Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Shining (book)

Guess where I'm sleeping Saturday night?

D's birthday weekend is coming up and we're all-in for an adventure at the Stanley Hotel up in Estes Park. How cool is that?!?

To prepare, I spent $3 for the Kindle version of The Shining on Monday and started to read. I've never read the book and I've never seen the film. Growing up, the horror genre wasn't something we had around the house and, as a young adult, I discovered my imagination was a bit too untamed to be able to take in scary stuff and be able to sleep at night. I avoided scary movies and horror stories, tried again when I had little kids, still couldn't sleep, and kept staying away.

In the past few years, though, I've dipped my toes in, picking up $1 Kindle horror, enjoying the television series American Horror Story and The Walking Dead, and finding I've become more academic in my approach, probably a lot more cerebral, which helps stave off the midnight heebie-jeebies.

The only bits I know of the story were gleaned from oblique references (Simpsons, anyone?) and, of course, that movie poster and bit of scene with Jack axing through the door.

I was actually delighted to realize I had no clue how the story ended, or even much about any of the characters. Usually a lover of spoilers, I found myself enjoying the anticipation of not knowing

Monday evening I started slowly, Tuesday evening I got to the halfway point, and last night, realizing there was going to be no way to sleep without making through to the dénouement, I stayed up until midnight to finish it. 

This morning, I'm still in that reading handover phase, gulping coffee and trying to clear my head. 

I figure, between sleeping there on Saturday night and doubtless watching the film (it plays on a continuous loop on one of the hotel's channels), it might be helpful to flesh out the basics of the book while it's laying at the front of my imagination, freshly killed, if you will without a film adaptation to sully the ideas. 

I love that I was able to go in without having seen the film. I was able to quickly banish the look of Jack Nicholson from the narrative within the first chapters. Jack, the father of the novel, is boyish, with slightly red hair; he's a struggling writer who has recently lost his nice English teaching position at a New England prep school  because he lost his temper. That theme, of being out of control, crops up both in his stuffed down anger, mostly directed at himself at the start of the book, as well as his former drunkenness that has already driven a wedge between him and his wife, Wendy, especially since he broke his three year old son's arm in a drunken rage when the toddler messed up his study and the pages of his play. Jack had stopped drinking entirely when he had his unfortunate encounter with George, a student at the prep school, that unravels the rest of his life. 

George is New England rich boy handsome, with everything handed to him. When his father has him join Jack's debate team, George encounters the first obstacle in his bumpless road to wealth and power. Under the time clock's pressure, it seems, George begins to stutter. He's unable to compete, and Jack cuts him from the team. King has ambiguously written this section, so at some points the reader is quite sure the stutter is real, and, at others, that Jack hears a stutter when no one else does because he wants the boy to fail. Is Jack subconsciously jealous of the ease in which George will live his life so that he malevolently cuts the kid from the team? Either way, Jack comes upon George cutting the tires of his car in retaliation and, in a stone-cold sober blind rage, knocks the kid to the ground hard enough to crack his skull and do permanent damage. He is fired from his job and the family finds itself teetering on the edge of homelessness, if not for the kind gesture of a fellow teacher and friend, Al. who was just about to secure Jack a tenured position at the school.

Al was also Jack's drinking buddy who shared the encounter that sobered them both up one night in the dark on a long stretch of highway, when they run over a bicycle in the road and spend hours, as they sober up, fruitlessly searching for a rider. More ambiguity. Al is similar to George, in that he's got an easy, privileged life, and sits on the board of directors of the Overlook Hotel. He's able to secure Jack a job from October through May as caretaker of the place during the closed season. It seems a perfect fit to finally finish his play and get his writing career restarted.

The novel opens with the interview for the position between Jack and the hotel manager, Stuart Ullman, who guards the reputation of The Overlook quite fiercely. He throws Jack's failures back in his face and Jack, clearly fighting authoritarian demons off, does his best not to rise to the bait. The previous family man hired as caretaker for the winter had gone mad with cabin fever and killed his wife, two daughters, and himself, so Ullman is decidedly worried that Jack might do the same. There is no real concern for Jack or his family, you see. It's all about how difficult it will be to cover up more messy business to protect his hotel.

Jack reasons that Grady, the former caretaker turned homicidal maniac, was driven to it by a lack of education, whereas he, a smart, intelligent writer, would obviously be completely immune to any such claustrophobia. Ah, pride goeth before a fall, Jack.

Horror is, at its core, about that claustrophobia. It's about being so close to the thing with the hot breath on the back of your neck that you cannot escape. The setting of a darkened haunted hotel, with its labyrinthine black halls, its locked doors, snowed in, miles from anyone, without communication is a natural.  No one can be immune.

It's left ambiguous as to how much the toady little Ullman actually understands about the evil that resides in his halls. The hotel acts upon sensitive individuals more easily than the thick-skulled, but King isn't showing us his hand on whether Ullman is aware of his complicity.

Danny, as the five year old protagonist has the gifts of clairvoyance/prescience and telepathy and the hotel wants that power . . . badly. It would seem that all of the hidden murders across its years have given the place a life of its own, but its powers are limited to only momentary hauntings and the occasional chance to pull in another victim. It has delusions of grandeur if it can only swallow Danny whole.

When the family arrives on the day everyone else is departing, he meets the cook, Dick Halloran, who recognizes Danny's abilities, for he shares them, although not as gifted as the little boy. He explains to Danny that there are things in the hotel that he should stay away from. In Dick's experience, there isn't enough power for any harm to come to him. But Dick hasn't factored in Danny's power.

The hotel lulls the family into a momentary happiness and then begins to identify Jack as the best way to the boy. Jack and Danny have shared a father/son bond that Wendy often notices and sometimes resents. So Jack begins to find information about the hotel that pulls him into its trance. He joyfully imagines writing a best seller about the place, and begins to exhibit the same behaviors he had when he went on benders, losing hours in the basement sorting through old documents, wiping his mouth with his hand obsessively, chewing Excedrin like candy. There is no booze in the place, but the hotel can work around that.

Danny has seen the ending of the book from the earliest points in the narrative -- bit and pieces of the chase through the blackened hallways, the pattern of the carpet, the sound of the roque mallet smashing into the silk wallpapers, the bloody hand in the tub, and, of course, REDRUM.  His inner voice, Tony, guides much of his early visions into the future, but at the hotel Tony is hushed by the malevolence of the place. Danny finally cries out telepathically for Dick to come and help. This means the final chapters of the novel, in which Jack utterly descends into madness, taking on all the horrible traits of his own abusive, drunk father are intercut with the slowest damn chapters ever . . . Dick hears Danny while he's in Florida. He has to get off work. He has to book a flight. He has to get pulled over by the cops for speeding and miss the last flight out for the night. He has plane trouble. He arrives at the start of the worst storm in Colorado's history, he has to drive up mountains and slide off the road and get pulled out, rent a snowmobile, and get past those freaking demonic hedges that come to life and stalk you. Jack was the first to see them. Danny almost gets killed by them (or whatever else was grabbing at him in the playground's underground snow bunker where he almost gets buried alive. (Love those hedges. Three lions, a dog, and a  . . . bunny? Made me laugh.) So the Halloran- coming-to-the-rescue chapters are like trying to run in your nightmares. You can't ever pick up enough speed. I was skimming his chapters trying to finish before midnight. Sorry, Dick.

Dick had told Danny not to go into room 217 (King's room number at the Stanley -- costs a fortune for that room now) but the hold of the hotel pulls the boy in. His first foray into the room, he only unlocks the door, peers in, and then locks it back. He then has a horrible sequence with, of all things, a fire hose in the hallway. His second trip, he goes all the way in and find the horrid purple bloated corpse of the old woman leering at him with her steel-mirrored eyes. She manages to get her hands around his throat and try to strangle him. Meanwhile, Jack is lulled into a deep sleep where he relives his own childhood nightmares and mingles them with the idea of killing Wendy. His father's voice on the radio begins to tell him he will have to kill them both. In his sleep, Jack smashes the radio -- the only window to the outside world left besides the CB radio. When Wendy comes running and he tells her about the dream, and they then find a catatonic Danny with strangle marks on his neck, she immediately blames Jack and sweeps Danny away behind a locked door. Jack goes up to the room and finds an empty room. He checks the bathtub. Nothing. He turns, and hears the clickity clack of the shower curtain pulling itself back and the door to the room closing. He turns back and sees the figure of the woman now lying in the tub, getting up. This is where I knew I wasn't going to sleep until I finished the thing.

The twice-daily chore of pressuring down the old boiler in the basement (where Jack spends most of his time) means we have that nice, built-in metaphor for release versus explosion. The motif of the wasps is also hammered into the story, both in Jack's childhood, and in his caretaking responsibilities now. He gets stung and kills a nest while putting new shingles on the roof in the first month. He gifts the empty paper nest to Danny, who awakens to find them stinging him in the night, mysteriously come back to life. First clue, Jack. Pay attention.

When Danny is attacked, Wendy insists they attempt to get the snowmobile out of the shed and get the boy out of the hotel. The battle between sane, fatherly Jack and the hotel's influence shifts to Hotel 1, Jack 0 when he sabotages the spark plugs so they cannot leave.

Wendy has absolute faith in Danny's abilities very early on, although she takes her time working it out before questioning Danny directly about what his father is thinking about. She has her own issues with her mother that color everything she does, both as a wife and a mother. After the hotel supplies Jack with enough martinis to kill a man (at least in his delusion) and he parties with the time-out-of-time crowd from across the hotel's ages -- all the dead who've come to stay -- Wendy and Danny hear everything locked in their room. Wendy is startlingly brave in several key scenes, one of which is confronting the insane Jack after that night. When he tries to kill her, she manages to knock him out and lock him in the pantry in the morning, when the powers of the hotel wane in the daylight. All three of them see the lights in the ballroom and hear the voices and see the elevator running up and down at night. Only Jack joins in. Jack's pride is the key the hotel uses to agree to "correct" his wayward wife and son, with the promise that there is a great future for him at the hotel.

Cue the MURDER dream sequence. (And get there already, Dick.)

When night falls and the hotel releases Jack from his pantry prison to finish the job, Wendy has crept down to check on him and he attacks her with the roque mallet that's been mentioned in practically every chapter. He breaks her ribs before she plunges the kitchen knife through his chest. But, c'mon, now. She clearly hasn't read enough Stephen King. Jack gets back up and smashes her vertebrae before she can make it back to their room where, of course, Danny has gone missing.

Only Halloran's arrival (FREAKIN.FINALLY) keeps Jack from delivering the death blow to Wendy, as Jack turns to pretty much smash his head in with that stupid mallet about the instant he gets into the hotel. DANG. I'm glad I skimmed all those chapters.

Danny's upstairs, reliving his chase, knowing for certain it is indeed his father that is going to kill him in the dead-ended hallway of the third floor. Tony manages to appear (Danny's middle name is Anthony...) and give him a riddle, like the five year old who's just learn to read needs that right about now?!

He plucks up his courage and calls the hotel out: You're not my father. This actually gets Jack, the real one, back, long enough to tell Danny to get out while he can. There's a moment of salvation in Danny's powers. And then Danny solves Tony's riddle, "remember the thing your father forgot", and reminds Evil Hotel Jack that after boozing him up all night and getting locked in the pantry all day, no one has let the pressure out of the boiler in, like, two days. Checkmate!

Thing-Jack races down to the basement just in time to get blown to smithereens with all the other unholy crap burning up in the explosion.

Danny gets down to Wendy, who's tending to Halloran, both of them alive but badly broken, and all three make it off the porch of the hotel when it goes up.


But wait...

Like the time I was watching Misery, and James Cann smacks Kathy Bates with the iron pig and thinks he's done . . .  and I'm screaming, "hit her with the pig again!!" . . .  and there she is rising up to go after him again, here we are at the out building, Dick getting the blankets from the darkened interior so they can try to make it the 20 miles on the snowmobile down to town in the -10° snowstorm when they're wearing pajamas and no shoes . . .  and Dick sees the other roque mallets lining the wall and hears the voices telling him to finish the job. Stop it.

Dick manages to free himself from their pull and that building goes up minutes later in flame. The whole evil mess of the place swarms like an angry wasp nest disturbed (THEME, people) and disappears.

They make it down and the final chapter has Wendy recovering, the two of them living off of Jack's insurance comfortably, staying a place in Maine where Dick is now working. How nice.

I keep waiting for the bloated purple tub lady to pop back in, but no such luck.

It really is a (mostly) happy ending.

I've been too jaded by more modern horror where no one gets out alive, I guess.

But THEN . . .

it would appear that I purchased my Kindle edition just in time. For 2013, they added a few selections from King's upcoming sequel (after 40 years) to tease me with. It was just released in hardback 6 weeks ago. And have mercy, bloated purple tub lady is back!! Called it.

I'm excited to see the place that inspired the story. I'm not quite as excited to see the film, since it can't possibly be as good . . . and Jack Nicholson just isn't Jack Torrance. But I'll doubtless watch it, curbing as much commentary as possible to keep Deana from going all "Here's Johnny!" on me while we're there.

Stay tuned.


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