Tuesday, November 13, 2012

King's Korner: The Shining

Edition: 683 pages, Pocket Books Printing from Simon and Schuster, September 2001. By far the creepiest stare by a twelve-year old on the cover of any book ever printed, ever. I can’t have this facing me when I go to sleep. Seriously.

I. Introduction

The funniest thing about The Shining is that it couldn’t happen today. Undeniably, people still get snowed in and cut off from civilization, even in the good ole modern U. S. of A. Undeniably, people go crazy in their own homes and hack up their families while they sleep. What strains the imagination, though, in the year of our lord 2012, is the idea of a high-profile resort getting well and truly cut off from society, even in the most hellish of winters. The Overlook, after all, is not some backwoods shack with an outhouse and clothesline, but a five-star, nationally renowned resort, which in 2012 would comprise a state of the art facility with, I’m betting, underground phone lines, satellite linkups, a cell-tower cleverly concealed as a bush. Got to keep those money-dropping guests as happy as possible, and who can be happy these days without free wi-fi and a host of adapters for their latest Iphone?

The advent of inexorable communication has crippled the horror genre as a whole anyway. Even the schlockiest movies that take place in the modern epoch have to come up with some excuse as to why the characters’ cell phones aren’t working or how they forgot them or whatnot; and if they don’t they’re forced to face that terrible questioning beast of burden, the audience, who is then going to ask why they don’t whip out their cell phones and call the cops. Can you imagine The Shining as directed by Stanley Kubrick if he’d had to face this logical dilemma? One shudders at the thought.

So in a world of instant access and communication, where the average Indian family has three cell phones and no running water, is it a stretch to say that The Shining has been made impossible by the pitter-patter advance of time? Maybe, maybe not. You could maybe, today, write a book like this, with the same premise and the same set of circumstances. But it would take a lot more explanation to justify it. Audiences can be dumb, sometimes, but there are limits to their myopia. 

The Shining is Stephen King’s third novel, and far and away his most personal up to that point in his career. He describes the genesis of it coming in three parts: 1) A desire to set his next book away from Maine, prompting a literal King family move to Boulder, Colorado. 2) A rather-creepy/awesome stay at a hotel that was closing up for the season the next day in which the King family was the only guests—highlights include eating alone in a huge ballroom at the only table prepped for dining. And, finally, 3) King’s own concerns and frustration at both his burgeoning dependence on alcohol and the sometimes hateful, violent feelings he felt towards both his young children. What emerged from these catalysts is one of my favorite books of all time, and in my opinion King’s best work. That’s an attitude that could possibly change if this blog continues and I make it through the rest of his novels, but for the moment The Shining firmly occupies a place in my top five favorite books, rounding out at number one sometimes depending on my mood and how pretentious I’m feeling. 

For the longest time I thought it comprised a perfect genre novel—and please note by “genre” I mean the specific intention of the novel, i.e. The Shining is a horror novel because its primary intent is the induce feelings of fear and helplessness in the audience. There’s a pattern and methodology to genre novels that doesn’t factor in to more “literary” novels, if you will. By no means is that to imply that genre novels are lesser than literary novels or any other such nonsense. We’ve been arguing for decades upon decades about that crap (Note to self: write post about genres and what they mean. –E), and no one has come to a satisfactory answer. I’ m not one to say, however, that there is no difference between genre and literary. There is. Sometimes the line blurs, sometimes literary novels have elements of genre, and sometimes they are completely indistinguishable. But we’re going with generalizations here, and why not? It helps us compartmentalize, after all, and what a large amount of qualities genre fiction contains in opposition to its literary counterparts is a certain kind of pacing.

II. A Few Words about Pacing

 There is little more important in a genre work than pacing. In fact, if you’re writing a genre work of fiction, pacing comes number three on the scale of most important attributes, after story and character, and the three facets are so interconnected it might not even be possible to put them in a sequential order. Pacing could be argued to be part of story, characters are the whole reason story exists, etc., but for our purpose we’re going to keep them distinct so I can declare unequivocally that if your pacing is terrible then most people aren’t going to care about story or character. They’re just going to want to do something else. This is that terrible death-knell of boredom

There’s a semi-internet famous chart that extrapolates Star Wars and shows how it manages to both engage the audience’s attention while simultaneously constructing a fascinating world and characters simultaneously. If only there was some way to…oh wait google search:

This chart is perfect pacing for a genre novel, a sort of catch-and-release of tension that allows for character development and story without overburdening the audience with too much excitement too fast. It’s very easy to mess up pacing in any narrative medium; in genre, messing up pacing can be catastrophic.
Now this isn’t to say that all novels or even all genre novels have to conform to the same structure to be “good,” but most of them, if you chart the ups and downs of their pacing, probably would look like this, even if the author didn’t intend it. It’s one of those ingrained things a good writer knows automatically but subconsciously: how to keep audience engaged, when to put in character traits, how to build tension, action, excitement; when to pull back on the reins to let the audience breath. The Shining is an excellent example of pacing, and an improvement over both Salem’s Lot and Carrie in terms of organically flowing from one piece to the next. Gone are the awkward transitions that sometimes popped up in Salem’s Lot. Instead everything flows naturally, nothing feels skimped on. Motivations and actions and foreshadowing all mesh into something sublime. And out of it comes a novel that, if you were to track its pacing, would look very much like the chart posted above. To break it down even further, these are the “peaks” of the pacing in the novel The Shining from what I’ve extrapolated (Note: Everything is a chapter name except notations written in italics. –E):

 “Job Interview” Page: 3 – Immediately establishes the main characters, the main location, and the stakes of the novel succinctly and skillfully. 

“Shadowland” Page: 37—Introduces the psychic element.

“In Another Bedroom” Page: 81—Establishes a sinister threat and stakes.

The family sets foot in the Overlook; Page: 94—Sets the stage for the overarching conflict of the novel.
“The Shining” Page: 116—Introduces possible sinister occurrences in the hotel, as well as explaining what the “Shadowland” element back near the beginning of the novel actually is, and how it can both help and hurt. In addition, foreshadows ability of Danny to contact Hallorann telepathically.

Wasp nest attack; Page: 195—Confirms supernatural elements in hotel.

“In the Playground” to “Inside 217” Pages: 305-328—Makes the power the hotel holds clear and its threat greater.

“The Verdict” Page: 385—The point where the dynamic for the rest of the novel becomes fixed.

(Note: A stumble in the pacing here. –E) : “The Hedges” 429—You can see here why the hedge scene and Danny explaining a possible supernatural occurrence AGAIN, and not too long after the 217 incident, is a bit out of place and unnecessary. “The Verdict” is a foreboding moment, and King obviously knew this because he made this one moment, taking less than a page, an entire chapter. Having a couple more instances establishing the “wow this hotel is dangerous” conceit, especially when that’s already been established, slows the pacing and lessens the import of “The Verdict.” In my opinion, the novel would have been perfect if it had gone through the chilling decision made in “The Verdict” to:

“The Elevator” to “The Ballroom” Pages: 448-465—Not really a “peak,” but the start of the final climb of tension in the novel. This is the equivalent of the beginning of the “Trench Run” line in the pacing chart.

“That Which Was Forgotten” Page: 654—King almost makes a mini-novel in these two hundred pages, culminating in the ultimate high/climax, the “Use the Force” moment, which is precisely at this line right here: “The boiler!” Danny screamed. “It hasn’t been dumped since this morning! It’s going up! It’s going to explode!” (654, emphasis King’s).

Many writers instinctively grow into pacing with practice and experience—read a lot and write a lot. A little gong will go off in their head that says “this chapter’s taking too long” or “nothing’s happened over the last fifty pages.” Sometimes this little gong needs to be ignored. Often, it does not.

PICTURED: Where it did not, but was.
As mentioned above, if there is a weakness in the pacing, it’s the couple of chapters when Danny’s hanging around the playground with the hedge animals; a frightening scene on its own, but when factored into the overall tapestry of the novel it doesn’t need to be there. I get the feeling it’s  a scene King really wanted—it does possess genuinely frightening language and moments—but coming on the heels right of “The Verdict” and Jack’s denial of supernatural occurrences, it just seems extraneous, and it drags down the pacing and tension level; we saw Jack come to this major epiphany a few chapters before. An epiphany that is going to define his character from here on out. Basic pacing logic suggests that you amp up the stakes subsequent to Jack’s realization and initial descent into madness; going back to the “Hotel does creepy stuff” parts of the sections before only lessens the impact of what happens to Jack in previous chapters.

That’s really the only mark against it, however. The rest of the novel is paced perfectly, and any aspiring genre writer would do well to track what, exactly, King does here that makes it so effective, especially in the first half on the novel. King’s always been a master of playing with mystery, feeding the reader detail by detail, enough to satiate their curiosity but never quite giving away enough so that the reader feels okay setting the book down. The Shining heralds the culmination of this skill. So whenever you as a writer want to blaze through the beginning of your work to get to the good stuff, remember: the plot of The Shining revolves around a family that gets trapped in a hotel. Said family does not even enter the hotel until page 94. 

III. Jack Torrance

In my opinion, Jack Torrance is one of the most affecting and fascinating characters I’ve ever read, and not just in the King oeuvre. 

Arguably the biggest theme in The Shining is addiction and the impact it has on both the owner of the addiction and the addicted’s immediate surroundings. King has made it clear the novel is an examination of his own addiction and his own fears about what he might do if it got too out of hand. This is more or less common knowledge nowadays, but it puts King in a unique position to form a character and give him a real honest-to-god addiction without it appearing hackneyed. 

This is a bit of a digression, but I’ve always wondered what would happen to literature and fiction whenever mankind reaches its desired utopia and all problems are solved. Who’s going to have anything to write about? How are they going to make anything affecting? Is it weird that I think about these things? Because fact is without the strife King put his family through with alcohol and drugs we wouldn’t have The Shining…
In any case, what I like about how addiction is portrayed in the novel is the two-faced, almost contradictory way it affects Jack’s behavior. Jack knows what he’s doing is wrong, damaging, will have severe consequences, possibly death. But some deeper part of him, the part where the circuitry’s wired incorrectly, compels him to do this action anyway. One of the more chilling parts of the novel is when Jack has the option of letting the boiler blow the hotel—and himself—to the stratosphere after his family got out:

(It’s my last chance)
The only thing not cashed in now was the life insurance policy he had taken out jointly with Wendy…Forty thousand dollar benefit, double indemnity if he or she died in a train crash, a plane crash, or a fire…
[Wendy and Danny] would have time to get out…
(Fire will kill anything.)
Jack suddenly started. He had been dozing off…What in God’s name had he been thinking of? (498-501, emphasis King’s)

Instead of a bad person doing bad things, it makes Jack Torrance is a tragic figure, whose selfishness and addiction end up obliterating all the good within him. Horror is, essentially, about the specters that lurk beyond human understanding, and what The Shining and all good psychological horror does is bring to the forefront the things that lurk beyond our understanding in ourselves. Who knows why Jack did what he did? What crippled part of his soul made him so that even when he realizes he’s punching his last ticket, he denies redemption anyway? It’s why I think someone who was/is an addict had to write this book. Because it flies in the face of all story logic. The protagonist realizes that he’s in danger, he works to get out of it. But Jack Torrance realizes he’s in danger, and even while he gets what it means, he goes forward and down into the spiral that will lead to his destruction. It makes no sense, but addiction makes no sense either. You don’t have to look any farther than Lifetime to find myriad stories of people destroying themselves no matter how often they were warned or how aware they were of the toll they were taking on their bodies.

 Metaphorically, King makes use of the images of wasps throughout the novel in key instances. It’s an interesting choice, not in the least because of the bare-bones ferocity of it. We’ve become accustomed to images of addiction represented in a more seductive or pleasing fashion; like addiction “tricks” us with allures and promises of better things. These metaphors aren’t inaccurate, but addiction to King is something much less misleading. It’s straightforward and destructive. It’s ugly, bloated, and stirs up with the slightest provocation. Where it traps you is in its seeming innocence, lacquered with a varnish of normality. The first time Jack encounters the wasps, after all, is when he lets his mind drift while re-roofing the Overlook: “The ironic part was that he warned himself each time he climbed onto the roof to keep an eye out for nests…But this morning the stillness and peace had been so complete that his watchfulness had lapsed” (155). Fittingly, it is this moment where we first truly begin to learn about Jack Torrance from the man himself: his temper, his descent into the throes of addiction, the incident with George Hatfield. It’s also worth noting that the wasp’s nest is the first instance of a supernatural occurrence in the novel (Note: not counting “the shining” –E), when the supposedly-bombed-out husk comes alive again and stings Danny. King makes it clear that Jack’s addiction and the malevolent hotel are not mutually exclusive entities; that the one is inextricably linked to the other; that the latter can not—and as we learn near the end of the novel, will not—be able to function without the former: “’You had had to make him drink the Bad Stuff,’” says Daniel Torrance. “’That’s the only way you could get him, you lying false face’” (652).

All of this makes Jack Torrance one of the more tragic characters in anything I’ve ever read—almost Macbethian in its scope. A man with a sad history and an incurable, haunting affliction whose honest attempt to rectify his mistakes is halted and then decapitated by circumstances beyond his control. If anything, his fall is even more gut-wrenching than someone like Macbeth, whose greed and lust for power (and inability to shrug off his wife’s advice) led to his downfall. Torrance’s ultimate downfall is entirely out of his control, the machinations of a being of inestimable cruelty and unknown origin who devises a scheme to attack the man at his weakest, frailest point. 

Because at his core Jack is a host of conflicts. And King writes him so well that you can never decide if he’s a decent man with severe flaws or a selfish jerk hiding behind a layer of fatherliness and pity. He works hard. He loves his wife. He has moments of supreme selfishness, an abusive childhood, a bad temper and a brain chemistry that lends itself to addiction. He tries his best to raise his son and feels almost self-flagellating levels of pain for breaking his son’s arm in a drunk-fueled bit of rage when Danny was three—but then again, there is the fact he broke his son’s arm at all. He tries to redeem himself, gets off the sauce with monumental effort and will…but then he beats up a student—deservedly?—and not only that, did it while he was sober, thereby sending his whole family into chaos and insecurity. 

To put it bluntly, Jack Torrance has issues. Major, major issues. Issues that don’t preclude him being a loving father and husband, nor even a “good person.” But issues that go unchecked for the entirety of his life. This was ’77 remember. Only prissy losers who couldn’t handle themselves went to shrinks. But it’s glaringly obvious that a Jack Torrance circa 2012 would have spent the duration of the novel cycling out of AA meetings and psychological evaluations. Instead, a cripplingly flawed man is forced to confront his two major weaknesses on his own—temper and addiction. And fails utterly.

A scenario such as this makes the Overlook resemble an aggregate representation of the world at large, a final recourse of those with nowhere else to go. This is why the Torrances went to the Overlook in the first place. There was no other option. Life—through a confluence of personal mistakes—had given them no choice. And so, trapped and beleaguered there, Torrance despondently accepts the inevitability of his destruction. For what? Salvation? A sense of importance? It’s hinted throughout the novel that Jack is a deeply unhappy man at his core: “Poking at Danny’s father had been…strange, as if Jack Torrance had something—something—he was hiding. Or something he was holding in so deeply submerged in himself that it was impossible to get to.” (129; emphasis King’s). Like the wasp’s nest so cleverly submerged beneath the innocuous flashing, Jack Torrance’s own nest lies buried underneath a fa├žade so complete that only a psychic gets any real hint as to what’s underneath, and even then the picture is incomplete.
It’s no wonder then that Jack identifies so strongly with the hotel—why it’s hard for him to comprehend why it would want his son instead of he. The hotel and Jack share a common and complex bond; in a twisted way the hotel understands Jack better than anyone else in Jack’s life has. It understands his ambitions (conveniently leaving the scrapbook in the cellar), his instincts (the Colorado Lounge), and his insecurities: 

“And the manager puts no strings on his largess,” Grady went on. “Not at all. Look at me, a tenth-grade dropout. Think how much further you yourself could go in the Overlook’s organizational structure. Perhaps…in time…to the very top.”
“Really?” Jack whispered (535-536).

The hotel understands Jack’s deep-seated lack of self-worth and his need to prove himself; to constantly reaffirm his existence. It understands having a wasp’s nest buried almost untouchably deep inside oneself. After all, when the hotel explodes, whatever had lain inside reminds Halloran of a flood of hornets rising from a nest.

This leaves us with three main wasp images: the first time Jack stumbles upon the nest, when the nest “comes back to life,” signaling the Overlook’s awakening, and finally the Overlook’s dissolution. There are more mentions of wasps in the novel—a few comparisons to them or conversations about them—but these are the three where wasps themselves play a critical part. Of these, two serve as thematic bookends, and are key in interpreting the link between Jack and the Overlook. Jack sticks his hand through the flashing and encounters the wasp nest—this signals a retrospection wherein, for the first time, we see the depths of Jack’s flaws and failings. The wasp’s nest inside himself. Then the final image of the hotel that we’re left with—the hotel Jack wanted so much to be a part of—is of a buzzing, angry flood of hornets. 

The caretaker Watson, near the beginning of the novel, discusses the scandals in the hotel’s history: “Watson shrugged. ‘Any big hotels have got scandals,’ he said. ‘Just like every hotel has got a ghost. Why? Hell, people come and go…’” (31-32) Most criticism of The Shining (and by criticism, I mean stuff I’ve read on the internet or message boards over the past few years) regards the final hornet’s nest image as proof that an eldritch abomination inhabits the hotel. If I’m not mistaken, even King himself has confirmed this (the two people reading this in Myanmar are free to correct me if I’m wrong). And not to start some “Death of the Author” post-structuralist debate…but I wonder about that. Or rather, what that means.
Because it’s not like the Overlook was built on an ancient Indian burial ground, or a place where Yog-Shaggoth fell, or something like that. It was just a mortar and brick building that had a lot of terrible things happen inside of it.

In a way I would agree that an eldritch abomination inhabits the Overlook. But it’s an eldritch abomination formed of human depravity. It’s nothing otherworldly, it’s just us. And layer by layer it built up over decades of murders, affairs, and shady dealings until it grew its own agency.

But it’s a very human agency. I think that’s important. The monster that is the Overlook works through manipulations—but it forgets things. One time it forgets a very important thing. It has feelings. It gets triumphant, and angry: “(No! Mustn’t! Mustn’t! MUSTN’T!)” (662; emphasis King’s). And with the images of Jack Torrance comparing his addiction to a wasp’s nest, and the Overlook’s final revelation of something like a cloud of hornets—it’s clear what the Overlook, in all its wrath, actually is. Which is why Jack is so fecklessly drawn to it. Because what is the hotel if not Jack Torrance without a conscience, without any redeeming qualities whatsoever? And the idea that Jack, or anyone, could be drawn to this thing—this monstrous thing—not only because they recognize it but that they believe it’s their last hope for recognition—that, simply, is a terrifying thought. 

PICTURED: So is this.

 IV. Creepiest part of the novel

No, it didn’t really matter, except that looking at the racked mallets with the single missing member had a kind fascination. He found himself thinking of the hard wooden whack! Of the mallet head striking the round wooden ball. A nice summery sound. Watching it skitter across the
(bone. blood.)
Gravel. It conjured up images of
(bone. blood.)
iced tea, porch swings, ladies in white straw hats, the hum of mosquitoes and
(bad little boys who don’t play by the rules)
all that stuff. Sure. Nice game. Out of style now, but…nice.
“Dick?” The voice was thin, frantic, and, he thought, rather unpleasant. “Are you all right, Dick? come out now. Please!”
V. The Aftermath

Writing novels with success is not only hard work, but requires a staggering amount of luck. Luck that the audience doesn’t lose interest, luck that the marketing’s good, luck that a great director makes a great movie out of your first effort. At any point along the 1-2-3 highway of King’s first three novels, it all could have crumbled to nothing. It took an extraordinary pair of opening novels, followed by a ramping-up of the stakes, to secure him.

But secure him it did, and I consider The Shining that moment—from the outside looking in and with the benefit of time—I consider it that moment where King could truly do anything he wanted. Next novel could have been his grocery list and it would have sold a million copies.

The Shining continues to be one of his most well-regarded works, helped along by yet another fantastic adaptation, this one courtesy of Stanley Kubrick himself. The Shining film version remains a staple of horror films—and is sort of enjoying a bit of a renaissance lately, with recent documentaries about competing interpretations and a whacked-out version of the film where it plays forwards and backwards simultaneously. King famously was—we won’t say disappointed, but not as thrilled with the result, and remade the book into a miniseries in 1996. The results of that were mixed. I’ve only seen a few parts of the miniseries—not enough to make a final judgment on it—but it’s kind of apparent that King’s talents as a novelist aren’t easily translated when he writes for a visual medium. There’s a lot of jump scares and any sort of subtlety—something that makes The Shining both book and film great—is completely lost. 

That being said, I still hold The Shining as arguably King’s best book and my personal favorite, and one that I think is secure in surviving the ebbs of time. Certainly the fame of the movie version will help with that; but even without the film, the themes in the novel are so powerful, the characters are so believable, that there’s no reason to anticipate it won’t continue to affect people in the same ways for decades to come.

The success and security of The Shining was key in King’s status of mind. Now able to do new and interesting experiments without worrying about the light bill, he turned to the past for the next novel, and hid behind the curtain of pseudonym to publish it. It is the first of this list that I have not read before. And it might just be his most controversial work, to boot.

Until next time,

Mr. E

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