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Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Stephen King's The Shining, a review

A friend from work recently lent me a copy of Doctor Sleep, Stephen King's recent sequel to his 1977 book The Shining. So I bought the Kindle version of The Shining (only $2, how could I resist?) and am rereading it for the first time in about 20 years.  I am writing this review as I read it. Needless to say, there will be spoilers aplenty. I think that when a book is pushing 30 years old you are no longer obligated to keep the ending a secret. Nevertheless, I will attempt to at least spoil it in stages. That way, if you decide early in the review to read the book you can stop, bookmark the Roblog (as if) go read the book, then come back here. If you are like pre-parent me, you will probably finish it in a day or two.

The first quarter of the book is a much more interesting story than I remember it being. The central character is Jack Torrance, an author attempting to overcome his own inner demons. These manifest as alcoholism and self destructive rage. In the film he is played by Jack Nicholson. It's been too long since I've seen it, but Jack is very good at portraying anger boiling away just barely under the surface, which is perfect for the character of Jack in the first half of the story.

Jack's wife, Wendy, is caught between a rock and a hard place. When she married Jack it was partly love and partly to escape her emotionally abusive mother. She was close to her father, but he died of natural causes long before the beginning of the book. (I should note that while most "natural causes" in Stephen King books involve screaming and bloodletting, her father had a heart attack or some other mundane ending.) She loves Jack, but she is a little afraid of him, though very protective for their son, Danny. Wendy is played by Shelly Duvall. As I recall she did a pretty good job of being scared.

Danny is the first supernatural element in The Shining. He's a typical five-year-old, learning to read, riding a Big Wheel, adjusting to a new kindergarten, and loving his parents in spite of their flaws, especially his dad. But he also does some astral projection, can read the minds of others without even trying, and has occasional clairvoyant episodes. He is a good kid, especially considering some of the adult concepts that he is unwittingly exposed to, like sex, divorce and suicide. King does an amazing job of conveying the viewpoint of a child without being at all patronizing or simplistic. As I read I wanted to put my arms around Danny and send good thoughts his way.

The book opens with the Torrance family preparing to move to a big, fancy hotel in the mountains.  It feels like they are on a path back to success, and this winter caretaker job at an old resort in the Colorado mountains will be just what they need. As they prepare, all three flashback on key incidents from their lives. We get some happy moments and some Stephen King moments.  

Jack is an alcoholic, so many of the memories center around his need to get drunk. One of his key memories is of getting a ride from his friend, Al, both of them drunk, when Al runs his car over a bicycle. Fortunately there is no one on the bicycle, though they spend a tense half hour searching for the body that must have been with the now thoroughly mangled bicycle. This is the beginning of Jack's sobriety, though it doesn't eliminate his rage.

There is a memory of violence between Jack and two-year-old Danny that is both sickening and scary. Jack looses his temper and breaks Danny's arm.  As soon as he realizes what he has done he feels horrible, and does what he can to make it right. But a similar loss of control with a student later causes him to lose his teaching job, which drives him to a winter caretaker position at The Overlook Hotel, a mountain resort for the well heeled.

The second quarter of the book introduces The Overlook, and sees the family settled in.  We briefly meet Dick Halloran, the head chef.  He has the same talent as Danny, but not nearly as strong.  He calls it "the shining," and tells Danny that there are some disturbing things at The Overlook.  He warns Danny to avoid a couple of specific places, and tells him to mentally call for help if he needs it.  Danny does end up seeing some disturbing things, like blood and brain spattered walls, and a dead woman in a bathtub, but he follows Dick's advice to close his eyes, and they do go away.  At first.

Things seem to be going well for the Torrance family, but Danny has a strong feeling that things will not go well.  He has glimpsed a future of flame and pain at The Overlook, but he is devoted to his father, and can hear his father's thoughts at times.  Thoughts about how this job is his last chance to get his life started, and that if he loses it he will slip back into alcoholism, "the bad thing."

In the third quarter, The Overlook finishes the shift from setting to character.  The villain, to be precise.  Danny goes out to play in the hotel's playground, finding his way into the concrete tunnels that were the hallmark of all awesome playgrounds in the 1970s.  (The one that I remember was in Gage Park, Topeka, I think.  We didn't get there very often, but when we did it was The Bomb.)   One end of the tunnel is exposed, so he crawls in.  When he finds the other end blocked by snow, he turns to crawl back out and suddenly feels like another child is there with him.  One who wants him to stay and play.  Forever.  He narrowly escapes the tunnel, only to find that the topiary* is doing spooky things, moving when he isn't looking at them, like the Crying Angels from Doctor Who.  He escapes with scratches and torn clothes, then has to deal with his parents.  Wendy readily believes his story, and wants the family to leave.  Jack has already been creeped out by the topiary, but has convinced himself that it was an hallucination.  He has bought so deeply into this deception that he is ready to punish Danny for lying.

Needless to say, as we progress through the last half of the book Jack slips further from sanity and revisits alcoholism. He not only revisits, but settles in and signs a long-term lease, despite the fact that there were no alcoholic beverages in the hotel when the family arrived.  As he makes this journey, fueled by The Overlook and it's ghostly inhabitants, Jack remembers his childhood, and the horrors inflicted by his alcoholic father.  He finds himself talking like his father, and acting like his father.  King manages to paint Jack Torrance as a very difficult character, the sympathetic villain.  Yes, he has created all of the messes that he has to deal with (other than the haunted hotel).  Yes, he has a history of being a jerk, and yes, he broke his own son's arm.  But he doesn't want to be his father, and he is trying to be better.  The feelings he has are at heart the same ones that I have sometimes felt: that he has been disrespected, cheated, unfairly punished.  Everyone has felt the urge to hurt another person.  The only difference is that his self-control kicked in too late.  The Shining is a classic tragedy, with a sympatheic character sliding down into a disaster of his own creation, albeit with a supernatural twist.

King's major talent as a horror writer is taking the everyday, common things and using them to terrorize and kill everyone around them.  Cujo, a regular dog, possessed by rabies/demons.  Carrie and Firestarter, girls who seems normal until the pain of their regular lives wake up something powerful and deadly.  Christine, a classic car with a temper.  It.  Clowns who float in the sewer.  Ugh.  The Stand, where catching a cold leads to the end of civilization as we know it as well as the final showdown between good and evil. But The Shining hits closest to home, because it takes that one person who is always supposed to be safe and dependable--the father--and convinces you that under the perfect horrible circumstances he will break down the door and beat you to death with a roque** mallet.

Jack starts with the best intentions.  He makes repairs to the building, regularly checks the boiler pressure, spends quality time with his family, and is making progress on the play he is writing.  But as winter approaches, he starts looking through the old paperwork in the basement: mostly receipts, invoices and other dry documents.  In all that detritus he finds a scrapbook documenting the seedier side of The Overlook's history, including connections to organized crime, drug overdoses, scandals and cover-ups, and of course, death.  Jack becomes obsessed with this history.  At first he imagines writing it up as a book, but he gradually starts picturing himself in that history.  The more he learns, the more clearly he starts to see and hear bits of that history in the present.  In one memorable scene he goes to the hotel bar, orders one hundred martinis, and starts drinking and talking with the bartender.  He never sees anything more than a closed up, empty bar, but he senses the party around  him, just out of sight.  He can feel the judgmental stares of the guests on his back.  He can almost hear the crash of the empty glasses as he throws them over his shoulder.  He doesn't quite get drunk off the the "martians" that aren't there, but they prod his slumbering alcoholism into semi-wakefulness.  

Wendy notices.  She knows that there is nothing stronger than a bottle of cooking sherry in the hotel, and she can't smell alcohol on Jack's breath, but she recognizes the behaviors: the arrogance, the constant wiping of his lips, the drop off in his writing.  Somehow Jack is getting his drink on as we come into the last quarter of the book.

As Jack's hallucinations become stronger, they cross the line and become reality.  At first in small ways, bits of confetti, a party mask.  When the drinks become real to him, he more easily buys into the hotel's promises, that he is a potential manager.  The Overlook demands that he take control of his wife and child, because it feeds on power like the shining.  It wants Danny to die so that it can become more powerful.  

By the time Danny and Wendy realize the danger they are in, it is too late to escape.  The Overlook is snowed in, all communication is cut off, and they are fifteen miles from the nearest town.  When Jack attempts to strangle Wendy, Danny mentally screams for Dick Halloran to come.  He hears it all the way in Florida, strong enough to make him blank out for a few seconds.  Dick lies to his boss, and takes off for Colorado.  

Wendy and Danny manage to knock Jack out and lock him in the pantry during this first attack.  They both realize that he is no longer in control of himself, but they don't want to hurt him, they just want to survive as a family.  But The Overlook has its hooks in Jack, and is also siphoning off Danny's power.  It is materially weak, but strong enough to let Jack out of his cage.  He finds his roque mallet and his wife, and almost kills her.  He goes after Danny next, but is distracted by Dick's arrival.

Dick has had a harrowing trip, culminating in dealing with the hotel's topiary.  He manages to destroy the dog, but not without taking some injuries.  He enters The Overlook and starts looking for Danny, but is quickly ambushed by Jack and is seriously injured.  

Jack then resumes his search for Danny.  Their final confrontation is heart wrenching.  I know that I promised spoilers, but the ending itself I just can't bring myself to share.  If you really want to know, ask in the comments and I'll reply in the comments.  But first I will suggest that you get a copy of this book and read the heck out of it.  And if you have read it before, but the last time you were single, and/or without offspring, read it again.  It will tug at the daddy-heart-strings in a surprisingly effective way.  Maybe the mommy-heart-strings, too.

I am now 138 pages into Doctor Sleep.  The transition from one to the other is very smooth, especially considering the 36 years between publication dates.  The Shining was very rich in a minimalist way, having only five major characters (including The Overlook) and covering a span of only about four months (not counting flashbacks), but Dr. Sleep is 638 pages of world and character building.  It's a logical extension of what the whole country is like if the shining is something that some people actually have, and spooky hotels aren't necessarily the scariest thing out there.  

At some point, I think in my late 20s, I took in too much Stephen King at once, and just like when you take in too much tequila at once, it kind of put me off.  This one-two punch has knocked some sense into me, and I am now prepared to put his works back into rotation.  If you have also given up on reading his stuff, you might give these two books a try.  And if you've never read any of his stuff, this would be a good place to start.

*   One thing I like about King is that when he throws in vocabulary that I'm not sure about he almost always explains it through context.  In this case, shrubbery trimmed 
** If it  hadn't been explained it in the book, I wouldn't have known that roque is similar to croquet, so a roque mallet is a big, wooden hammer.

1 comment:

erin said...

Very nicely done, and I am not just saying that because I am your MOM. I too, am reading Dr. Sleep just now. Also borrowed from a friend. Because I am too cheap to buy it myself. I may have to go back and read The Shining again. Thanks for the review.

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.