Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Shining

The Shining, Stephen King, 1977.

I came to reading King pretty late, partly because of a general dislike for horror, partly because of elitist pretensions of him being overly trashy. December 2008 I picked up my first King novel, and since then have read eighteen of his novels and two short story collections, finding them generally effective and compelling narratives. However, I also saw a major quality drop across the late 90s and 0s, in short story quality, Insomnia and especially the last half of the Dark Tower series. So, after experiencing both King eagerness and burnout I turned recently to one of his earlier and well known books to see if it stands up.

And it does, pretty much. The plot unfolded exactly as expected, partly because of cultural osmosis, but also because it's foreshadowed and precognitively climpsed in the text pretty clearly. In short: a recovering alcoholic with writer's block takes his wife and young psychic song to an old hotel to guard it over the weekend, giving them complete isolation. It seems like a good idea at the time. But then he turns homicidal, because of ghosts. It's a testament to the effectiveness of the prose and above all pace that the narrative is thrilling despite the endpoints being so clearly foreshadowed. The description of the action is effectively harrowing, and the slow buildup to it even more so. The horror motif of a father turning violently against those closest to him is a powerful one, and King allows his narrative to resonate with the trauma this has. While in It the supernatural horror is jumping out at characters every other chapter, here's it's all buildup to one ghastly rampage. There's a respect for the weight in this situation that above all lets it be delivered well.

What also makes the story work is the depth given to characterization. Normally King's characters are pretty flat, but here some pretty intense and well rounded psychologies are pulled off. In particular Jack Torrence emerges as one of King's more effective protagonists/villains, a main of equal measure talent and frustration, deeply flawed but aware of this and trying to overcome his own propensity for alcohol and violence. And this allows the main conceit of the novel to work, perhaps better than it should. Making the violence occur not because of flaws in Jack's character but from ghosts could so easily have turned trite, or delivered what TV Tropes would call a Space Whale Aesop--a situation too rooted in the fantastic to really be relevant, and with murderous domestic violence that risks downplaying the significance of the reality in the premise. To an extent this occurs, particularly in the climax, but the major buildup makes it more complex. The final result is not Jack becoming psychotic purely on his own devices or him being bodyjacked by ghosts. Instead it's a process of corruption and seduction, at once metaphysical and deeply personal, which in itself builds up a lot of pathos on all sides.

I'm not sure if there's anything I could say that would recommend this book to someone uninterested in reading horror, including myself two years ago. This is certainly a dark story, with a darkness rooted in a certain type of fantastic. There's no deep theme or underlying rationale in why this particular hotel is haunted in this way, and to a large extent the premise depends on an authorial arbitrariness.
Still, the story is well formed, the characters complex and believable, and the way the supernatural premise infringes on each member of the cast feels human and affecting. Given King's evident ambitions in this story, I'd say he delivered on this effectively.

Similar to and better than: King's Insomnia
Similar to and worse than: King's It

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