Last week, I touched on Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining now available in book or movie form to suit your preference. I mentioned that The Shining had been a benchmark in my development as both a young reader and a young human, expressed bewilderment at King’s decision to return to the story of Danny Torrance (which I had thought more or less concluded), and finally expressed my misgivings about King’s persistent use of the suffering of children in his work (which I in no way attribute to malice – quite the opposite, actually). I also mentioned that in tracing the journey from The Shining to Doctor Sleep we can examine recurring themes and answer the question “What haunts Stephen King?”
Certainly, the jolly, rotting specter of alcoholism. References to substance use disorder – particularly alcohol use disorder – are so abundant in King’s work that they have become ubiquitous. It seems as common for one of his characters to slip into an AA meeting as it for them to open a Coca-Cola or pet a dog. Another recurring theme in his work is the paranormal, in particular parapsychology as understood circa about 1976 (no shade on King for this – that was the high water mark of parapsychology, which is a delightfully diverting branch of pseudoscience that I am also fascinated by). Both of these tropes are represented in top form in The Shining and make a welcome comeback in Doctor Sleep. To my surprise, there turned out to be quite a bit of story left to tell regarding Danny Torrance. Not just the story of his fate and his friendship with a precocious new psychic talent. No, what was most interesting was watching Danny deal with his demons regarding his father and the events that transpired at the Overlook Hotel back in the late 1970s. The literal/figurative “ghosts from our past” symbolism in Danny’s return to the Overlook may have seemed a little heavy-handed, but I’m willing to give King that one – The Shining earned him at least one pass on a low-hanging metaphor in Doctor Sleep.
One thing that struck me about the path from The Shining to Doctor Sleep is that it is a journey – a 36-year stretch of incredible and prolific output – defined in many ways by the suffering of the innocent, in particular the suffering of children. Novels in which children are protagonists or victims are too numerous to count – just among his more prominent books, think of Cujo, of It and The Talisman and Firestarter and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. And those are only books in which the sole/primary protagonist is a child. He has many more in which a kid being pursued and possibly ingested by something horrible constitutes a subplot.
The character of Danny Torrance poses an interesting case. In him, we get a cacophony of echoes, a time trap of pain and innocence. Between The Shining and Doctor Sleep, we experience the horrors of the Overlook (and of psychic-ness in general, it would seem) from the points off view of Jack Torrance, Danny as a child, Danny as an adult, and his young protégé Abra Stone, all more or less overlapping as time and stories tend to do when sinking in the decaying madness of the Overlook. And this chaotic jumble of persons and timelines may prove the Rosetta stone to King’s foregrounding of the suffering of children.
I believe that one of the central messages of the journey, whether Danny’s or ours, from The Shining to Doctor Sleep, is that each of us – hero, villain, or something in between – was once a child. Each of us, therefore, bears inside of us that child and all the hurt, love, wrath, and sorrow visited upon that child. Perhaps one of King’s greatest gifts as a writer is his ability to access the psyche of that child within each of us in his writing. When he speaks of – and to – childhood pain, we all hear and understand what he is saying. And when, as is the case with Danny Torrance, he implies that the hungry ghosts of our childhood may never, ever leave us, could there be anything more terrifying?
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