Monday, December 12, 2011

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

I am not a reader of horror.  In fact, I've never read a horror story before this (except Goosebumps and works of a similar vein as a kid).  It's sort of strange that I ended up reading this book.  But I was at the library a few weeks back, completely directionless as to what I should read next.  So I started walking through the stacks and in the K section The Shining caught my eye.

I had never read anything by King before, besides a nonfiction essay in an English class once.  But that essay was fantastic.  After years of failed lectures from teahers it was the only thing that ever convinced me that passive voice is something to be avoided.  But I had never felt a need to pick up any of his novels.  I've always had a negative stereotype of both the horror and mystery genres.  I guess I associate them with dime-a-dozen pulp novels.  I know it's a totally unfair characterization so I figured I'd take a chance to challenge it by picking up something by the king of horror.  I was also curious about if a horror novel could actually scare me.  I'm a very visual person so I imagined it would be hard to get me frightened over something I can't see.  But the movie of The Shining is the most terrifying thing I've ever seen, so I figured it stood a chance.

I was amazed right away, though I know I shouldn't have been, by the quality of the writing.  Horror is by no means a lesser genre.  In terms of literature there is a lot of good being done here.  The descriptions and characterizations are very clear and astute.  For the most part, at least in the beginning, it feels like very real people with real concerns.  The first half of the story, the better half of the story,  is actually a lot more about a struggling family and a father's battle with alcoholism than any paranormal activity.  It's about a man who has made mistakes and is trying once more to piece his family together.  He gets a job as the winter caretaker of a hotel up in the mountains because it's the only job he can get after the mistakes he's made but also because it will allow him and his wife and kid more time together .

Things start to go wrong as the evil forces at the hotel begin to affect him negatively, and as the snow comes and the family is fully isolated it all goes from bad to worse.  The horror starts.  I was actually dissapointed with how this transformation comes about.  King does a good job of taking his time building into the paranormal stuff, but in the beginning there is a really good tension where we don't yet know how much of this is real.  Are there really ghosts at the hotel or are isolation and personal demons causing hallucinations?  I was excited about this question and then dissapointed to see how early King answered it for us.  I would have preferred more mystery and more time in limbo.

I had a tendency while reading to compare the book to the movie.  I know this a mistake, but I'm a novice reviewer and I'm doing this as a hobby so who cares?  It's inevitable.  It actually made the read more fun.  There were things I preferred about King's version, such as the aforementioned depth of character.  But Kubrick's version is signifcantly more frightening, and not just because you can actually see what's happening.  I didn't feel like this book was much of a horror story at all; it's more of a psychological game.  All of the frightening moments are based on the feeling you get leaving a basement that you don't feel comfortable in.  You know something is behind you but you're not going to look back, you're just going to walk a little faster.  Walk, don't run, because if you let it know you're aware of it it will pounce.  You rush out of there and then turn to find it was never there but you KNOW it had to be.  This happens multiple times in the story, and even though it's relatable it seems like a weak way to try and scare the reader.

I am fascinated by isolation.  I was very drawn to the idea of the hotel as a place far away from the world.  This isolation is what draws Jack and his family in - a reprieve from his mistakes and from anxiety and alcohol and all the pressures of everyday life.  But it eventually becomes what does them in.  Isolation is no longer an advantage when you realize the hotel is not a place, it is a character, and its intentions are not pure.

Overall I enjoyed the book, I would recommend it, but there is a major weakness in the fact that King does not (or at least did not at the time) know how to write children.  He sets up Danny as being incredily intelligent for his age, and the parents take pride in never talking down to him, but his thought process is way above that of a child his age.  And then King tries to make him more childlike by cutely misspelling or misunderstanding words (i.e. Presidential Sweet) and it just comes off as a failed attempt.  I'll give you an excerpt as an example.  The first three paragraphs are actually third-person narration, but they're describing Danny's wandering thoughts, and then the quote at the end is him interjecting:

     But it wasn't really empty. Because here in the Overlook things just went on and on.  Here in the Overlook all times were one.  There was an endless night in August of 1945, with laughter and drinks and a chosen shining few going up and coming down in the elevator, drinking champagne and popping party favors in each other's faces.  It was a not-yet-light morning in June some twenty years later and the organization hitters endlessly pumped shotgun shells into the torn and bleeding bodies of three men who went through their agony endlessly.  In a room on the second floor a woman lolled in her tub and waited for visitors.
     In the Overlook all things had a sort of life.  It was as if the whole place had been wound up with a silver key.  The clock was running.  The clock was running.
    He was that key, Danny thought sadly.  Tony had warned him and he just let things go on.
    "I'm just five!"

Indeed he is just five.  So how is he coming up with this very complex, very adult, very metaphorical thought process?  I think this example shows a lot of the inconsistency in this early writing of King.  There are unbalances like this throughout a book.  A lot of quality ideas executed poorly.  It's not surprising to me that Stanley Kubrick took the shell of this story and led it in a more complete direction, even rejecting a script written by King.  I'm sure King felt writing this book the way I feel with these attempts at reviews; I know exactly what I want to say but not quite how to organize and present it.  This book serves as an interesting stepping stone on the path to him eventually becoming a great writer.  Or at least someone people say is a great writer.  I wouldn't know.  I've only ever read one horror story.

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