s literally falling apart throughout the book in so many ways that when he finally goes over the edge, you’re not sure whether the good man in him has been corrupted, evicted, consumed or just, finally, exposed for what he really is. That conflict and that question are central to the horror of The Shining.

Meanwhile, Dan shakes off alcoholism early in Doctor Sleep with the help of AA, and while I understand that Dan’s journey is intended to be a stark counterpoint to Jack’s — Jack’s pride, manifested mostly in his unwillingness to seek help with his addiction, is his downfall in so many ways, where Dan’s ability to remain humble and lean on others defines him as a character — it takes a lot of tension out of the book. Dan’s battle with his special abilities pretty much evaporates halfway through the story. He’s basically fine from there on out.

There’s little in the way of real conflict for Dan’s character once he’s on the wagon, especially internally, where there’s so much potential that’s not utilized. It felt like a natural outgrowth for Dan to struggle with all his might not to become his father — and then to find himself right there, fighting the same battles, his own immense superpowers actually weighing him down in ways he never anticipated. We only get a taste of what a burden it could be to have those abilities, and then everything sort of works out nicely for the rest of the book, with only occasional stumbling.

So though Doctor Sleep is an interesting take on The Shining free of the enclosed danger-bubble of the Overlook Hotel, I felt like it lost some of the intensity inherent to the premise. Blame it, perhaps, on the years in between — The Shining toils in deep darkness, like many of King’s other books from the same period. Doctor Sleep is decidedly more hunky-dory, a story mostly of dangers defeated and personal demons dispatched, with maybe not quite enough darkness to allow the pair of stories to really relate to one another.

Without anything really pressing on Dan, he loses something as a character. As a child, he was not only special, he was the glue holding his family together. It was a pressure he accepted and on some level, even at a young age, understood. Danny Torrance is one of the more compelling child characters I’ve read.

Dan Torrance, on the other hand, feels so much less challenged in this story. Imagine a hero who discovers a power within himself, and then goes about his life working at a gas station or waiting tables. That’s Dan Torrance here. It makes him feel somewhat passive and uninteresting. It’s not that Dan necessarily needs to be an alcoholic, but the book seems to leave much of his character unexplored because he doesn’t really have all that much to do.

My real sense was that Doctor Sleep and The Shining were only tangentially related rather than one a straight sequel of the other. They seem to fail to function in a complementary way. One does not wrap up loose ends left by the other; one does not seem to really explore the effects of the other fully. Dan’s ultimate fear that he might become his father never plays out. Neither really does Dan ever address that relationship with himself and with the ghost of his dad, the underlying conflict of loving someone while also fearing them, or understanding them and in a way hating them. Doctor Sleep is a solid story, but it’s not a Shining story. It’s another book in another time and another place, and in a lot of ways, maybe written by another author.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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