Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: The Shining, by Stephen King

Although I wrote a novel that I call literary with elements of horror, I have never read a horror novel. So, I thought it high time. They say you should read in the genre in which you write, and it has been suggested to me that my novel, although horror by definition, had an issue with respect to the timing of the horror. I needed to find out how the master did it.

This book was first published in 1977, and made into a movie by Stanley Kubrik in 1980. The movie follows the plot pretty well, but the story varies substantially in many details. If you have to read this book for school, don’t rely on the movie to get you through.

I was surprised by the literary quality of the book. The writing here is excellent. There is subtlety, nuance, and metaphor. To a large extent it is a study of human nature and family life, exploring alcoholism and domestic violence, and the things that give rise to them.

For example, the main character, Jack Torrance, is an English teacher aspiring to be a writer, who has a problem with booze and anger. His father before him had a problem with booze and anger, and there is no doubt that such goes back innumerable generations. Jack has trouble keeping a job. In fact, the story opens with him at a job interview for a position as the winter caretaker of a large hotel in the Rockies. He has been fired from his job teaching at a private school, has little money, and a family to support.

Jack’s wife, Wendy, also had problems with her family. She and her mother don’t get a long, and her mother hates her husband. Actually, no one can blame her. As a protag, Jack is not all that likable.

Their son, Danny, whom they call “Doc,” has an imaginary friend he calls “Tony.” Tony tells Danny things. Such as where the trunk with his dad’s manuscripts are when it’s been misplaced, and that he should not go to the hotel for the winter. He shows Danny events of the future. This talent, we learn later, is “the shining.”

Jack gets the job at the hotel, which will be isolated and snowed in all winter. This is a worry for the management, as one of the previous caretakers lost it and killed his family. This doesn’t worry Jack, though, as he is working on a play, and needs the isolation.

When they show up to the hotel, they meet the cook, Mr. Hallorann,  who senses that Danny has “the shining.” He is able to tell the future and to read minds. He warns Danny never to go into room 217. He realizes that he and Danny can communicate through mental telepathy, and the tells Danny to send him a message if they need help.

Well, it doesn’t take anyone with the shining to know that the boy can’t keep away from room 217, and therein begin the problems.

The hotel, which is full of spirits, slowly takes over Jack’s mind, and King slowly builds the tension. Wendy is actually seeing the things, such as the elevator running by itself, hearing music and voices, confetti in the elevator, and so on. Jack is convinced by the hotel spirits that he needs to punish his wife and child “most harshly.” This he ultimately endeavors to do with a mallet for a game similar to croquet called “roque.” 

The book is masterfully written. The only thing that drags it down the hole of genre fiction is the fact that the evil is supernatural. If Jack had slowly gone insane without the aid of the evil forces occupying the hotel, even if the boy had some sort of ESP, the novel would have been literary. So, if only Jack could hear the music and see the confetti, or other apparitions, all of which Wendy sees as well, the story would have changed from one of ghosts to one of a man haunted by his own demons (to use a cliché). Demons such as his father’s drunkenness and brutality toward his mother, his own alcoholism, violent temper, and failure as a teacher and as a writer.

The point is that the writing is very good, and the structure and pace is literary. As mentioned above, it has metaphor. For example, in the course of repairing the roof, Jack finds a big wasp’s nest. The nest and its inhabitants becomes a metaphor for the hotel and the evil that occupies it.

One can also think of the isolation and the constantly howling wind to be a metaphor for Jack’s state of mind. As an alcoholic who has quit drinking, he is constantly hounded with the desire to have a drink, as well as the pressures of supporting a family and writing. He has isolated himself from his family due to his drinking and temper. The same things led him to be unable to keep a job. And he has a good case of writer’s block. 

At the beginning of this review I alluded to my own novel. Structurally, it is similar to The Shining. The horror is not thrown in your face early. It builds up over time, with hints of it coming now and then, intertwined with serious character development and back story. The real scary part does not come until well into the novel, over half way through. This is where the genre has been bent by King. 

If one looks for a definition of the horror genre, it is to the effect that it is designed primarily to scare the reader. Although The Shining has some frightening scenes, it clearly is not intended only to frighten. It is meant to explore character, and the relationships between people. How people are shaped by their parents. How people blame others for misfortunes brought on themselves by their own actions, although these action have predictable outcomes.

Not until the last quarter of the book do we realize through Wendy that what is going on in the hotel is not purely in Jack’s mind. This is the point that it moves from being a work in the literary genre to one in the horror genre. This turning point is very frightening, but it didn’t seem to me that the point to the book was to scare.

What I see is a talented writer who has been cast as a horror writer by ‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie, attempting to write something with literary merit, while at the same time sticking to the genre that made him famous. Consider how many of his books have been made into movies. He succeeded here in producing a work that should appeal to lovers of good literary novels, as well as to horror fans. Five stars.

P.S. Although I like the book and felt that it was well-written, as writer, I did not find it inspiring. Many times when I read something by authors such as Nick Cave or Cormac McCarthy, I am inspired by the writing. I found The Shining to be informative, in that it is a good example of character development, introduction of little details to help us understand the people and to give a sense of place, and how to pepper in back story. But while there were wonderful moments so far as the writing is concerned, it did not inspire me to write.