Herein King succumbs to the decades-old temptation to answer the question “Whatever happened to Danny Torrence after the end of The Shining?”
Danny, as most everyone knows, escaped the Overlook Hotel with the help of Scatman Crothers and Olive Oyl, but as the book and film end (slightly differently) young Danny is still a child — and a child with some nontrivial baggage, too. He’s watched his father descend into madness and try to kill them before dying himself in a doomed and haunted hotel, and that’s completely aside from the other complicating factor: the Shining itself, which is what old Dick Hallorann called Danny’s special abilities. He’d seen that before, you see, which established way back then that Danny wasn’t alone in this gift.
So it’s a good question: what DOES happen to Danny? Doctor Sleep answers that for us, and I wish it were a better answer. By this I don’t mean that King dooms his hero — and disclosing that he doesn’t isn’t much of a spoiler, I don’t believe — but that the story detailing Danny’s later life isn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Everybody wants theirs to be Godfather II, but sometimes you end up with Godfather III instead.
The Stephen King who wrote The Shining is a very different man than the grandfatherly giant of American letters who penned Doctor Sleep, and it shows. The central horror of the earlier novel (as distinct from the Kubrick film) isn’t Jack Nicholson going nuts; it’s being inside the elder Torrence’s head as he loses his grip on reality, sobriety, and his own soul thanks to the evil and supernatural influences of the Overlook. Jack Torrence is a man with a drinking problem, and a man with other untreated issues (rage, impulse control, a chip on his shoulder), but not an irredeemable man, and certainly not a killer or true villain. On paper — as opposed to celluloid — Jack is as much a victim of the Overlook as anyone else; moreso, since he dies there while Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape. What I said in December stands, still: “The horror of the film is being trapped in a haunted hotel with a lunatic. The horror of the book is becoming the lunatic.”
This horror, we might guess, stems from the by-now well documented issues that King himself has had with alcohol and substance abuse, and his own horrors regarding mistreating his family and those around him. Jack takes the job at the Overlook precisely to put himself in a place where he CANNOT DRINK, remember; there’s no booze stored there during the offseason. Despite months of sobriety, he’s still trying to protect himself. And yet, despite these best intentions, the Overlook still claims him.
In Doctor Sleep, it’s no surprise to discover that Danny has inherited his father’s demons, but for a more tactical reason: the booze keeps the Shine away. Booze, a subtextual villain of The Shining, is out in front as a character in Sleep; when we meet Danny, he’s on his way to his own personal bottom well before he encounters the real bad guys of the story. That the arc also describes his recovery — complete with AA scenes and sponsors — is therefore not surprising.
But this isn’t the weak part of the story; King does this well, and like most of his stories he does a fine job of putting you in Danny’s skin as he wrestles with his alcoholism and the demands placed on him by the Shining. The weak part is the “by the numbers” tribe of King-baddies (“the True Knot”) haphazardly linked into the
growing metastasizing continuity of the Greater King Universe. Yes, they’re awful. Yes, they torture and eat children. Yadda yadda yadda. It’s a little by the numbers, and I wanted more here. The earlier book’s strength stems from the fear that you could become the villain, under the right circumstances; here’s they’re just a supernatural Other to be battled and defeated, which is fundamentally less interesting than Danny’s own struggle with sobriety and the sort of “real life” he’s been avoiding for, at this point, decades.
The other weakness, and it’s one I’ve dinged King for previously, is length. You’d think they were paying him by the pound. I have no issue with a long story, but I want there to be enough story to justify the page count, and here (as with 11/22/63, though this is a much better book) there just isn’t. I mean, you rip through it quickly — King remains almost compulsively readable — but the story is thin when stretched out this far.
(By way of footnote, King also ends up repeating something that clanged loudly in the Kennedy book: (Highlight with mouse to read)Of course, when our hero succeeds in saving Kennedy, he returns home to an awful distopia because something something butterfly effect — a story trope that has been done absolutely TO DEATH in SF already, and which King should’ve stayed away from instead of telegraphing for hundreds of pages. Here, what ultimately helps Danny take down the bad guys — metahumans who feed on children who Shine — is the fucking measles. Herbie Wells called, Steve; he wants his deus ex machina back.)