When Stephen King announced he was to publish a sequel to his novel The Shining, the hearts of fans gave as many lurches as leaps. The Shining (1977) is one of the most cherished and well known of King’s novels, partly due to the Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation. Sequels are often disappointing and King’s output has not been consistently good for a while. An author is in trouble when publishers routinely use ‘a return to form’ press quotes on his dust jackets.
In The Shining, troubled Jack Torrance accepts the position of hotel caretaker as a last resort after losing his teaching job. He, his wife Wendy and son Danny move into the isolated mountain hotel to maintain it while it is cut off by winter snow. Gradually, the evil presence of the hotel works to terrify the child and unhinge the father until conflict erupts in violence and madness.
King’s two great talents are for inventing memorable characters and coming up with intriguing premises. His best work tends to rely on simple conceits which are followed to their logical conclusions with as little deviation as possible: what if a novelist were kidnapped by a psychotic fan (Misery); what if four boys went to find a dead body (The Body/Stand by Me); what if a supermarket were suddenly surrounded by a mist infested by monsters (The Mist)? In Pet Sematary, King’s most disturbing novel, the premise is ‘what if a grieving man were able to resurrect his dead son?’. It is a brilliant study of harrowing grief and misguided, lunatic hope, with the supernatural merely providing a framework which allows the drama to unfold.
In The Shining the premise is: what if an unstable man were to be trapped in a hotel with his family? At its heart, the drama of The Shining is three believable characters trapped together and subject to huge emotional pressure. The real drama is in the deteriorating relationship within the family – the fact that a haunted hotel acts as the catalyst is incidental. Jack Torrance is already sufficiently haunted by alcoholism, rage and guilt.
The Shining is a novel full of insights into marital estrangement, violence in families, alcoholism, and the effects of poverty. Kubrick realised this and for his movie he stripped out as much of the supernatural as possible (though he also had to lose much of the backstory which fills out the characters). Kubrick’s story is of a man who is compelled by inner demons to destroy himself and his family, a humanistic interpretation of the story which King has always resented. In Doctor Sleep, King sets out to reclaim the Overlook Hotel’s ghosts and Dan Torrance as participants in an overtly supernatural struggle between Good and Evil.