In Rodney Ascher’s 2012 documentary Room 237, six devotees of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining speak at length and in obsessive detail about the hidden meanings revealed to them by repeat viewings of the film. Each of the Shining scholars heard from (but not seen) in Ascher’s movie brings a different hypothesis to the table, suggesting that Kubrick’s film — superficially a cruel and elegant cabin-fever thriller about Jack Torrance, a writer who tries to murder his wife and son while snowbound in a Colorado hotel — is actually, secretly, about the Holocaust, or the genocidal extermination of Native Americans, or Kubrick’s guilt over having helped the U.S. government fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Long before we’re introduced to the guy who believes The Shining doesn’t give up the subtextual goods unless you screen it simultaneously backward and forward, you realize that what you’re watching isn’t really a movie about Stanley Kubrick or the buried subtext of any one film; it’s a movie about close reading as a form of benign psychosis, and the way any work of art bends to suit your point of view if you stare at it long enough.
Virtually every piece of information Kubrick puts onscreen in The Shining is examined in Room 237, right down to the brand of baking powder in the Overlook Hotel’s pantry. But almost no one mentions Stephen King, except to discount him. King wrote the 1977 novel that provided Kubrick’s film with its plot, characters, setting, and title; he also took at least one shot at writing a screenplay for the movie version. But Kubrick discarded that script, choosing instead to rework the material with novelist and screenwriter Diane Johnson, and you get the sense that Ascher’s cast of Shining-ologists — who don’t seem interested in plot or character except as a delivery system for coded messages — view King’s importance to Kubrick’s finished film as about equal to Pete Best’s impact on the White Album. Even this is supposedly coded into the movie; the Torrance family’s Volkswagen is red in the novel and yellow in the film, and one of Ascher’s subjects suggests that the totaled red Volkswagen Scatman Crothers drives past on his way back to the Overlook is Kubrick signaling that he and not King is in total control. There’s room for only one auteur-god in this belief system.
King has yet to weigh in on Ascher’s film, but over the years he has made his feelings about Kubrick’s abundantly clear. In a Cinefantastique interview from 1978, two years before anyone had seen the movie, he answers a lofty question about Kubrick’s supposedly “Freudian” view of society — an invitation to wax Stanley’s car in print if ever one there was — by popping off about movie directors in general (“In intellectual terms, they are pinheads, by and large”) and expressing reservations about Kubrick rewriting his ending. He refers to Kubrick as “one of the three or four greatest directors of our day, maybe of all time,” then calls him “indulgent, terribly indulgent” in the very next sentence; elsewhere in the same piece, he says he’d have liked to see The Shining brought to the screen by either Don Siegel or Ingmar Bergman. He calls the decision to cast Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance “absolutely grotesque,” and suggests that either Martin Sheen or Michael Moriarty might have made a better Jack Torrance than an actor audiences lately knew best as Randle P. McMurphy, mental patient.
On that score, he may have been right; Nicholson had played quiet men before, but he only has that one grim smile, and whenever he flashes it in the early scenes of Kubrick’s film, the movie tips its hand. “If the guy is nuts to begin with, then the entire tragedy of his downfall is wasted,” King told Playboy in 1983. “What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining,” he continued, “is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.”
“I’d like to remake The Shining someday,” he said, “maybe even direct it myself if anybody will give me enough rope to hang myself with.” King did eventually buy back the screen rights to the book, and in 1997, he wrote and executive-produced a dispensable ABC miniseries adaptation, directed by Mick Garris, who also helmed the 1994 miniseries version of The Stand; it solved the Nicholson problem by casting the reliably uninteresting Steven Weber as Jack. King recovered the rights on the condition that he’d stop publicly disparaging Kubrick’s version. “For a long time I hewed that line,” he told CBS News in June. “And then Mr. Kubrick died. So now I figured, what the hell. I’ve gone back to saying mean things about it.”
King’s new novel, Doctor Sleep, is a sequel to The Shining, and he makes sure to tell us in the afterword that it picks up from the end of the original book (which he considers “the True History of the Torrance Family”) rather than the movie, “which many seem to remember — for reasons I have never quite understood — as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.”
It’s a pretty unnecessary clarification. The movie ends with Crothers’s character, the kindly head chef Dick Hallorann, killed with an ax by Jack Torrance and the Overlook still standing; in the first book, Hallorann lives and the Overlook is destroyed. Regardless, Doctor Sleep begins about where you’d expect it to, with Torrance’s son Danny and his mother living in Florida, far from snow and ice, struggling to move past the trauma they endured in Colorado. Danny still has the telepathic/precognitive gift known as “the shine.” He’s still seeing visions of the party-hearty revenants who haunted the Overlook, including Mrs. Massey, the putrefying nude woman from the bathtub of Room 217; as in the first book, they’re not exactly ghosts.
Hallorann reappears to teach Danny how to fight off these apparitions, but he can only do so much. When we meet the adult Dan Torrance a chapter or so later, it’s sometime in the Clinton years and he has become an alcoholic like his father, partly because booze dulls his psychic sensitivities. One morning he wakes up in bed with a strange woman, frightfully hungover. In the living room, there’s coke on the table and a toddler in a putrid diaper. Dan moves the coke out of reach, but filches cash from his date’s wallet and runs, abandoning the kid to whatever his fate might be. Guilt-ridden, he drifts north, to New Hampshire, and then into AA, and when we meet him again — as always, King’s prologues have prologues, and this is a book in which “Part One” starts on page 50 — he’s closing in on three years sober and working as a nurse in a hospice, often using the “shine” to help comfort terminally ill patients as they cross from life into death. He’s not a doctor, but on the ward they call him Doctor Sleep.
One reason the book takes a while to get going is that King also has to introduce us to Abra Stone, a little girl whose mental powers may dwarf Dan’s, as well as the True Knot, a coven of gypsy-carny vampires who refer to humans as “rubes” and travel the country in a caravan of mobile homes, kidnapping psychic kids and torture-murdering them to harvest a life energy they call “steam.” You know where this is going. You know exactly where this is going — to a mountaintop in Colorado, where there once stood a fine hotel. What happens in between is a Stephen King novel, which means horror grounded in the 21st-century mundane. Vampires use a Google Earth–ish website called Whirl360 to stalk their prey, Abra defends herself on the astral plane by channeling Daenerys Targaryen, and when Dan and Abra first meet face-to-face after communicating telepathically (via Tony, once Dan’s imaginary friend, now his inner child), he worries about how it looks, thinking of To Catch a Predator.
The young-Danny prologue and a few callbacks notwithstanding — including a soap-opera twist that’s beneath even an unashamed entertainer like Unca Steve — Doctor Sleep is a sequel that stands on its own, almost to a fault. Although the Knot’s fixation on Abra mirrors the Overlook’s desire to possess Danny in the first book, there’s no real connection between the one evil and the other, so the return to the mountains feels a little convenient. And aside from Abra’s feisty Italian great-grandma, the supporting cast never really snaps into focus. It’s interesting that King’s follow-up to his archetypal monster-father book is full of dads and surrogate dads putting their lives on the line for a little girl, but the various solid older dudes Dan enlists to help him protect Abra are men without qualities, as if King’s counting on the casting director of the inevitable film version to differentiate them. On the plus side, King’s a better, less excitable prose stylist than he was in 1975. He does with a laser what he used to do with a boxing glove. And while the trip to Colorado doesn’t quite satisfy as a plot turn, it sets up the book’s most stinging callback to its predecessor, and one crushing sentence that has the whole emotional weight of The Shining in it: “His daddy had been a scary man, and how that little boy had loved him.”
So it’s a just-OK vampire novel and a surprisingly moving book about the adult child of an alcoholic; I can live with that. I’m not sure it reclaims the legacy of the Torrances from Kubrick the way King seems to wish it would. The Shining has its flaws as an adaptation, but except for maybe Brian De Palma’s Carrie, no other film based on a King book works as pure cinema in quite the same way. I have a soft spot for The Dead Zone, partly because of Christopher Walken sending up his Johnny Smith character years later on Saturday Night Live (“You’re going to LEAVE the COFFEE in the CAB! You’re WASTING COFFEE!”); I think Rob Reiner did right by both Stand by Me and Misery; I think The Running Man makes inspired use of Richard Dawson; and while I probably shouldn’t admit this on this website, I have to confess that I’ve always found The Shawshank Redemption unbearably maudlin, a simpering salt-and-pepper Beaches with prison rape.
The Shining makes all those movies look like toys. It carves away big chunks of King’s narrative and trusts in rich color and malignant winter sunlight and Krzyzstof Penderecki to put its points across; it makes use of all the things movies can do that books can’t. I’m pretty sure all the Room 237 people are delusional, but they’re right that the movie has an elemental power that neither time nor repetition seems to be able to diminish. And it’s the movie, not the book, that has rippled outward through pop culture. That moment a few weeks ago on Breaking Bad, where (spoiler alert) Skyler slashes Walt’s palm with a kitchen knife, and the look of shock that crosses both their faces? Go back and watch Shelley Duvall on the stairs, swinging the bat at Nicholson, and the way they both react when she hits his hand. I’m sure it’s an inadvertent homage — but I have to assume some trace of The Shining bubbles up in the subconscious of anyone trying to illustrate onscreen that a marriage has come to the unthinkable. (And it goes without saying that Jack Torrance is the role Bryan Cranston was born to play, even if he never will.)
And yet: I can see why King keeps on throwing shade at the movie, and I don’t think it’s purely about being treated like the Peter Benchley to Kubrick’s Spielberg. I read The Shining for the first time in the ’90s, during an intense early high school King phase, found it to be enjoyably creepy and only a little overrated, and filed it away. This year I read it again, as the parent of a young child, and found it wrenching and horrifically sad. I’m emotionally defenseless when it comes to kids-in-jeopardy stories now, and that’s part of it, and I’m a writer, and sometimes it’s hard to keep from bringing the frustrations of the job with me to the dinner table, and that’s part of it, too. I’m sort of uniquely a mark for this book now. At 15 I could shrug it off; at 36 it gave me nightmares.
The Shining was King’s third novel (Doctor Sleep is, Jesus, his 51st), and in some ways it’s the most personal of his early works. You can see him drawing on his experience as a high school teacher in Carrie, and ‘Salem’s Lot features the first of countless King protagonists who happen to be writers. But that’s normal write-what-you-know stuff. The Shining is a confession.
“You always hide what you’re confessing to,” King once said. “That’s one of the reasons why you make up the story … As a young father with two children, I was horrified by my occasional feelings of real antagonism toward my children. Won’t you ever stop? Won’t you ever go to bed? And time has given me the idea that probably there are a lot of young fathers and young mothers both who feel very angry, who have angry feelings toward their children. But as somebody who had been raised with the idea that father knows best, and Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, and all this stuff, I was really sort of sickened by my own feelings … So when I wrote this book I wrote a lot of that down and tried to get it out of my system.”
You always hide what you’re confessing to. For at least the first 80 pages, minus a few glimpses of Danny’s abilities, The Shining is almost entirely a book about alcoholism and its toll on the Torrance marriage. We learn about the time Jack attempted to discipline Danny while drunk and accidentally broke his arm; we meet Jack’s faculty drinking buddy Al Shockley, who calls martinis “martians.” They swear off booze at the same time, after Shockley hits a child’s bicycle while drunk-driving home with Jack in the car; there’s not a child on it, but the possibility is enough to scare them both sober. But we also get a detailed account of what it was like before that:
He hadn’t believed he was an alcoholic, Jack thought as Al’s telephone began ringing in his ear. The classes he had missed or taught unshaven, still reeking of last night’s martians. Not me, I can stop anytime. The nights he and Wendy had passed in separate beds. Listen, I’m fine. Mashed fenders. Sure, I’m okay to drive. The tears she always shed in the bathroom. Cautious looks from his colleagues at any party where alcohol was served, even wine. The slowly dawning realization that he was being talked about. The knowledge that he was producing nothing at his Underwood but balls of mostly blank paper that ended up in the wastebasket.
Underneath it all, The Shining is a book about a dry drunk who relapses and turns on his own family. Years later, in his memoir On Writing, King says that in 1975, when he wrote the book, “the part of me that writes the stories” knew he was an alcoholic. This is the same book where he admits he doesn’t remember writing Cujo because he was drinking a case of Miller Lite tallboys every night. On Writing is fantastic; Cujo is pretty terrible but not as bad as it probably should be. Fearing that drinking was inseparable from his process as a writer, King didn’t get clean until the late ’80s. By then he had also acquired a cocaine habit. In that state, he directed the movie Maximum Overdrive — you can tell — and wrote books like Misery, in which a writer is held hostage by a nurse who both soothes and cripples him and forces him to keep writing on pain of death.
The metaphors got more obvious. “In the spring and summer of 1986,” he writes, “I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.” The book’s protagonists are an alcoholic poet and a fiction writer possessed by psychic aliens who begins building fantastic science-fiction machines in her garden shed, including a device that lets her literally crank out books in her sleep. King’s wife staged an intervention shortly thereafter.
Doctor Sleep is dedicated to the late singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, occasional sideman for King’s terrible all-writer band the Rock Bottom Remainders and — until he got sober in the ’80s — one of rock’s great drunks. Zevon died of cancer in 2003, but King lived to turn 66 this month, thanks in part to Alcoholics Anonymous, whose Big Book provides this one with two epigrams. In The Shining, the part of King that writes the stories was crying for help. That voice is calmer now. As a horror novel, Doctor Sleep doesn’t compare to the book King wrote 36 years ago as a man living in fear of his own potential to do harm. But in moments it’s as tender as anything he’s ever written, particularly in the scenes where Dan sits with his dying charges. This is how far King has come: After years of dispatching his characters via flying-manhole-cover decapitation, superflu, and alien ass-monster, he has finally written a book in which many people die peacefully of old age.