I completed my bachelor’s degree in Theology at a secular university in England, not a seminary or Bible college. Because of this, I encountered many students and teachers who did not share my faith, and some that were, frankly, downright antagonistic toward those who identified themselves as Christians. While this was annoying from time to time, the challenge was instructive in many ways. One way was that I discovered that scholars can be as much a slave to questionable presuppositions as anyone else. But of more relevance to this review, I discovered that I could still learn things from people with whom I had profound disagreements. My Hebrew teacher in particular liked to throw out barbed comments against “fundamentalists” who believed in the integrity and authority of the Bible. But his knowledge of Semitic languages and Second Temple Judaism was (and still is) profound, and if you could get beyond his classroom attitude toward those who have faith, you could actually learn a lot of useful things.
Those familiar with my constant refrain “I’m not a Stephen King fan…” will get where I’m going with this. It’s true: I’m not a Stephen King fan. It’s nothing personal–I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But the majority of his work is in a genre I don’t write and don’t often read. There are also some stylistic things about his writing (which I will address below) that put me off a little. And yet, I have six of his books, and–I confess–I’m intrigued by his latest, 11/22/63. Why read books by an author I keep saying I’m not a fan of? Am I a glutton for punishment? Or perhaps I’m in denial?
When I decided I was going to take writing seriously, one of the first things I did instinctively was to read books by respected authors. I had been neglecting fiction for a number of years, so I had (and still have) a lot of catching up to do. Given that I had a very limited idea of what fiction I liked, I decided to look at what’s popular–what do people enjoy reading, and what can I learn from these authors? What do they do well? What do they do badly? I read some classics, I read the Ian Fleming Bond novels, and I tried to avoid Stephen King because he writes horror, and the last horror I read was the OMEN series in my early teens.
There was a TV show on at the time that my wife enjoyed called The Dead Zone. It was an interesting show with an interesting premise. And it was based on a novel by… Stephen King. Not really horror, though. Okay, I thought, maybe I should give this guy a chance. So I bought the novel. I wasn’t blown away. Still not a fan. But it disabused me of the Stephen King = horror equation. Sure, that’s his primary genre, but he really is a genre unto himself. That opened me to read his book ON WRITING, and I was appalled to discover that it was the single most helpful and intelligently-written book on the subject I have ever read–and, though I have read a number of good books about writing, that accolade still stands. I’ve said it a million times, and I’ll say it again: if you are a writer serious about writing, buy that book! Put it on your Christmas wish list. Read it. Then make sure it’s on your shelf next to Strunk and White and the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
So, I’m not a Stephen King fan, but I will read his books, because, while there are things that annoy me about his writing, there are things he does well. When I read a Stephen King novel now, I do so in the light of ON WRITING. Here is the author of that masterpiece giving me a practical example of how it’s done. And he doesn’t always get it right; but there is a lot to learn from this… *shuffles feet grudgingly* master storyteller. Ahem. You didn’t hear that from me. I’m not a fan, remember?
All that said, here’s my review of his third novel, THE SHINING, first published in 1977. Jack Torrance is a man terrorized by demons. He loves his wife, and his son Danny, but Jack is the product of an abusive father, and has a tendency to lash out when angry (and drunk)–even at those he loves. His violent outbursts cost him his teaching job, and almost cost him his marriage. He takes a job at The Overlook, a hotel set high in the Colorado mountains, as a caretaker during the winter months while the hotel is closed, hoping the time of seclusion will act as a healthy retreat for him and his family to reconnect and rebuild. But The Overlook is a hotel with a violent history, as Jack begins to discover. Like Jack, The Overlook is also terrorized by demons–but these are the kind that take physical form and can do physical harm. And these demons are particularly interested in Danny. Danny has a gift he calls “the shining”–an extrasensory gift that enables him to read people’s thoughts, communicate telepathically to others with the gift, and see the future. The shining is particularly strong with Danny, and the hotel would love to feed off of that power. But to do that, Danny needs to die. Cut off from the rest of the world by deep snow and dangerous mountain roads, the hotel turns against the family, eventually using Jack’s emotional weakness to possess him so it can get to his son.
King’s depiction of the main characters is largely believable. Jack is a loving father, but clearly has issues. His wife, Wendy, is long-suffering, but deep-down loves her husband and wants their marriage to work. Danny is a precocious but loving son, tormented by his gift. King uses parenthetical comments interjected into the narrative to show passing thoughts that help us get a sense of the conflict inside his characters’ heads–whether it’s Jack being torn between his love for his family and his anger at, as he perceives it, their mistrust of him (feelings which the hotel will play on later), or his wife’s struggle between wanting to believe her husband, and knowing his past. I thought this was a creative, non-intrusive way to give dimension to his characters.
There is a lot of set-up to the story, with backstory interjected throughout, but I didn’t feel it was extraneous. In fact, it helps us in the latter part of the novel to see Jack not as simply a wild-eyed homicidal maniac, but as a victim of a greater power exploiting him for its own ends. Even in the depth of his insanity, you feel a twinge of sympathy for him–at least I did. Also, within that set-up, we are introduced to key plot points that will be important later.
I find King’s descriptions of settings, whether it’s the hotel corridors, the rooms, the boiler room, or the gardens, to be sufficient for me to picture them. It’s frustrating to me when I read a novel and I have to go back and re-read sections because I’m trying to picture a scene and it’s not coming together in my head. He uses sufficient information, and doesn’t overburden the writing with endless world-building that is not relevant to the story.
Here’s a sample from chapter 34 that I think illustrates some of the things I’ve mentioned. We’ve switched to Danny’s POV, and he’s playing out in the snow:
The playground seemed much nicer in the deep snow than it ever had during the autumn. It looked like a fairyland sculpture. The swing chains had been frozen in strange positions, the seats of the big kids’ swings resting flush against the snow. The jungle gym was an ice-cave guarded by dripping icicle teeth. Only the chimneys of the play-Outlook stuck up over the snow
(wish the other one was buried that was only not with us in it)
and the tops of the cement rings protruded in two places like Eskimo igloos. Danny tramped over there, squatted, and began to dig. Before long he had uncovered the dark mouth of one of them and he slipped into the cold tunnel. In his mind he was Patrick McGoohan, the Secret Agent Man (they had shown the reruns of that program twice on the Burlington TV channel and his daddy never missed them; he would skip a party and stay home and watch ‘Secret Agent Man’ or ‘The Avengers’ and Danny had always watched with him), on the run from the KGB agents in the mountains of Switzerland. There had been avalanches in the area and the notorious KGB agent Slobbo had killed his girlfriend with a poison dart, but somewhere near was the Russia antigravity machine. Perhaps at the end of this very tunnel. He drew his automatic and went along the concrete tunnel, his eyes wide and alert, his breath pluming out.
The far end of the concrete ring was solidly blocked with snow. He tried digging through it and was amazed (and a little uneasy) to see how solid it was, almost like ice from the cold and the constant weight of more snow on top of it.
His make-believe game collapsed around him and he was suddenly aware that he felt closed in and extremely nervous in this tight ring of cement. He could hear his breathing; it sounded dank and quick and hollow. He was under the snow, and hardly any light filtered down the hole he had dug to get in here. Suddenly he wanted to be out in the sunlight more than anything, suddenly he remembered his daddy and mommy were sleeping and didn’t know where he was, that if the hole he dug caved in he would be trapped, and the Overlook didn’t like him.
Danny got turned around with some difficulty and crawled back along the length of the concrete ring, his snowshoes clacking woodenly together behind him, his palms crackling in the last fall’s dead aspen leaves beneath him. He had just reached the end and the cold spill of light coming down from above when the snow did give in, a minor fall, but enough to powder his face and clog the opening he had wriggled down through and leave him in darkness.
For a moment his brain froze in utter panic and he could not think. Then, as if from far off, he heard his daddy telling him that he must never play at the Stovington dump, because sometimes stupid people hauled old refrigerators off to the dump without removing the doors and if you got in one and the door happened to shut on you, there was no way to get out. You would die in the darkness.
(You wouldn’t want a thing like that to happen to you, would you, doc?)
But it had happened, his frenzied mind told him, it had happened, he was in the dark, he was closed in, and it was as cold as a refrigerator. And–
(something is in here with me.)
There were things I didn’t like about the novel, and these are things that annoy me about Stephen King’s writing generally. First, he does like his f-words, s-words, g-d-words, and a lot of other words that are not usually a part of polite conversation. I understand the argument “that’s how people talk”–but this is fiction, and people don’t have to talk that way to be real. Attitude is not all verbal. I am told by people who lived there, though, that these kinds of words are a natural part of the vocabulary in Maine. Since that’s where Stephen King lives, maybe that explains it. He might not even realize other people don’t appreciate it. Nevertheless, this can be a distraction to those who are uncomfortable with strong language.
He will also draw attention to naked <ahem> body parts when there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do so. I mean, if a woman is naked, you would expect those parts to be exposed. Unless there is a plot-relevant reason to describe them, it just borders on the salacious to do so. The same can be said for depictions of sex and the prelude to such activity which King doesn’t always treat in the most subtle of ways.
King’s style can also be uneven. There are time (as in the section quoted above) where his prose is pure literary magic. And then there are times where his prose drops to a quirky, colloquial tone that simply jars against my ear. When this is coupled with some of his favorite f/g-d/s-words, it makes me sigh. He might argue that it’s part of the voice of a particular character, but, again, I find it irritating. That’s probably just a personal thing–others may love it.
There were also times I thought Danny’s thoughts, speech, and behavior were uncharacteristic of a five-year-old. I know not all children are the same, and Danny is supposed to be particularly bright. But I felt his insights and language sometimes went beyond the reach of someone with only a handful of years experience of the world.
Overall, I have to say it was a good novel. An interesting story with an interesting premise well-told. It’s not really that much of a blood-fest kind of horror novel, but more of a disturbing, suspenseful type of novel. Definitely for those of mature reading sensibilities. I certainly think there is much an aspiring novelist could learn from the character development and plotting of this novel.
I’ve not seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie based on the book, but I have read about it, in particular some of the more dramatic changes he made. Frankly, while it may be a classic horror movie, I’m not overly enticed to see it. I liked the way Jack is portrayed in the novel, and I liked the way the novel ended. Kubrick’s revision of both these elements (granted, based on what I’ve read, not from having seen the film) I think takes away from the story. There is a sense of redemption and closure in the book, which is one of the things I like about it, and which is apparently missing from the film.
So there’s my review. Sorry it’s so long–I’ll try to be more succinct in future reviews. Have you read THE SHINING? What did you think? Have you seen the movie? How do you think it compared to the book, or if you haven’t read the book, does my description of the book surprise you? You know how much I love comments… 🙂