Friday, October 24, 2014

Book Review - Stephen King's The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King
Published by: Pocket Books
Publication Date: January 28th, 1977
Format: Paperback, 683 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Jack Torrence has one last chance. Despite giving up on the drinking, his life has continued a downward spiral, sending him away from his prestigious job at a Vermont Prep school, to Colorado, where he is almost begging for a job as the winter caretaker of The Overlook Hotel. He has his wife and child to think of. Poor Wendy, who has stood by him through everything, even when he broke their Danny's arm, though he has a suspicion she will never forgive him for that. Then there's Danny. He's not like other children. He knows things before they happen. He claims that his friend Tony shows him things, which invariably lead to Danny passing out. Danny isn't the invisible friend they assume him to be. Danny has "the shine." He knows things he shouldn't, and that can be unnerving.

When the family arrive at The Overlook, they think it's just what they all need. Several months together to reunite them. Jack has no access to alcohol and has time to finish the play he always says he's working on. Yet the cook warns Danny that there are things in the hotel. Dick Hallorann also has "the shine." But he naively tells Danny that what he sees in the hotel is like a book, nasty images, but they can't hurt you... the day the snow traps them in, the hotel proves that Mr. Hallorann is very wrong. The hotel has a different plan for the Torrence family, and they will do whatever it takes to get Danny.

In this day and age there is no way that you have lived in this world without knowledge of The Shining. Of course this is more to do with the film's popularity then the phenomenal success of King as a writer. Which, seen from King's point of view, would be irksome. But still, the image of the two Grady girls at the end of the hallway, or more importantly, Jack Nicholson hacking down the bathroom door with an axe, have become part of our shared cultural experiences. As has "redrum." Therefore, going into the novel, much of the suspense as to the horrific future visions that Tony shows Danny are nullified by the fact that we know the monster with the roque mallet is his father and that the mysterious "redrum" is "murder" backwards. So, the question is, was I able to enjoy the book knowing so much about it in advance? Yes I was.

In mentioning his influences for the book King sighted Shirley Jackson, and right from the start, I could feel that vibe at work. The supernatural elements combined with the darker elements of human nature strongly remind me of Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Yet, at some point in the book, King takes a wrong turn and decides that to fully bring across the "haunting" that it is better to show then tell. This is where I think The Shining looses some of it's punch. While I will agree with King that there is distinctly a supernatural element, not Kubrick's take as a malignancy from within Jack creating the "ghosts," despite how fucked up I think Jack to be and how some of my feelings do align with Kubrick's interpretation, there is a point where it's better to leave things to the imagination. What we can create in our head is far more terrifying then ghosts in dog suits barking at you. Little things, like the elevator running on it's own in the night, a cat party mask appearing on the floor, sounds of a party... these things, if never fully explained would have scared me far more then having to endure Jack at a party talking to these long dead people. How about we see the party like we did later, only from Wendy and Danny's point of view? They just hear Jack talking to himself and some general party noises. This would be more disturbing, and leave the whole issue of what is happening to Jack up for debate. Take a cue from Shirley Jackson, the queen of ambiguity. The most horrific scene in The Shining, the mysterious evil presence in the cement tubes on the playground... never explained, deliciously evil.

There is also the issue of Wendy and Jack. Because the book delves into Jack's past and his violent tendencies, the eventual manifestation of his attacking his family seemed a foregone conclusion, even if Tony's "visions" didn't tip you off. All I kept thinking the entire book was how ineffectual Wendy is. Yes, she is also depicted as such in the movie, but in the book you realize how really stupid she is. I mean, the warning signs were all there, why didn't she just leave her husband? Why did it take a hotel trying to go after her son through her husband to realize his abusive tendencies could be fatal. I mean he breaks her back, literally!?! But before that there was the years of drinking, and the fact that his violent outbursts were worse after he gave up drinking... well, sorry Wendy honey, you should have left long ago, before the snow made it impossible. Also, if you're so worried about your son and his health that you use all your extra money to get a phone line installed in your apartment and then agree to be snowbound for six months, you are really a shitty parent, just fyi.

In the final analysis though, the one major flaw of the book was that it needed to be edited. Cull about half the book and you would have had a taut, terrifying, horrific book, and I would have loved every minute of it. As it is... well... there were peaks and troughs. Did Jack Torrence really need to wipe his mouth, oh, let's say fifty million times, because that's how it felt? No, he didn't. Did we need to hear about the Torrence's sex life, which I'm guessing is the only (and very selfish) reason Wendy stayed around? Again, a resounding no. Did we need to follow Dick Hallorann every single step along the way back to Colorado from Florida? Hell no. Finally, did we need chapters and chapters of Jack in the basement sifting though old magazines and newspapers? Another resounding no. Tighter, tauter, more effective. Though I think this is a flaw that we will never cure King of...

Yet, despite all the flaws, this book holds up particularly well. It was a fun read to pick up on a hot summer night when snow actually sounded appealing. What helped was that it was a long time since I had watched the movie, so there was a nice fuzziness around the corners of my memory that helped me enjoy the book. As mentioned before, this book can not be taken out of context to the movie. So how do the two work together? I found it interesting how Kubrick hinted at the back story and how the Grady girls ghosts were added, which seemed like a natural inclusion that the book omitted. The two are interesting to compare side by side because there are things King did better and there are things Kubrick did better, and, there's a wish I have deep down that perhaps if Kubrick had been willing to take more of King's help that maybe the film would have benefited from it, in it's narrative not imagery, because, as King has said, the movie has very memorable imagery. Though, I think it may shock some, but in the end, if I had to chose between the two, well, I'd choose the book. Hands down.


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