Prose & Conversation: 'The Shining' and 'Doctor Sleep'
Back in August, my Post-Mortem column about Stephen King's classic work, It, garnered a lot of hits and spurred a lot of conversation. It also sparked a fun idea: Wouldn't it be awesome to host an online book club, talking about older books and re-reading the works we once loved? Then, with the release of Doctor Sleep in September, the idea went a little further, as a Twitter conversation about the book reached near-epic proportions.
Thus, an idea was born. We would host a conversation, a back-and-forth between two LitReactor columnists, and see what we had to say about another King classic: The Shining.
So here we now sit, Richard Thomas and Leah Rhyne, as we talk about re-reading a book that terrified us both as kids. What scared us now? What made us cringe? Read on to find out in this, the first installment of Prose & Conversation.
Richard: So, Leah, how long has it been since you read The Shining? I realized, for me, it's been almost 30 years.
Leah: That was a little bit of a weird thing for me, on picking it up this time around. I realized that, while the first time I read it must have been back in high school (and I just celebrated my 15-year-reunion), I've read it since. The opening pages felt so familiar to me. It was disconcerting.
Richard: Yeah, I read it in high school, too. It's one of those King books that really got my attention, scared the crap out of me. I can remember lying in my bedroom, maybe 16 years old, and I was so scared, I had to pick up the Bible to feel safe.
Leah: Ha! I didn't have you pegged for a Bible-reading man. But I know what you mean. While I didn't have to stash this in hiding spots around my room like I did with It, The Shining definitely scared me to death. I remember sleeping with the light on more than once while I read it back then. And I'd already seen the movie, so I knew what was coming, but it was still...so scary.
Weird thing, though. It didn't scare me like that this time. Did it scare you?
Richard: Reading it when I was a kid, yeah, something about it felt unholy, so reading passages from the Bible made me feel better. And no, I'm not a big Bible reader! This time around, there was definitely tension, and there were a few places that really got to me. Overall, how was this experience for you, this time, vs. the original read? I still think it's some of his best work, and some of the same things really freaked me out, but I don't remember being quite as scared.
Leah: It was such a different experience for me this time around. For one thing, I have a five year old. She's a she, though, so a little distanced from Danny, but the age was spot-on, and I couldn't help placing her in the circumstances. "What if my little girl had to deal with these monsters?" "What if I had to save her from my husband?" Those are the questions that really got to me on this read, and while I wasn't cowering under the covers at night, they definitely got under my skin.
How about you? How'd it differ?
Richard: I think I noticed different things. The hedges, the animals, they always scared me, and still scared me this time. Something about looking away and something changing, the fact that they were leaving marks, that freaked me out. Watching Jack slowly go insane, that was a trip for sure. I felt a lot more tension this time watching him. I forgot that this was really a story about The Overlook, the power it had, and all of the spirits that lingered. It got to me in different places, I think, being a father, too. I kept thinking of Danny's age, and how vulnerable he was.
Of course the biggest difference is that we know how it ends, and there is also the influence of the movie.
Leah: Watching Jack go insane was so startling to me. I don't think I noticed that on my last read. I think I was too busy picturing Jack Nicholson, who, let's face it, rarely appears as un-crazy...which brings us both to the movie version of the book. I think, on this read, I really started to understand why King is very vocally opposed to the Kubrick version.
Richard: I couldn’t agree more.
Leah: I feel like the book is so much about the corruption of Jack, while in the movie? Jack already feels pretty corrupt, from the outset.
Richard: I will never be able to read this book without seeing Nicholson, or Shelly Duvall as Wendy (even though she's BLONDE in the book) and the boy as Danny, and Scatman as Dick.
Leah: Gah, I know, the blonde thing messed with me. Trying to picture Wendy as young, blonde and beautiful didn't work for me. Like you said, I still see Shelly Duvall.
Richard: Yeah, I agree with the slow corruption. When I got to the end, I can totally see why King was pissed.
There were a few scenes in the book, that really made it special, different for me, vs. the movie, can we talk about them a bit?
Leah: Yes, please! Go!
Richard: But the way the film ended, it took away all of his responsibility, his heart, the human behind the shell he became at the end. Here are two scenes:
The first is when he stands back up, on about page 398 of my paperback, and he says to Wendy, "You bitch. You killed me." That floored me. It changed everything about the end of the book. It's subtle, but from that point on, he's DEAD. It's not longer Jack, it's the hotel, the "manager." Did you notice that?
Leah: Yes, I did!! And I had the same reaction. "Oh my God, he's dead! He's not Jack at all anymore!" And that's completely missing in the movie. With all the "Heeere's Johnny" and "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," you completely lose that Jack is absent from the end of the story.
Richard: Right. Here's the other scene:
Towards the end, when Jack finally corners Danny, you think, this is it, the kid is dead. But look at this passage,
It came around the corner.
In a way, what Danny felt was relief. It was not his father. The mask of face and body had been ripped and shredded and made into a bad joke. It was not his daddy, not this Saturday Night Shock Show horror with its rolling eyes and hunched and hulking shoulders and blood-drenched shirt. It was not his daddy.
That shocked me and confirmed what I was thinking. And then we get the heart of Jack, which is what is missing from the film, what almost made me cry:
The face in front of him changed. It was hard to say how; there was no melting or merging of the features. The body trembled slightly, and then the bloody hands opened like broken claws. The mallet fell from them and thumped to the rug. That was all. But suddenly his daddy WAS there, looking at him in mortal agony, and a sorrow so great that Danny's heart flamed within his chest. The mouth drew down in a quivering bow.
"Doc," Jack Torrance said. "Run away. Quick. And remember how much I love you."
That really got to me, so when he bashes in his own face, it's shocking, but we already know that Jack is gone.
Leah: I found this part so interesting and heartbreaking. In a way, isn't that what any abused kid wants, deep in his/her heart? For proof that their parent, their abuser, is absolutely not at fault for the abuse? So, by making Jack completely the hotel at that point, he's indemnified from everything that's happened, right? And that SAVES Danny. Because who could go on after something like this happens, if it was their own, actual, living parent trying to do all these terrible things? I surely couldn't. The hotel, by going so deep into Jack, and taking him so far out of himself, actually SAVES Danny. Inadvertently, sure, but it does it. And I loved that. Because it's so completely warped and bizarre and shocking.
Richard: Right? I forgot that entire aspect of the novel, that's why I think it's still a relevant book, worth reading.
Leah: Yes. For sure. Although, through the whole thing I had to laugh — parenting has changed so much in the last few decades. There's a scene early on in which Jack leaves Danny in the car while he makes a phone call. Can you imagine leaving a five year old in a car these days? I think you'd be arrested!
Richard: Yeah, I kept checking to see how old he was. Twelve? No, five.
One thing that was surprising, and this leaks over into Doctor Sleep, is the heavy narrative on alcoholism. I forgot about that. I know King's history, but still.
Leah: Yeah, it oozes the alcoholism, doesn't it? Every aspect of the story is affected by it. And it makes it truly feel like a disease. Jack is SICK. He's not just a boozer.
Richard: It fades in this book as well as Doctor Sleep, but it's a pretty important aspect of the novels, right?
Leah: Absolutely, and how the choices we make set us up for the rest of our lives. If Jack hadn't made the choices he made (influenced by his disease, sure, but still choices) he never would have wound up at the Overlook, where he met such a terrible end. Had Danny not grown up and finally made some better choices despite his own alcoholism, he'd never have come to such a good place in his own life.
Richard: Exactly. It brings to mind one line that I marked: "This inhuman place makes human monsters." Which really sums up the novel, I think.
Leah: Yes! I noted that too! Get out of my brain!
Richard: It really helps the reader to feel sympathy for all of the characters. So when we get to the end, it's a pretty hopeful message, an uplifting moment, despite all of the insanity.
Leah: Which is WEIRD for an early Stephen King novel, don't you think?
Richard: Totally. Were you surprised at the language? I forgot how much cursing there was in this book! I laughed a lot, throughout, which is a nice way to ease the tension.
Even a little sex, which King is known for avoiding.
Leah: I don't remember the language surprising me much, but what did surprise me was the way the parents behaved around Danny, even on their good days. There are multiple times they talk about Wendy's nudity while Danny's in the room, and maybe I'm just a prude, but I was all, "Woman! Put on a robe!"
And yes. Sex. With Danny asleep on the cot in their room. That freaked me out!
Richard: Right? One thing that made me laugh early in the book was him talking about getting a few stories published, like a story in Esquire. Did that make you laugh, break you out of the story a bit? I thought, RIGHT, like that happens.
Leah: Ha! Yes, but I try not to be a Jaded Writer, sometimes. Still, it very much made me realize times have changed. Maybe that was possible...then. Now? Not so much.
Oh, and it killed me that Wendy stayed in her pajamas for the entire end of the book. Again, "Woman! Get dressed! In warm clothes! You're in Colorado for God's sake!"
Richard: Seriously. I think one of the things King does well in this book is create tension. The last 100 pages, I think I was sweating. Did you feel like there were pockets of tension that really got to you? The ending was pretty tense for me.
Or what scenes scared you the most—Room 217, the hedges, the ballroom, the playground?
Leah: Dick's trip north about destroyed me. When he's flying to Colorado and the plane gets stuck in the snow storm and the people were vomitting...it was too much for me! I had to set it down. I guess I have a little more fear of flying than I like to admit.
Richard: Yes! I love how he jumped back and forth. How Dick was thwarted at every turn, and then runs into those with the shining, too, who help him. Really kept the pages turning, kept things taut.
Leah: Dick's my hero. Hands down. Even though he gets clobbered as soon as he arrives. Poor guy.
Richard: Yeah, I always liked him. Shoot, I just can't type that I loved Dick. I guess I'm the five year old now.
But overall, seriously, did you still love the book, before we touch on Doctor Sleep? I gave it five stars again, and while it wasn't as terrifying as the first read, and how could it be, it was a wild ride. I really enjoyed it. I kind of want to watch the movie again, too.
Leah: I loved it. So much. When I met King at a signing last year, I choked out the words, "Thank you." He looked startled and asked for what. I said, "For years of terror and inspiration." I mean it now more than ever. I am such a little fangirl. I can't help it.
Richard: Lol, that's about how I would react when meeting him. I still haven't met him in person. No matter what I'd say, I'd sound like an idiot.
Leah: I'm sure I did, but who cares. He signed my copy of On Writing. But more about that another time. Now. Doctor Sleep....let's do a quick thumbs up/thumbs down together, okay?
Richard: I think the moments that really spoke to me in The Shining also carried over to Doctor Sleep. The ending with Doctor Sleep, his father reappearing, really had me in tears. I think it's not nearly the book that The Shining is, but I think it's a solid read, well worth reading, and stacking it on top of the The Shining is really interesting. Thumbs up.
I was fascinated by how Danny grew up, dealt with his own alcoholism, and then used his shining for good. Touching story, not nearly as tense.
Leah: I cried like a little baby at the end. Seriously, it was embarrassing. I found it so satisfying. It's not a scary book, not like The Shining, but it's a love letter to Danny, if that makes sense. It lets him find his way in this world, and even when the going gets tough, Danny's got what it takes to carry on.
I loved it. It didn't scare me at all, but I loved it.
Richard: And the ending, while it has some great moments, was a LITTLE bit underwhelming for some reason.
Leah: True. The final battle was over pretty quickly, but still. Jack. Oh Jack. How I loved you in that moment.
Oh, rats. Was that a spoiler??
Richard: I wanted more violence towards the bad guys, it wasn't as vengeful, but yeah...Jack. No, I don't think you spoiled anything there.
Leah: I wanted the bad guys to suffer a bit more, perhaps, but Jack. Mmmmmm. I loved it.
Richard: If I give The Shining 5/5, I give Doctor Sleep 4.5/5. I think The Shining will always be a special King title, for me, in my top five King books ever, with It, The Stand, The Dark Tower series (if I can cheat like that) and The Long Walk.
Leah: You know how I feel about It. It's still my favorite, with The Shining and The Stand close behind. But something about Doctor Sleep was just so sweet. It's up there, for me, and I'm ridiculously okay with that fact.
Richard: I definitely think it's his best in years: the little girl, how Danny helps people cross over, going back to the Overlook, the ending. Great book, for sure. And I hope that, no matter what, people will go out and read King, pick up his old stuff, revisit books, or try those classic King titles they've been putting off—and remember why he's the king!
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