It’s Halloween week. For the most part I really don’t care about that, sorry, but as you may already know I am using it as an excuse to expand my horror knowledge by getting in to some classic genre fiction. Yesterday I went cult, today I’m going full blown mainstream blockbuster horror writing.
It could only be one man.
It could have been a whole host of books, but it had to be him.
By the time Stephen King published The Shining in 1977 he had already published Carrie, and Salem’s Lot, the former of which was quickly and successfully adapted for the silver screen in 1976. He may not have been the household name that he is today, but he was well set upon a path to stardom, and nicely set into a style of writing and (although he would branch out as his career continued) was firmly set as a major player in the horror genre.
I, on the other hand, have never been a major player in the horror genre in any regard. It is perhaps then not so surprising to say that I’m no King expert. Although this little gauntlet of classics circulates my horror blind spot, it could quite as easily focus on my Stephen King blind spot.
As it is, the two are intrinsically tied.
After setting his first two novels in his hometown of Portland, Maine, King moved away from the town in his personal life, and in the fictional worlds of his novels too.
Enter The Shining.
The book tells the story of the Torrance family, who move into the Overlook Hotel in Colorado during the off-season, so that the father of the family – Jack – can work as the caretaker. Jack is a recovering alcoholic, desperate for a fresh start, decent pay, and a chance to finish his play. Wendy, the mother, clings on to the hope that their family unit can recover from Jack’s troubles, with his alcoholism spilling over into domestic violence against her, and Danny, their son. Danny’s troubles and talents run deeper than either of them know. He possesses supernatural telepathic abilities, which we will come to the know as the titular ‘shining.’ At the Overlook, a place steeped in gruesome, haunted history, his powers draw forth a great evil which push the family, and particularly Jack, beyond the edge of sanity.
Even though my Stephen King knowledge floats around the level of rough to non-existent, I felt like I knew what to expect. King’s popularity is surely in part due to his easily digestible style, and his uncomplicated language, I thought. And as far as I knew, a Stephen King novel is as well suited to being read by the pool on holiday as it is anywhere else.
This is no criticism, and in hindsight I was right in my early preconceptions. King is an easy, fun read, even if his subject matter is anything but. He uses simple and smart indicators which quickly characterise each of the three individuals making up the Torrance family. The beauty of words as a medium of expression is their ability to relay the interior of characters, and for all the ghosts and ghouls of the Overlook hotel, The Shining is a book about what comes from within, and King tackles this with a layered approach.
When he writes from Danny’s perspective it is easy to forget just how young and naïve the poor boy is, as the story is just so damn grim, but King is careful to remind you – which ensures the reader remains well and truly creeped out. One sure fire way to make a creepy story creepier is to not shy away from putting an “innocent” character in genuine peril. For instance, for a good chunk of the novel Danny considers the Presidential Suite the ‘Presidential Sweet’. Maybe that doesn’t seem so smart, but I think it is a wonderfully simple way of indicating Danny’s naivete, and indicating the regression of it as the story progresses, as the encroaching darkness forces this boy to grow up all too fast in order to survive the Hotel, and his father.
Although King’s nice ‘n easy style mostly goes over very well, it also leads me to a few sticking points. Occasionally King would drop a metaphor which would make me cringe, and in general his writing of the character of Hallorann – a cook at the Overlook who quickly picks up on Danny’s shine – felt like what it was…a white guy trying really hard to write a convincing black character, and falling into a few traps which I felt were cheap.
I’m looking at passages like:
“But that was only dressing, the sauce on the salad, and down below there was as much bitter vetch in that salad as there was cool cucumber”
“Hallorann pushed the button that lowered the passenger side window and hollered: ‘Those avocadoes is too damn high, you cheapskate!’”
Maybe I’m being a little pretentious. King is an author with a wide audience, and a wide appeal. Sometimes he has to take a wide swing at things to keep that broad stroke going. For the most part the prose is pretty damn good, big surprise, but it’s not what will keep you going. No, the key is how King masterfully builds tension, from scene to scene and over the course of the whole novel.
Take for example a scene where Jack begins to believe that the hedge animals that he is set to trim are alive and moving, with possibly murderous intent. King builds the tension slowly, ramping things up and up, before taking it off the boil again. Without that full release of pressure, that tension carries over into the following chapters. The madness in Jack, and the devilry in the Overlook is there from very early on in the story, but King keeps any kind of explosive, resolute action off the page until the book’s conclusion. When we get to the end I don’t think that conclusion quite matches the wonderful tension which precedes it, but in part that’s just because the build up is so good.
The moment simmers, we simmer, and Mr King has us in his grasp.
The Shining lacks a satisfy conclusion to the supernatural ramping of tension which drags the reader by the ears through it’s girthy page count, and at times Stephen King’s prose falls into territory which had me rolling my eyes, but this is a thriller in every sense. It takes hold of you early on and takes you on a horrific journey which smartly balances the threat of external existential horror with internal emotional devastation.
Amazingly this is the first full Stephen King novel that I’ve read. It won’t be the last.