Review: The Shining

a.k.a. I would like to officially retract every bad or unflattering thing I’ve ever said about Stephen King’s writing.

I’m not a fan of Kubrick’s film so there was little chance of my picking up the book… until I ran across King’s comments:

The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr. Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know, then, that he’s crazy as a shit house rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.

and:

[Wendy is] one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She’s basically just there to scream and be stupid. And that’s not the woman I wrote about.

Zing. Even though I hadn’t read the book at the time, King put his finger on why I’ve always disliked the film. Kubrick gets points for well-lit shots and nice camerawork, but the film never had any heart or emotional range: Jack is always crazy, Wendy is always beat-down, and Danny is always enigmatic. (I may have missed some subtleties; it puts me to sleep unless I watch it in the afternoon.) This isn’t some “the book is always better” knee-jerk reaction. I’d seen the movie a few times, never liked it, and only sought out the book when I thought it might be markedly different from the film.

But this is a book blog, so on to the book!

The premise is that Jack Torrance, a recovering alcoholic and aspiring writer, accepts a job as the off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel. He brings his wife, Wendy, and his son, Danny, to live in the hotel for the winter. This family desperately needs a reset. Jack’s alcoholism led him to break his son’s arm before costing him his job at a prestigious New England prep school. The bone-dry Overlook sounds like the perfect place to keep sober and write the play that’ll put him back on track. Though he and Wendy sometimes wonder how their 5-year-old son is so perceptive, they don’t know he can hear their thoughts and have visions. Danny’s psychic abilities allow him to see pieces of the Overlook’s past and seem to wake something malicious inside the hotel.

The Shining is definitely a horror story, but before the uneasy sense of dread gives way to full-on terror it’s about Jack, Wendy, and Danny trying to repair their family. Jack’s descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery are brutally detailed; the tragedy comes when the reader realizes he truly loves his son for all his inability to stay sober. He spirals self-destructively and tries to keep it together for Danny, but Danny sees right through him even if he doesn’t understand what he sees. Likewise, Wendy is holding on for Danny’s sake. She has reached her limit, but she’s stronger and far more resourceful than her film version.

Because the cast is so small (completely opposite IT), King has time to develop Jack, Wendy, and Danny inside and out. Though The Shining is written in third-person, King alters his word choice and tone depending on which character he’s following at the time. When Danny overhears words that he doesn’t know in his parents’ minds, they’re picked out in caps: DIVORCE. At the Overlook, he calls the Presidential Suite the Presidential Sweet. These little touches and a whole host of creepy details create a rich and nuanced story. There is some repetition when events are seen through Jack’s, Wendy’s, and Danny’s eyes, but each view adds a new layer. Other details and character tics are mentioned repeatedly, but always at the right time to build tension.

The Torrances are trapped. On one side, the Overlook is growing supernaturally monstrous, but from the other sides come a series of everyday woes: trouble finding work, not enough money, family strife, and substance abuse. The Overlook’s ghosts are pretty mundane at first. They’re the kinds of things the Torrances tell themselves aren’t really there. All horror stories have a moment when the reader/viewer yells at the book/television: JUST LEAVE ALREADY. But King anticipates this and makes the reader understand that the family has no other option or any place else to go. When Jack finally considers escape on a snowmobile, things get even more complicated:

It should work. No reason why not. No reason at all except that it was part of the Overlook and the Overlook really didn’t want them out of here. Not at all. The Overlook was having one hell of a good time. There was a little boy to terrorize, a man and his woman to set one against the other, and if it played its cards right they could end up flitting through the Overlook’s halls like insubstantial shades in a Shirley Jackson novel, whatever walked in Hill House walked alone, but you wouldn’t be alone in the Overlook, oh no, there would be plenty of company here. But there was really no reason why the snowmobile shouldn’t start. Except of course
(Except he still didn’t really want to go.)
yes, except for that. (414)

And then the snows come…

Overall: 4.9 (out of 5.0) I’d have liked some of the Overlook’s history (which Jack finds in a scrapbook) to have had more of a payoff, but that’s the only negative. Some readers say the beginning is slow, but there’s never any doubt that the book is building towards something intense and horrific. I can’t say which scene (spoilers) but this book contains the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. I stopped reading for a moment because I had to look away. There was another moment that made me cry (and it’s a rare book that makes me cry!). Again, spoilers, but I was surprised that The Shining was simultaneously capable of bringing horror and the feels.

Review: It

The first Stephen King book I’ve ever finished! The StandThe Shining, and The Dark Tower all remain half-finished in my queue, but my love for the latest film adaptation of It propelled me through the 1,100+ page book. Summary from Goodreads:

To the children, the town was their whole world. To the adults, knowing better, Derry, Maine was just their home town: familiar, well-ordered for the most part. A good place to live.
It was the children who saw – and felt – what made Derry so horribly different. In the storm drains, in the sewers, IT lurked, taking on the shape of every nightmare, each one’s deepest dread. Sometimes IT reached up, seizing, tearing, killing…
The adults, knowing better, knew nothing.
Time passed and the children grew up, moved away. The horror of IT was deep-buried, wrapped in forgetfulness. Until they were called back, once more to confront IT as IT stirred and coiled in the sullen depths of their memories, reaching up again to make their past nightmares a terrible present reality.

The Good

I’ve been hearing for years that King’s writing is terrifying, but I couldn’t see past the hokey visuals that plague many of his screen adaptations. Some of IT’s incarnations are innately horrific, but others don’t translate to film (e.g., a werewolf in a varsity jacket, or a giant bird). The kids are chased by the werewolf after seeing a movie, but B-movie monsters from the 1950s are more campy than scary. King adds a slew of tiny, disgusting details to transform a dopey villain into something that made me jump in my chair.

Even when King rattles on too long with historical information or by emphasizing the villain’s villainy for the 50th time, each set piece is paid off by a terrifying and unique encounter with IT. Several chapters almost function as stand-alone horror stories. The first to mind (both of which I read twice) are “Another One of the Missing: The Death of Patrick Hockstetter” and “Bev Rogan Pays a Call.”

At times, the book’s length was a point in its favor. I’m tempted to say some sections were bogged down in detail, but I was always left with a crystal-clear view of the character being described. Given how much of this book features supernatural elements, this clarity is a plus even as it triples the reading time.

Also, any time King talks about writing, it’s fantastic. One of the kids, Bill, grows up to be a writer. His path to fame and fortune includes some epic criticism from a mediocre university professor:

“This is better,” the instructor writes on the title page. “In the alien counterstrike we see the vicious circle in which violence begets violence; I particularly liked the “needle-nosed” spacecraft as a symbol of socio-sexual incursion. While this remains a slightly confused undertone throughout, it is interesting.” (163)

The socio-sexual undertone is confused because it’s nonexistent! I think I had a class with this guy…

The Excellent

It is two books in one; there’s one story for kids (14/15-years-old) and another for adults. Reviewers who read it at a younger age make me a bit sorry I didn’t read it much sooner. IT orchestrates the chaos and bad fortune in Derry, and, while IT primarily feeds on children, IT manipulates adults into turning a blind eye to the murders and disappearances. If you read this book as a kid, you’ll worry about something grabbing your ankles as you climb into bed. As an adult, you’ll fear being part of the problem.

When children see a version of IT (as dead people, mummies, lepers) according to their fears, they can go on afterwards (assuming they survive):

[Ben] remembered that the day after he had seen the mummy on the iced-up Canal, his life had gone on as usual. He had known that whatever it had been had come close to getting him, but his life had gone on. . . . He had simply incorporated the thing he had seen on the Canal into his life, and if he had almost been killed by it. . . well, kids were always almost getting killed. They dashed across streets without looking, they got horsing around in the lake and suddenly realized they had floated far past their depth on their rubber rafts and had to paddle back, they fell off monkey-bars on their asses and out of trees on their heads. (691)

But grown-ups have a narrower view of the world. They can’t bounce back:

But when you grew up, all that changed. You no longer lay awake in your bed, sure something was crouching in the closet or scratching at the window. . . but when something did happen, something beyond rational explanation, the circuits overloaded. The axons and dendrites got hot. You started to jitter and jive, you started to shake rattle and roll, your imagination started to hop and bop and do the funky chicken all over your nerves. You couldn’t just incorporate what had happened into your life experience. It didn’t digest. (691)

While it’s not uncommon for coming-of-age stories to have a “the kids are on their own” premise, I don’t think I’ve felt as strange to realize I’m in the grown-up camp now as I did reading this book. The scenes with the kids are tinged with nostalgia and made me feel that sweet summer freedom again. Though It is rightly classified as a horror, its heart is in the friendship between the kids (and in the adults when they reunite). I’m not sure how It is more moving than other books I’ve read in this genre—especially given how much of the book is spent with a sadistic, clown-shaped thing—but all victories feel earned, the losses sting, and I can’t remember cheering on a group of protagonists as hard as I was pulling for the Losers Club at the end.

The Scary

The book is scarier than the movie, so if you see the movie and want more (and darker) scares as well as some mythology behind Pennywise (a.k.a. Bob Gray, a.k.a. IT) then I recommend the book. Plus, it’s different enough that you’ll still be in suspense when the kids/adults encounter It. The book version features tunnels that are far narrower (and filthier) so there’s a tension that isn’t present in the movie’s wide, not-quite-dark sewer system. Match-lit tunnels will always be more frightening than those lit by flashlights.

The Wtfffff

There’s a weird sex scene that a whole lot has been written about. Even King says he probably wouldn’t include it now if he could do the book over, but it’s easy enough to skim.

Overall

I was really surprised and impressed by the level of detail and world-building. I always equated King with cheap jump scares and gross-out imagery, but was happy to find something more nuanced and layered. Because It is so extremely long, I feel like I know as much about Derry as my actual hometown and the main cast is easy to picture. Sometimes King leans hard on stereotypes and the supporting cast thins out a bit, but I had a lot of fun reading the book.

I read online that King digs into the mythology more in his The Dark Tower series so I’ve started The Gunslinger. It’s not what I expected so far; it’s very dreamy and disconnected and not at all like the solid world of Derry, Maine.

4.5 (out of 5) I had to skim a little (not much!). While the length helps the book feel immersive, a little tightening up wouldn’t go amiss. King sidesteps the issue of “is this all a coincidence” neatly and the scary bits are scary.