Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stephen King Re-Read Part Three: The Shining

What can I say about The Shining that hasn't already been said? Haunting, terrifying, and impossible to forget, this is one of Stephen King's most deeply personal works, and rivaled only by IT as the most iconic novel of his career. I don't think one can really examine King's Shining without talking about Kubrick's, but we'll get into that towards the end. For now, we're talking about the 100%-Stephen-King-original-accept-no-substitutions version of The Shining, where Wendy is a three dimensional character that does more than just scream, Jack has an actual arc, and it's a roque mallet, not an axe.

While The Shining is of course a ghost story, the real heart of this novel is the internal struggles of the Torrance family. Wendy struggles to keep her family together while shielding Danny from his abusive father, and Danny struggles to reconcile the father that he loves with his visions of impending doom. But it's Jack's struggle that really stands out to me, especially upon re-reading the novel after learning about Stephen King's own history with drugs and alcohol. In this way the Overlook Hotel is symbolic, with the eventual external conflict between Jack and Wendy contained inside the snow-buried hotel, while ghosts flit about and there's a time-bomb waiting to go off in the basement. It almost perfectly mirrors Jack's struggle with addiction, his inner demons that surface in the face of sobriety, and even his explosive nature.

A lot of Stephen King fans tend to skip over his non-fiction books, and since this re-read his about his novels, there won't be a post dedicated solely to any of them. I will, however, take a brief moment here to mentioned the book On Writing. King wrote most of this book shortly after the car accident that almost took his life in 1999. In fact, this was the first book that got him back at his writing desk when he was thinking about retirement (a small portion of it was written before the accident). Half instructional guide for aspiring writers and half memoir of King's own life, it's in On Writing that, perhaps fueled by his recent brush with death, King gives us the most raw and intimate look at his own fight for sobriety, and early frustrations as a fledgling writer.

Seen through this lens, Jack Torrance's struggle with alcohol can be seen as a manifestation of King's own battle with addiction. Ditto Jack's desperate desire to write a good play after he loses his teaching job. People often (unfairly, in my opinion) accuse King of writing himself into his stories. The latter Dark Tower books notwithstanding (we'll get to that later), I don't think King is any more guilty of this than your average writer. I think all of his author protagonists have a bit of King in them, but they're also all unique characters in their own right, and each has something different to say about King as a father, husband, and writer. King himself admitted that Jack Torrance is a very autobiographical character, though he hadn't realized it at the time when he was writing The Shining. When considering this, The Shining takes on a whole new dimension, especially regarding Jack's slow decline over the course of the book.

The Wasps:

One of the most interesting questions that I found myself speculating on when re-reading Jack's character arc, is just how much of what he did was the Overlook, and how much was his own subconscious demons coming to the fore. The particular scene that made me question this was the wasps that wound up stinging Danny.

The implication was always that the hotel reanimated the dead wasps after Jack killed them, but we never actually see him gas the nest. The last we see is him retrieving the canister of poison, and then the scene changes. But I always thought it was curious that the first thing Jack does after his son gets stung is to try and get some money out of it. And then of course we learn later that Jack's own father showed him how to temporarily knock out wasps with smoke. With the cyclical nature of demons that are passed down from parent to child (a theme further explored in Doctor Sleep) I don't think it's terribly unlikely that King might have been hinting that Jack, on some unconscious level, set Danny up to be attacked by the wasps.

Continuing with Jack's father, I think it's also significant that he would set the wasp nests on fire after he put them all to sleep. If the wasps were a manifestation of Jack's inner demons, then his father burning the nest could be a symbolic foreshadowing of the end of the book when the Overlook burns, the hotel here representing Jack himself, wholesome on the outside but with a troubled past, plenty of inner demons, and an explosive nature.

It was also strongly hinted that the incident with the wasps wasn't the first time that Jack unconsciously did something to hurt somebody. Even before his beating of George Hatfield, I think it was implied that Jack was indeed resetting the timer during the school debates, without even necessarily realizing it, his resentment of Hatfield being evident well before their altercation in the school parking lot.

Kubrick's Shining:

Jack's lack of a character arc in the film adaptation is, I think, what a lot of long time book fans have trouble with. In the film Jack is crazy from the very beginning. There's no real indication that he has any kind of love for his son, and Wendy seems terrified to even speak around him. Nicholson certainly gives a good performance, but he's playing a time-bomb waiting to explode, not a loving father and husband that's pushed over the edge by circumstances and an evil hotel. There's no humanity to the character.

And therein lies the greatest difference between Kubrick and King's versions of The Shining. There's no humanity to any of the characters. Some people say that there's no emotion in Kubrick's version at all, but I don't think that this is true per se. Kubrick's Shining is certainly very emotionally evocative, even if the characters themselves don't exhibit the most realistic emotional spectrum. Visually, the movie is brilliant. Like most of Kubrick's films, The Shining is essentially poetry for the eyes, but the heart of what really made The Shining brilliant as a novel is gone. There's no struggle with the Torrance family here, either internal or otherwise. And of course I think that the accusations of movie Wendy being a misogynistic character are very valid, especially given what a fighter she is in the book.

King himself describes the novel and film as hot and cold, respectively. Though I think that King often judges the adaptation a bit harshly (especially since I've never heard him complain as much about other films based on his novels, many of which are just terrible), but in this I think that he's right, and not just given the ultimate fate of the Overlook. Kubrick's movie is very emotionally detached with respect to the characters, and evokes the emotions of the audience through unsettling and often upsetting visual techniques. King's novel on the other hand enthralls the audience by putting us inside the skins of the Torrance family. We feel Jack's struggle with his demons, and we share his frustrations over his play. We share Wendy's fear and apprehension, and Danny's confusion at the loss of the family unit that's always been there for him.

Stanley Kubrick is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and quite possibly the greatest director of the twentieth century. And despite the differences from the novel, he did produce a damn fine movie in The Shining. I've always thought it was strange, therefore, that King so often expressed dislike for this movie, and not something like Children of the Corn 666: Isaac's Return (which, yes, is a real thing). After re-reading I think that part of it is just how personal a novel The Shining was for King, and for many of us constant readers as well. Regardless, I think that the film is the film, and that shouldn't impugn upon our appreciation of the novel.

Continuity and References:

A number of characters and locations introduced in The Shining will come to appear in later King stories (more on those when we get to said stories), and of course in 2013 there was a direct sequel, Doctor Sleep. Most prominent among these, I think, is the Shine itself for which the novel got his name.

One of the most common hallmarks in King's stories, right up there with author protagonists and the state of Maine, is the sort of psychic phenomenon that Dick Hallorann calls the Shine. We often meet characters who just sort of know things that they ought not to, or have abilities that are never explained (such as Carrie White). In King's next big novel, The Stand, for example, Mother Abigail mentions that clairvoyance such as what she experiences was referred to by her own mother as "the shining lamp of God." And of course in Doctor Sleep many types of magic in the Stephen King mythos are attributed to the Shine, but more on that when we get there.

I also thought that the Overlook Hotel was very reminiscent of the Marsten House from 'Salem's Lot. Both of them are frankly terrifying, and seem to have ghosts that attract outside monsters to their locations (Barlow and the True Knot). Even the name "The Overlook" reminded me of the way Ben describes the Masrten House, as a "dark idol" looking over the town of Jerusalem's Lot. I've always liked the idea that the two locations might be twinners, as many suspect of The Tower and The Talisman. Of course, I'm not entirely sure that they take place in different worlds. It's something I'll try to keep track of as we move forward. 


What we have here is essentially the iconic haunted house story that came out of the twentieth century. This is one of the books that made King a superstar, and no Stephen King collection, or horror collection in general, is complete without The Shining. This is the sort of horror where the supernatural elements enhance the existing story. If you took away all of the ghosts in the Overlook Hotel, you would still have a damn compelling family drama about addiction and ambition, and the fallout that these forces can have on a person's loved ones. That's the kind of story that King excels at.

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