Monday, January 27, 2014

Let it Shine

Somewhere in the Colorado Rockies, there is an old and isolated hotel known as the Overlook Hotel. The season for tourists is now over and the hotel is ready to close up for the winter. Everyone will be back in May for the summer season, but until then, the hotel needs a caretaker to make sure that the hotel is in shipshape condition throughout the winter. And so a caretaker named Jack Torrance is hired.

Jack, his wife Wendy, and his young son Danny all come to the Overlook, preparing to spend the winter together. Jack is a struggling writer, and he intends to work on his play and finally get it finished. But the Overlook is not a good place – years ago, another caretaker named Delbert Grady was hired for the winter… and ended up murdering his wife and two daughters before committing suicide. It’d be silly to talk about ghosts, of course… but what about those apparitions that young Danny has seen? What about those sinister hedge animals which sometimes seem to come to life? What about those odd noises, as though a party from 1945 has never quite wrapped up? And why do these phenomena keep getting stronger, and increasing in intensity?

This is the set-up of The Shining. More specifically, I’m talking about the Stephen King novel, and not the film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick’s film is considered a classic of the horror genre, but can the novel live up to it? The short answer: yes, it can. If you want the long answer, you can read on this review.

I’m not a big Stephen King fan, but when he’s at the top of his game he’s a terrific writer. The Shining is a good example. It’s compelling writing and it can be quite scary at times. (Although here I must confess I laughed out loud at one point in the novel where King tried to scare you with a fire hose. I just didn’t see the scare value. On the other hand, there were plenty of moments that had me on the edge of my seat with terror, such as a tense moment with the playground and the hedge animals.) King takes his time setting up the unnerving atmosphere, and slowly the Overlook becomes more and more powerful and its ghostly manifestations become more and more disturbing. The predictions that Danny gets from his “invisible friend” Tony get more and more unpleasant and nasty. It all ratchets up the tension, and as a result the finale has a massive payoff.

I don’t want to compare the book to the film adaptation in any great detail. I’m sure dozens of people have done so before me, and I wouldn’t be able to add anything new to the conversation. But it is interesting just how different the novel’s focus is from the film’s focus. The film is all about Jack Torrance, who is unnerving from the start. In the novel, Jack is a good man who struggles with his personal demons – a troubled relationship with his father, a hatred of authority figures, alcoholism – and slowly, the Overlook plays on these characteristics and turns Jack into a monster. But it’s doing this in order to get through Jack and to his son Danny, whose extraordinary psychic powers can make the hotel’s supernatural inhabitants more powerful. Throughout the novel, the relationship between Jack and his son Danny is a major focus, and although Jack begins to believe that the hotel wants him and it’s all about him, it is a lie told to him by the hotel in order to get to his son. It’s really all about Danny.

The characters in The Shining are very good. King develops them all considerably, so that you care for them and want to see them come out all right in the end. Jack gets a lot of character development, especially his struggle with alcoholism. His slow descent into madness is unnerving and genuinely terrifying; you begin to wonder just how much of his violent and hateful thoughts come from inside of his own heart, and not planted there by the hotel.

Stephen King’s books are often massive, and sometimes it may seem like his primary goal isn’t so much telling a story as it is providing a stepping stool for young children. But happily, The Shining doesn’t really suffer from this flaw. The only element that is a bit repetitive is the story of Jack drunkenly breaking his son’s arm, which is told over and over again, and sometimes a bit unnecessarily. But in general, King manages to balance his character development and backstories with the creation of a plot, which is neatly worked out and tends to provide answers instead of ambiguity. (Indeed, some of the most puzzling things about Kubrick’s adaptation – like what the heck was that guy dressed as a dog near the end? And just who is Tony? – are answered in detail by King’s novel.)

Overall, The Shining is a terrific novel of horror and suspense. It doesn’t go overboard with gore, and does a careful job setting up the scene before it slowly ratchets up the tension. The characters are wonderfully complex, the themes are nicely done without overshadowing the plot. It’s a magnificent read, plain and simple, and I can highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. I am not a big fan of the Kubrick film in fact though it is impresive in many ways. I've read about 7 or 8 King novels but not this one (I have tended to focus on the non-supernatural titles like MISERY) - Really enjiyed your take on it Patrick. Now that the sequel is out this seems like the right time to tke the plunge.

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