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March/April 2020
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David J. Skal
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by David J. Skal

Wet Screams


Stephen King novels often have a disturbing de facto subject percolating beneath a distracting supernatural veneer, one grounded in the kinds of horrors real people struggle with every day, be they the barbaric scapegoating rituals of high school, child molestation, injustices of race and class, or—to zero in on the theme of this column—the scourge of addiction and the pitfalls of recovery, which are key plot elements in the book and film versions of The Shining and Doctor Sleep. The latter is now the latest screen offering from the still-ascending horror maestro Mike Flanagan, who has been deservingly praised for a body of work including his debut fright feature Oculus, the tour-de-force Hush, King's supposedly "unfilmable" Gerald's Game, and the recent Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House.

The embattled odyssey of The Shining from a novel through two rival screen adaptations (the first and more famous one hated by the author, not least for its departures from the original story), a "corrective" print sequel adhering strictly to the original book, and finally a film adaptation attempting to reconcile all the inconsistencies, suggests a book itself going through a protracted stint in rehab.

The psychologically transformative effects of alcohol have always had deep associations with the uncanny, both in legend and literature. The words alcohol and ghoul are derived from the same source, the Arabic al-kuhul or al-gul, both signifying a sense of stealing or possession. The word spirit in the modern, alcoholic sense descends to us from alchemy and the belief that the evaporation of distilled liquors represented a mysterious crossover into ghostly realms. Edgar Allan Poe's drinking demons surely had something to do with the claustrophobic fears and dreadful deliriums on open display throughout his work; Robert Louis Stevenson was another binge drinker, whose Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reflected temperance-era attitudes toward transforming alcoholic elixirs, which were linked to pseudoscientific theories of "degeneration" or reverse evolution.

Another iconic horror author, Bram Stoker, forever associated with a singularly spooky form of drinking, seems to have avoided alcohol in adulthood, but the chronically incapacitating illness he suffered as a boy may well have had something to do with the common over-administration of laudanum (a mixture of alcohol and opium) to Victorian children. His short novel The Primrose Path (1875), a temperance melodrama, has several remarkable—one might say uncanny—points of correspondence to The Shining. Both involve lead characters working/aspiring in the theater. Jerry O'Sullivan, Stoker's protagonist, builds scenery, while King's Jack Torrance is a disgraced English teacher hoping to rebuild himself as a playwright. Both characters undertake a geographical move for much-needed employment, much to their accompanying wives' deep apprehension, and both undergo a malignant personality change by way of alcohol. In key scenes, each man is extended a Faustian bargain by a creepy threshold figure standing behind a bar. Under the influence of drink, the protagonists of The Primrose Path and The Shining both develop a swelling, festering hatred of their dependent wives, who in turn react with the same helpless incomprehension. Where Jack finally attacks his wife with a hammer-like croquet mallet, Jerry fatally employs an actual hammer.

King didn't have ready access to Stoker's story when he wrote The Shining, and the similarity of the stories speaks more to the archetypal suggestive power of demon drink and its consequences than to any direct influence. The writer has spoken frankly and eloquently about his own struggle with alcohol that coincided with the writing of The Shining, and the toll it took on his marriage, and one would naturally expect that any adaptation would mine all the dramatic opportunities.

How Stanley Kubrick overlooked, or simply dismissed the essential underpinnings of King's story and characters is anyone's guess, but as Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson didn't descend or relapse into anything, he was hatter-mad from the outset, and Shelley Duvall as his wife Wendy was downgraded from a supportive-if-perplexed spouse to a flabby punching bag. I'm in complete agreement with King's estimation of the Kubrick film and its impenetrable, navel-gazing intentions, and likewise regard the Mick Garris three-part television adaptation with Steven Weber and Rebecca De Mornay as the definitive interpretation.

Kubrick maintained he was trying to create the ultimate horror film, without much understanding of how the genre, at its best, actually works. He would have done well to take a few pointers—say, from Val Lewton, or, for that matter King's latest interpreter, Mike Flanagan, whose recent work has cranked up character-driven horror to stunning new levels. Shirley Jackson, no doubt, would have liked his ten-part Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House even less than King liked Kubrick's The Shining, since almost everything but the title and her name were discarded, some might say a bit cynically.

In fairness, it's probably best to consider Flanagan's Haunting as an original work. On that basis, he is a master of gradually paced, finely crafted character studies that make him an excellent interpreter of King's most important quality: the ability to make an otherwise impossible/ridiculous premise work through the sheer force of emotional identification. Doctor Sleep has been roundly criticized for its 152-minute running time, which I find puzzling; when I glanced at my watch during the end credits, I was frankly surprised how quickly two-and-a-half hours had passed. A shorter version of the film would have sacrificed the simple pleasure of spending maximum time with characters worth caring about.

In Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor), who nearly died at the hands of his father Jack during a snowbound winter at the Overlook Hotel high in the Rockies, has grown up with two of his father's intractable problems: a susceptibility to supernatural influence and a spiraling-downward dependency on alcohol as a means to suppress it. When he finally hits the messy bottom of his addiction, he travels to New Hampshire to start over with a rigorous AA program and a dedicated sponsor, Billy (Cliff Curtis). He takes a job as a hospice attendant, where his psychic gift—called "the shining" by those who possess it—allows him to comfort dying patients in their transition. "We never end," he reassures them. Given his experiences with the Overlook ghosts, he's in a position to know.

We're not told exactly why Dan relocated to New Hampshire, but it seems to have something to do with a twelve-year-old girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who also shines, but at a megawatt level compared to Dan. She begins writing messages on his wall, and, as they get to know each other, tells him of a child-killing cult she has remotely viewed. Called the True Knot, and led by a most engaging supervillainess, Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the cult comprises a nomadic caravan of psychic vampires crisscrossing the American continent in RVs. Instead of blood, they have a very specific dietary requirement: "steam," a kind of misty ectoplasm generated when psychically gifted children horribly die. True Knotters like Rose greedily vape the stuff, and thereby extend their lives, if not forever, then at least for a decent longer-than-human run.

Many things are not revealed. By what process of supernatural selection did members of the True Knot become the natural predators of those who shine? Is Rose a human being who embraces evil, or evil masquerading as a human being? The psychic dimension in which all this plays out has rules that can be maddeningly loosey-goosey. Abra's version of the shine is apparently an upgrade of Dan's, because it includes bonus powers like telekinesis and astral projection, or maybe it's just an arbitrary imposition by the author to make the plot work. The novel's final portion, disappointingly, gets swamped by so much overlapping telepathy, clairvoyance, astral projection and mind games that you don't know if characters are supposed to be in the same room or not, or in the same mind or not, or just phoning it all in from separate brains in remote locations playing a video game.

The final sequences (which take place a bit awkwardly, but with King's reported blessing, in a recreation of the hotel in Kubrick's movie—in the book, the place burns to the ground) feel like an obligatory theme-park ride through greatest-hit moments of the Warner Bros. film (most of them proprietary to Kubrick and not to King): the famous elevator blood tsunami, the Arbus-like twins, REDRUM, the hedge maze, a male-female confrontation on the Overlook grand staircase (here involving an axe instead of a baseball bat), and, of course, that gloriously decomposing lady taking a bath in Room 237. However, by obliterating the Overlook at the end of the first book, King also deprived himself of a climax Flanagan was completely free to use, and this may be a case where a film's ending is superior in every way to the novel's. After all, those famous Overlook ghosts needed the chance to…well, shine. And they finally help set things right in a more satisfying final twist than originally King provided. A rickety lookout platform built over the Overlook's ashes is simply no substitute for the real thing.

Ewan McGregor is a gifted and versatile actor equally at home in summer blockbusters or indie art films, and here is excellently cast as a Stephen King everyman. He's sincere, sympathetic, and a perfect choice to sell a fantastic premise. Rebecca Ferguson, whose recent roles include the opera diva Jenny Lind in The Greatest Showman, is an extraordinary presence as Rose the Hat, a child-devouring monster rivaling Pennywise the Clown, but with none of the cheap external giveaways, just a jaunty top hat signifying an evil without bottom. You don't pull rabbits from this hat. You throw things in that can never crawl out. As Abra, Kyliegh Curran is a self-assured young performer with a big, talent-guaranteed future. If she overdoes the impossibly precocious-wunderkind-thing a bit, that can probably be forgiven. This is, after all, a film that wouldn't exist without our willing suspension of disbelief in those omnipresent kids with extraordinary powers.


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