Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.
See also: http://goppf.wikidot.com/swstart
My name: Brian Martin
I've read many of Stephen King's books (more than 15, less than 20) and the one I enjoyed most on the first reading was Danse Macabre. But if we restrict the field to King's novels, it would have to be The Shining. Having recently finished it again, more than two decades since my last read, I see no reason to change that opinion.
I think the reason for this is an accumulation of subtle differences. Like his other books, The Shining is King all over, which isn't always a good thing. It's wordy, it's got a kid much too advanced for his age, and it ends with that Mythbuster mentality that isn't satisfied until everything gets blown to hell. But this book, more than the others, is the one that was built for King's style.
Maybe it's the Overlook Hotel itself. For anyone who doesn't already know, the story is about Jack Torrance, an alcoholic man who, naturally, carts his family along when he takes a job as the winter caretaker of a posh hotel in the Colorado mountains that just happens to be haunted. He doesn't know this going in, of course, nor does Wendy, his wife. But his son, Danny, does; his "shining" -- psychic talent -- clues him in real fast that the Overlook is one Bad Place. But what's a five -year-old kid gonna do? Refuse to go?
In the Overlook, King has a boogeyman just big enough for all those words and yet small enough to keep things focused. In other words, it isn't like Pet Semetary, which is the same length as The Shining, but all about that little place in the woods where Sparky was buried. And it's not like 11/22/63, either, which might have merited its 800-plus pages if were really about what happened on that date, but instead is split into three different stories rudely rammed together.
King's a character guy. He said somewhere that his ideas tend to start with, Wouldn't it be funny if -- which makes him sound like a plot guy. But it's obvious that plot doesn't interest him nearly so much as his characters. His books don't run as long as they do because his plots are intricate or complex; they balloon because he can't stop riffing on the characters. Every once in awhile, he finds a happy confluence of both, and when that happens, he can give us all a heck of a ride.
Most of King's characters, if they went looking for a house to contain their egos and their histories, would end up buying the Overlook Hotel. But only Jack Torrance gets to do that. He gets to do it because he's a haunted man who needs a haunted house to feel at home. Jack isn't a deep man, but he skates a wide surface. There's the time he broke his son's arm, the time when he and a friend nearly killed a kid, the time when his father attacked his mother, and so on. It's not without reason he thinks the Overlook is hot for him.
But the Overlook has more than a quick roll in mind. For that, it needs Danny. (Why King made the kid five when he could just as easily have tacked on a few years is a mystery. Would you take a nap with your five-year-old sitting on a street curb? Wendy does. And the hell of it is, you can't really blame her, because Danny ain't no ordinary kid, quite apart from his psychic talent. There's a funny line very late in the book, something about Danny having his first adult thought. I'm pretty sure he was having them all along. In any case, his age, because it has little relevance beyond "young son," is easily ignored.)
For Jack, not being the favorite threatens to turn him into a living pun: a man overlooked. And that he can't abide.
So The Shining is all about what happens when an insecure man with violent tendencies gets backed into a corner, when inner demons meet real demons. If they were serial killers, Jack would be Ottis Toole to the Overlook's Henry Lee Lucas. (Toole, in fact, lived for awhile in Boulder.) It's a match made in Hell, a Molotov cocktail.
That's probably why King's explosive ending works much better here than in other novels. Usually it's not much more than an afterthought. Here, it's an inevitability.
Some thoughts on the movies: Kubrick's version and King's miniseries
* It's easy enough to see why someone who prefers faithful adaptations wouldn't like Kubrick's version of The Shining. Kubrick turns the story on its head, and doesn't waste any time doing it, either. I don't usually remember first lines, but I've remembered the opening line of The Shining ever since I first read it over 30 years ago: "Jack Torrance thought: Officious little prick." That line sets the tone for the whole book. It's Jack, uncomfortably subservient yet violent, against an inferior world that neither understands nor accepts him. But he's got good reason to dislike Mr. Ullman, the hotel manager to whom he's referring. Ullman doesn't like him, either, and wouldn't be going through the motions of a pro forma interview if it weren't for the fact that one of his bosses happens to be a friend of Jack's and has informed him that he wants Jack to have the job. In Kubrick's version, which, after the credits, also starts with Jack's interview, Mr. Ullman is delighted with Jack and couldn't be happier to be turning over the hotel to him for the winter. In a way, this scene also sets the tone for the movie, because what Kubrick has done is take a story about people and turn it into a story about the bad things people do. He's swapped character for plot, and in doing so he has rendered the initial animosity irrelevant.
* From Stephen King: "What's basically wrong with Kubrick's version of The Shining is that it's a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that's why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should." To which I would respond that those "virtuoso effects," among other things, are what make the film powerful and memorable, two qualities distinctly lacking in the miniseries. The "all work and no play" scene -- all by itself -- is both scarier and more memorable than the miniseries.
* On the surface, the miniseries is much more faithful to King's novel; after all, King wrote the teleplay. Many of those scenes not even dreamed of in Kubrick's version are present here: the wasps, the fire hose, the scrapbook, the topiary, and so on. But underneath, it still ain't the book. And that's because King spends too much time recreating the events of the novel instead of reinventing its psychology. One example. In the book, the first wasp scene is part of a chapter called "Up on the Roof." The wasps themselves occupy only about a sixth of the chapter; most of the rest concerns the duplicitous, violent events that led to Jack losing his teaching position in Vermont. Of the two, it's obvious which one King thinks is most important. In the miniseries, however, what we get is Jack getting stung, Jack almost killing himself by falling off the roof, Jack getting mad, and Jack getting a bug bomb. The scene is there, but the really important information is lost. King, like Kubrick, swaps character for plot, and ends up with an adaptation that only appears more faithful. (To further demonstrate how unimportant the wasps are, this chapter is the first of Part 3, which is called "The Wasps' Nest." Part 3 is when we see the evil in the Overlook. The hotel itself is the real wasps' nest.)
* The endings. Kubrick's visual puzzle of the photograph might have limited appeal, but it's hard to imagine that King's soppy endings would interest anyone. That's not a typo, by the way, for King gives us two endings, both soppy and the second one more maudlin than the first. After that, he gives us a third ending that might have been scary if it hadn't already been done a thousand times. The novel features one of his best, most logical conclusions, but giving him -- a man with well known problems in this area -- a second chance turns out to be a terrible mistake. A few minutes earlier, in fact, he writes one of the dumbest scenes I've ever seen. I don't really want to give anything away; suffice it to say that if he'd been honest, the whole family would have been toast.
* On the plus side, the topiary is well done.