Stephen King Q&A: The author explores the origins of The Shining and its sequel Doctor Sleep
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.
Doctor Sleep reveals that Danny became kind of a drifter as a younger man. Who is in his life now — besides the cat?
I wanted to bring a kid into the story to be his surrogate child. I don’t want to go any further with that [in the interview] because I don’t want to give anything away. She’s a little girl and her name is Abra. She’s named after the main female character in the John Steinbeck book East of Eden. I always sort of liked that name. I was able to create a kid character I thought was kind of a throwback to some of the kids that are in Pet Sematary, ‘Salem’s Lot and It — stuff like that. It’s been a long time since I used kids as big characters in a book, so this was a chance to do that.
You did used to write a lot of kid protagonists. Did that taper off because, well, your own kids grew up?
Yeah, you don’t have ‘em anymore! [Laughs.] I don’t want to sound slighting about this, or mean or anything, but they say write about what you know. Having kids is like having your own little ant farm in the house. I observed everything they did and it was possible to create young characters who were real. The other thing I used to think a lot about is there are very, very few books about children that are for adults. You could think of Lord of the Flies and Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer, as examples. There are some, but not many serious novels about that.
If anything, books about kids that are popular with adults are getting more common.
I don’t know how to explain it but there has been this merging of young adult fiction, which is usually about teenagers or younger kids, and adult fiction. And I blame J.K. Rowling. [Laughs.] Harry Potter books were sold as children’s books, but they’re books that everybody read. The same is true of the Twilight books. More of the Twilight audience were young women, but still there were a lot of grown-ups who read that book.
Having a child in Doctor Sleep seems like an important test for Danny. Having someone to protect — or not — would finally reveal whether he really is different from the dad he fears.
I knew if I did this sequel I’d have to try to put together some of the same elements, but at the same time I didn’t want to make it too similar. I didn’t want to make Danny a grown up with kids of his own, and try to replicate that whole losing-your-temper-because-you’re-drunk thing. But I did think to myself: ‘Not only alcoholism can be a family disease, but rage can be a family disease.’ You find that the guys who abuse their children were abused themselves as kids. That certainly fit Danny as I knew him.
Without getting into spoilers, the book has Danny and the girl being pursued by The True Knot, a kind of nomadic group of people who masquerade as Winnebago-riding old timers but feed off people who have psychic energy.
Driving back and forth from Maine to Florida, which I do twice a year, I’m always seeing all these recreational vehicles — the bounders in the Winnebagos. I always think to myself, ‘Who is in those things?’ You pass them a thousand times at rest stops. They’re always the ones wearing the shirts that say ‘God Does Not Deduct From a Lifespan Time Spent Fishing.’ They’re always lined up at the McDonald’s, slowing the whole line down. And I always thought to myself, ‘There’s something really sinister about those people because they’re so unobtrusive, yet so pervasive.’ I just wanted to use that. It would be the perfect way to travel around America and be unobtrusive if you were really some sort of awful creature.
Can you say anything about the settings of Doctor Sleep? Does it take place largely on the road?
I had a chance to return things to the New England setting that I know, but I did go back to Colorado and look around and said I’ve got to try to bring this back around to where the original book was. Everything should come home again. So there is actually a climax in – let’s put it this way – in an area people will remember. But one of the things – and I’m not sure if this is going to be a problem for readers or not – is that Doctor Sleep is a sequel to the novel. It’s not a sequel to the Kubrick film. At the end of the Kubrick film, the Overlook is still there. It just kind of freezes. But at the end of the book, it burns down.
I imagine you had to revisit The Shining before starting. How was that experience?
Oh man, that was a real exercise in self-consciousness. Let’s try to remember the guy who wrote this was barely 30 years old. That’s half the age I am now, and more. I’ve learned some new tricks since then, and I’ve lost some of the original urgency that went into the books at that time. I’m not the same man I was, but that was also sort of the attraction for it.
Have you gone back to re-read any of your other novels?
Not a whole lot. I read It again. I had to do that because I wanted to use it in 11/22/63 – not just because some of the characters from It show up, but because a lot of it was set in [the fictional town of] Derry, Maine, and didn’t remember the geography. I had to go back to and be as careful as I could to get everything to fit together so there would be a smooth transition from one to the other.
Obviously with Doctor Sleep, a smooth transition from The Shining would be critical.
I don’t know if anybody else will care, and I don’t know how many people will want to re-read The Shining before reading this one, but some of them will. And you know how they are: If you get something wrong, they’re very quick to point it out.
Does that really happen to you?
I must’ve gotten, over the years, 200 letters about The Stand and the scene where the female character, Frannie Goldsmith, finally realizes that the guy she’s been with, Harold Lauder, has read her diary. Harold eats all these Payday candy bars and she finds a chocolate thumbprint in her diary. I got all these letters saying: ‘Payday doesn’t make a chocolate Payday! So there couldn’t be a thumbprint.’ It’s just one of those things that makes you say, ‘Oh my God! I went out in my underwear!’
Yes, but then ‘Hey people, the world also didn’t end in 1977 from the superflu.’ So that’s different, too.
That’s true. But that seems to pass them right by! The fact that the world didn’t end isn’t a problem. The chocolate Payday is the problem.
Maybe that’s the difference between our universe and that doomed one. The butterfly effect – if Hershey hadn’t made a chocolate Payday in your fictional world of The Stand, perhaps that pesky super-flu would never have gotten out and destroyed humanity.
The really funny thing is the company started to make a chocolate payday bar a few years later [in 2007]. I don’t know if they got the idea from my book. [Laughs.]
Is it distracting to have to think about little details like that when writing a book?
I have a friend, a guy from Australia named Rocky Wood who’s read everything I’ve written and he’s done a couple books about my stuff. He’s a very close reader, and I actually hired him to read Doctor Sleep to point out all the stuff I got wrong. He came back with a list of 40 or 50 things, including that I’d had Danny remembering his father knocked out Dick Halloran’s teeth with a roque mallet. So Rocky comes back and says, ‘Actually, Dick Halloran had dentures.’
What a mind.
I’m not sure I want to have that mind. [Laughs.]
Were sequels a concept you rejected all these years – or did you just have enough other stories to keep you busy?
I’ve had a lot of original ideas. I’ve been blessed that way. I wouldn’t say I’d never go back and do a sequel to anything else. I do wonder about some of the characters. The characters seem real to me. I’m not crazy, I know they’re not real. But you spend a certain amount of time with them and they seem that way. But in this case, Danny just seemed like such an obvious character to catch up with. Particularly with that power, that ability to touch other people’s minds.
There has recently been talk of a movie prequel to The Shining. It’s based on material cut from your novel, about the early history of the Overlook. Warner Bros, which made Kubrick’s film, has been exploring whether there’s another movie in it. How do you feel about that?
There’s a real question about whether or not they have the rights to ‘Before the Play,’ which was the prologue cut from the book — because the epilogue to the book was called ‘After the Play.’ So they were bookends, and there was really scary stuff in that prologue that wouldn’t make a bad movie. Am I eager to see that happen? No I am not. And there’s some real question about what rights Warner Bros. does still have. The Shining is such an old book now that the copyright comes back to me. Arguably, the film rights lapse — so we’ll see. We’re looking into that. I’m not saying I would put a stop to the project, because I’m sort of a nice guy. When I was a kid, my mother said, ‘Stephen if you were a girl, you’d always be pregnant.’ I have a tendency to let people develop things. I’m always curious to see what will happen. But you know what? I would be just as happy if it didn’t happen.
Some follow-up novels are written by others after the original author has died. It happened to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, and Mario Puzo’s Godfather. Do you ever feel: When I’m gone, that ain’t happening to me, pal?
I understand what you’re saying, and I’m totally in agreement. There have been a lot of sequels to the Sherlock Holmes stories, there have been sequels to Dracula, there’s even a movie in development called Demeter, which is about the trip Dracula takes between Transylvania and England. Now, it might make a tremendous movie, but in a lot of cases I think of those books as, ‘Hey, come on! You’re eating this guy’s dinner! Go find your own dinner!’
Is there ever a scenario where it is cool for someone to pick up where another writer has left off?
Well, John D. MacDonald wrote this series of novels about a guy named Travis McGee and they all had colors in the titles: Pale Gray for Guilt and The Quick Red Fox. The last one was called The Lonely Silver Rain. And John died [in 1986] while he was having a heart bypass operation. His wife had passed on, and he had one child named Maynard who lived in Australia. I thought, ‘What a shame, because there are all these wonderful Travis McGee books, and yet the story kind of ends and leaves you hanging.’ I wrote Maynard a letter because I had an idea, and I said: ‘I would like to write a final Travis McGee novel. I have an idea in mind, and it’s called Chrome, and it will put a button on the series. I don’t want any money for it. I’ll write the book and we’ll give the royalties to charity.’ Maynard MacDonald wrote me a letter and said, ‘I’m very touched by your offer, but I think we ought to leave things as they are because there was only one John D. MacDonald, and he’s passed.’ At the time I was a little bit pissed, but the more I think about it, that was right.
You hope for the same as your legacy?
My kids will exert my wishes and there won’t be anybody to come in and pick things up the way some people have picked up the James Bond books or the Bourne Identity books. I don’t want to see that happen to any of my books. Eventually, the copyrights will run out, and I’ll be in the public domain, but I’ll be long dead by then. People probably won’t even remember. [Laughs.]
Black House, the book you co-authored with Peter Straub, was a sequel to The Talisman. And you’ve written a couple short stories that follow previous books, so this isn’t totally alien territory for you. Most of your books are interconnected. Familiar characters and places tend to pop up. And The Dark Tower series wove everything together.
My son calls those things Easter eggs. There’s a little ‘Salem’s Lot Easter egg in Doctor Sleep. I don’t know if anyone will spot it or not, but it’s there. All of the books kind of relate to other ones. The only exception is The Stand, where the whole world gets destroyed. I guess it’s sort of like Stephen King World, the malevolent version of Disney World, where everything fits together.
I definitely want to buy tickets to Stephen King World.
Let’s put it this way – if there was a Stephen King World, people would only go on the rides … once.
For more Stephen King news, follow @breznican.
This is an extended version of a Q&A that ran in Entertainment Weekly’s Jan. 18 print edition.
For more on the artist who created the illustration at the top of this article: Tyler Jacobson Art