A man never outlives his father.
That’s a line from William Faulkner, but it applies in earnest to Danny Torrance, the psychic little boy from Stephen King’s The Shining.
King is revisiting the now middle-aged Dan Torrance in the sequel Doctor Sleep (out Sept. 24) which finds him working at a hospice, where he uses his innate supernatural powers to ease the suffering of the dying. Dan may have survived his old man’s madness (and swinging mallet) in the hallways of that long-ago snowbound hotel, but he has grown up to realize that not all demons can be escaped. Some are a part of you.
In a wide-ranging interview with Entertainment Weekly, King reveals the origin story behind Doctor Sleep, talks about the fatherhood fears buried in The Shining, and speculates about what could become of his stories when he’s long, long gone …
Entertainment Weekly: At what point did you first consider reviving this character from The Shining?
Stephen King: Every now and then somebody would ask, ‘Whatever happened to Danny?’ I used to joke around and say, ‘He married Charlie McGee from Firestarter and they had these amazing kids!’ But I did sort of wonder about it.
What finally inspired you to explore that question seriously?
Well, the other thing people would ask me is, ‘How come [his father] Jack Torrance never tried AA?’ Because he was this total dry-drunk in the book who never goes anywhere near a meeting. One of the things you hear from people who go into AA, or people who have substance abuse problems, is they say it runs in the family. … When the [sequel] idea would pop up in my mind I would think, ‘Now Danny’s 20, or now he’s 25. … I wonder if he’s drinking like his father?’ Finally I decided ‘Okay, why don’t I use that in the story and just revisit that whole issue? Like father, like son.
Doctor Sleep finds Dan Torrance as kind of a loner, working with terminally ill patients. His shining comes in very handy there, but what sparked you to the idea he would end up in a place like that?
Probably five years ago, I saw this piece on one of those morning news shows about a pet cat at a hospice, and according to this story the cat knew before anybody else when somebody was going to die. The cat would go into the room, curl up on the bed, and the people never seemed to mind. Then those people died. I thought to myself: ‘I want to write a story about that.’ And then I made the connection with Danny Torrance as an adult, working in a hospice. I thought: ‘That’s it. I’m gonna write this book.’
So the cat was the catalyst – so to speak?
[Laughs] The cat had to be there. It always takes two things for me to get going. It’s like the cat was the transmission and Danny was the motor. The whole sequel idea is really dangerous. I think people have a tendency to approach them with a raised eyebrow like, ‘Hmm, if this guy is going back to where he was 30 or 35 years ago he must be low on ideas. He must be touching empty on the old gas gauge.’ I don’t feel that way, but I did feel in this case it was a real challenge to go back.
How will you judge whether you’ve succeeded?
Basically, the idea of the story was to try and scare the s–t out of people. [Laughs.] I said to myself, ‘Let me see if I can go and do that again.’ There’ve been a couple of books that haven’t really been that way. 11/22/63 was a lot of fun to write and a lot of people read it and seemed to like it, but it’s not what you’d call a balls to the wall scary story. The same was true of Under the Dome. I wanted to go back to that real creepy scary stuff. We’ll see if it works. I like the book, or I wouldn’t have ever wanted to publish it.
The Shining is probably high on the list of favorites among your readers. Did you find that intimidating when deciding to write a sequel?
When I really got serous about it, I thought to myself ‘Do you really want to do this? Because most sequels really suck.’ The only two exceptions I can think to that is Huckleberry Finn, a book that is a sequel to Tom Sawyer but is really a much better book, and I think Godfather II is a much better movie than The Godfather.
How did you get over that?
I’m not going to kid you – I felt a little bit like Rocky Balboa going up against Apollo Creed! [Laughs] It’s got that kind of reputation. A lot of people who got scared to death by The Shining, they’ll come up to me and say, ‘I read that book when I was at camp when I was 12,’ or ‘I read that when I was in high school at 15, and it really scared the living crap right out of me.’ And [while writing Doctor Sleep] I’m thinking, ‘Those people are now in their 40s and they’ve been exposed to Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees and other stuff. It crossed my mind that they might read the new one and say, ‘Well, this isn’t so scary. I thought he was a scary guy!’ And it’s not so much that I’ve changed, but that they’ve grown up and matured. And they aren’t such easy targets!
I think what makes your stories genuinely frightening is the supernatural often stands for something real. Most dads aren’t possessed by haunted hotels, but a lot of people know – or can imagine – what it’s like to have an out-of-control parent.
For a lot of kids, Dad is the scary guy. It’s that whole thing where your mother says, ‘You just wait until your father comes home!” In The Shining, these people were snowbound in a hotel and Dad is always home! And Dad is fighting this thing with the bottle and he’s got a short temper anyway. I was kind of feeling my own way in that because I was a father of small children. And one of the things that shocked me about fatherhood was it was possible to get angry at your kids.
So you drew that from your own fears?
I never had a father in the house. My mother raised my brother and I alone. I wasn’t using my own history, but I did tap into some of the anger you sometimes feel to the kids, where you say to yourself: I have really got to hold on to this because I’m the big person here, I’m the adult. One reason I wanted to use booze in the book is that booze has a tendency to fray that leash you have on your temper.