The Never-Quenched Thirst:
When does a supernatural tale move beyond being ‘just’ that? When does a ghost story stop being ‘only’ a ghost story? When do they cross some invisible psychic line and become something more?
When does what seems on the surface to be a yarn about a peculiar kind of vampire become a harrowing look at the illness of alcoholism? Then again, they both are horror stories, aren’t they? It’s just that in the latter case it is the bottle that’s the vampire, sucking the life out of its victims.
Stephen King’s enormous body of work has always straddled whatever we laughingly call the ‘real’ world with what is sometimes a little off-kilter. And sometimes a lot off-kilter.
By introducing numerous examples of popular culture in a seamless way, King has always made us believe—and sometimes genuinely fear—the more outré worlds that he’s showing us. The characters in his novels live just like the rest of us, not in the vacuum that many fictional characters seem to live in: they watch the same TV shows, see the same movies, are interested in the same sports, have the same jobs.
I think that King must have shied away many times from writing a sequel to one of his most popular works: The Shining. After all, it is a piece of art that is as defined by Stanley Kubrick’s movie version as by King’s novel. I would go so far as to say much more so. When you mention the character of Jack Torrance I would think that most people will remember Jack Nicholson’s Grand Guignol turn rather than the truly tortured, three-dimensional Jack of the book. Mention Wendy and they’ll have an unfair opinion of how annoying they thought that Shelly Duvall was in the film, instead of the very capable woman depicted in the novel. Jeez, Duvall (a fine actress) got the short end of the stick with that movie all right. It wasn’t down to her that she had to portray Wendy as a useless screaming cipher the whole way through. That was purely control freak Kubrick’s vision, not anyone else’s.
Like King, I am totally puzzled as to why so many people find The Shining to be one of the most terrifying films ever made. And yet, as with most of Kubrick’s movies I find it hard to take my eyes off them when they make an appearance. With the obvious exception of the preposterous, over-rated load of unwatchable twaddle that is A Clockwork Orange. (And yet, perversely, my all-time favourite film, so many years later, remains his brilliant Barry Lyndon.)
Doctor Sleep, however, is King’s sequel to the novel, not the movie. Yet, with the blurring that seems to be common with a discussion of movie- versus- the- book (an enjoyable if pointless exercise at the best of times), in this particular case it is not that hard to see the angelic little kid who played Danny in the movie growing up to be the Dan Torrance of Doctor Sleep.
The first hundred or so pages chart Dan’s progress since the events of the seventies that have left him so emotionally scarred. Despite the promise he has made to himself he has followed his father down the drinker’s path, and as with his father he finds that alcohol lets loose an uncontrolled, unfocussed violence in him. He spends his years wandering from state to state, always avoiding Colorado, the shadow of the Overlook Hotel and the events that still hang over him. And of course he still possesses the psychic gift of ‘the shining’ which stamps him out from others but which the booze is effective at dampening.
His mother Wendy has died and he has –unforgivably in my opinion—lost touch with his friend and mentor Dick Hallorran. Yet the booze remains and trails faithfully after him, no matter where he goes until one day he finds himself in the small town of Frazier where he stops running and finally joins Alcoholics Anonymous. As we move into the present day we find him a fairly contented man, accepting the gift that makes him different and using it as a tool to do good in his job as an orderly in the local hospital. It is here that his talent for assisting the dying gives him the affectionate nickname of Doctor Sleep. He has even begun in a way to come to terms with the alcoholism that has tormented both him and his late father:
“’There were a bunch of bars down that way. One was called the Broken Drum… When my father and I walked past it, he’d always stop and look in the window, and I could feel how thirsty he was to go inside. So thirsty it made me thirsty. I drank a lot of years to quench that thirst, but it never really goes away. My dad knew that.’”
But it is inevitable that Dan will one day have to return to the site of the Overlook.
The True Knot
Things start to get shaken up when he befriends an extraordinary thirteen-year-old girl called Abra Stone, who has the most powerful talent for shining that he has ever come across. Abra’s gifts range from telepathy to telekinesis, astral projection and much more besides. She is an ordinary kid in many ways and yet she is genuinely frightening.
She is also being pursued by a group of real monsters (although they look perfectly normal) who call themselves the True Knot. Travelling the byways of America in their camper vans and mobile homes, they are an immensely wealthy group of ageless nomads who continue to exist by torturing to death children with the gift of the shining and inhaling their ‘steam’ as they expire in agony. They may mostly look like safe middle- American types, but they are led by a beautiful woman in a top hat called Rose. Rose the Hat.
This image of the True Knot and their fleet of mobile homes is curiously disturbing (I was reminded of the travelling vampires of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark) and even more so is the fact that these monsters love and care for each other.
At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that credibility would be well and truly strained. But this is what I mean about King bringing in the ordinary little details. For example, when Ben befriended the young Mark Petrie in his second novel, Salem’s Lot, he had less worries about suspicious jeepers peepers being turned on him as he travelled south to Mexico. But Doctor Sleep is set in 2013 and so Dan is a bit wary of being seen as too friendly with Abra. And then there’s Abra’s obvious connection with popular culture, which King knows damned well subtly helps the reader to accept her amazing powers:
“She was more convinced by the fact of his email than its content, because she knew he didn’t like communicating that way; he was afraid her parents would snoop in her mail and think she was exchanging notes with Chester the Molester.
“If they only knew about the molesters that she really had to worry about.
“She was frightened, but also—now that it was bright daylight and there was no beautiful lunatic in a tophat peering in the window at her—rather excited. It was sort of like being in one of those love-and-horror supernatural novels, the kind Mrs. Robinson in the school library sniffily called ‘tweenager porn’. In those books the girls dallied with werewolves, vampires—even zombies—but hardly ever became those things.
It was also nice to have a grown man stand up for her, and it didn’t hurt that he was handsome, in a scruffy way that reminded her a little of Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy, a show she and Emma Deane secretly watched on Em’s computer.”
The True Knot can also sense when a disaster—natural or otherwise—is about to take place and will gather there accordingly , in order to take steam from the dead, given that in any large group there are bound to be some who have the shining, even in a limited way.
I must confess to being uncomfortable with the early scene in which they gather in New York, waiting for the Twin Towers attack to take place. Yeah, maybe I’m a wimp, but I was uneasy with this mixing of horror fiction with horror fact.
Doctor Sleep opens with two quotes from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous; and the prologue and epilogue both start with old AA sayings. Unlike The Shining, where Jack Torrance’s alcoholism is something that was just there, the Need, the Thirst hangs over this entire book like the stale last-night’s-beer smell that you get when you go into a bar first thing in the morning. It’s repulsive and desirable. And yeah; I was that guy. Many times I was that guy.
Stephen King has been open about both his alcoholism and his drug addiction so I won’t rehash that here.
It’s not too much of a stretch, though, to imagine the True Knot as alcoholics in their own way. After all, they too have a Need that won’t be satisfied and which—as we learn quite early—will ultimately kill them.
Yet it was one sentence that stayed with me after the pages were closed. King has been known to over-write things on occasion (!), but he got it spot on this time. Dan is remembering his father, who had once broken his arm and then later had tried to kill him; and perhaps he echoes many a child with a violent, alcoholic father, when he muses:
“His daddy had been a scary man, and how that little boy had loved him.”
Now…that is haunting.