Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Shining

It is difficult, nearly impossible, to read the book of The Shining without picturing Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance.  Likewise, with invisible ghost party-goers in the ballroom, the grand unmasking, the cellar filled with every piece of paperwork ever accumulated by the hotel, the topiary animals and the creature in the playground, one tries desperately to place them into the film.  The two have become intertwined, woven for all times in the conscious of anyone who has both read the book and seen the film.

And this is a great shame.  King’s novel is perhaps one of his finest – the characters are wonderfully drawn, and it works as a four-pronged piece, with only the four integral characters, and very few bit-players added to this.  Indeed, one of the four, Hallorann, is also barely in the novel.  As such, the entire plot hinges on the Torrance family; Jack, Wendy and Danny.  I shall try to avoid referencing the film at any point hereafter, as it is derogative to the quality of the novel – whilst Kubrick’s film is remarkable in many, many ways, heralded as one of the greatest films of all time, it is a very different beast to the original story.

The characterisation is the one of those principle differences, and one which makes King’s tale a far more powerful thing.  Jack Torrance is a good man, haunted by his alcoholism and “the Bad Thing” he did one night, drunk, to Danny.  He broke his arm, and is haunted by remorse ever since. After a long night of drinking with a friend, Al Shockley, Jack and Al hit a bicycle, but could find no trace of the child from it.  This event forces the pair to dry out, go cold turkey and kick the habit of drinking.  A teacher and writer – those staples of King’s heroes and antiheroes alike – he lost his job by beating a student nearly to death for slicing the tyres on his old Beetle.  All of these things have led him to the state he is now in, desperate for work, and sat in front of Mr Stuart Ullman, a “shiteater” grin across his face as he mutters a mantra “officious little prick, officious little prick” to himself.  Jack cares for his family greatly, and is determined to do what is best for them.  He sees the job at The Overlook as a form of sabbatical, a break from his normal life in which he can finish his play, continue to dry out, and come the Spring, hopefully return to his old job teaching, when they realise the loss they have suffered letting him go.

Wendy is likewise a strong, likeable character.  Unlike in the film version, she is powerful, also haunted by memories and doing her best to get over them.  She is troubled by her memories of the night Danny’s arm was broken, the stench of gin on Jack’s breath night after night, even imagining it after he kicked the booze for good.  The word DIVORCE is still nagging somewhere in her subconscious, an unspoken thing that would have happened had Jack never given up drinking.  Her family haunts her too – the obsessive and repugnant woman determined that she knows best, a destructive power which Wendy fears she will one day become herself.  As the book progresses, she fiercely stands up to everything threatening her family, and more specifically her child.

Danny is magnificently drawn – children are characters that it is so easy to write wrong.  The tone of voice, the vocabulary, the level of understanding shown can so easily be scrawled in a way that writers clearly do not understand them.  King writes them wonderfully, though.  As with the children in ‘Salem’s Lot, their stunted vocabulary works wonders to create truly believable characters – in The Lot, children misconstrued words like “preevert”, and the threats they held for them.  Here, Danny’s ability allows him to read the minds of others, yet rarely fully comprehend what it can all mean.  The scenes in the doctor’s office in Sidewinder are beautifully touching, as Dr Edmonds encourages Danny to reach out and read the mind of his mother, but when he retells those cognitive processes, the reader is asked to draw lines between the dots as he simply cannot.

The Shining of the title is Danny’s gift, one shared by precious few, and it is explained to him by Hallorann the cook in the first act of the story.  Danny is gifted, able to read thoughts, and sensitive to his environs.  His imaginary friend, his sole comfort when he was younger, is gradually causing him nightmares, leading Danny into dark worlds he doesn’t want to see.  The danger of Danny’s presence in the hotel is evident from his first tour of The Overlook; he can see the blood and brains of a past occupant smeared up the walls of the Presidential Suite, there and gone quickly.  Hallorann’s warning forewarns the reader of the danger, but Danny is simply too innocent and naive to fully appreciate it.

Much of the actual ‘danger’ of the novel is subconscious – and as such it becomes so much more terrifying than twins in a corridor and blood in an elevator.  Some of the incidents, such as the endless stream of wasps despite the bug bomb, and the topiary animals attacking, or sitting back on their haunches to watch the attack, are terrifically described, and one almost feels that we are there, surrounded by the encroaching snow, isolated.  Many of King’s telltale signs are there, including the use of the (bracketed thoughts) but here, some thoughts are (interrupted by)(other thoughts), giving the narrative a delightfully tangential edge, as thoughts about (?party?) are suddenly interrupted with (??What party??), and we can sense the gradual decline of each of the characters as they doubt themselves as well as their surroundings.

Jack’s desperation to prove himself as a loving father and husband is the central driving force behind the entire narrative, and what is so powerful about this is that he is a good father.  The ‘Bad Thing’ was long ago, far behind them, and whilst Wendy fears it may happen again, Jack himself is certain that it will not.  Everything he does is for them.  The evil isn’t inside Jack – it is the pervading force of The Overlook itself.  The building radiates evil, permeating anything and everything in its quest to be sated.  It hungers for power, and Danny is a shining beacon in the wasteland, one which must be consumed.  As Jack gradually unravels, it is only because the hotel gives him all that he needs.  He longs for a drink, and so upon walking into the ballroom he finds Lloyd there, waiting, with a martini in hand.  What is interesting is that the first time we meet Lloyd, he is evidently a figment of Jack’s imagination – he never directly speaks for us to hear, but we are told, through Jack’s perspective “Lloyd said it was” so.  He can feel the gin sliding down his throat, smell the acrid scent of gin and olive, yet when he returns to Wendy, there is no smell, her nervous tic of smelling him as he enters proves fruitless.  As the hotel increases in power, though, these figments become a reality – streamers remain despite the absence of party-goers, and Lloyd becomes real, conversant directly to us.  Likewise, the spectre of Grady could be shrugged off as an hallucination, but he is able to open the door to the pantry, releasing Jack on a promise that he will “educate” his wife and child, killing her “if necessary”. 

The hotel manages itself, and it deals with any problems in the only way it knows how – through the corruption of the weak.  We could be excused for believing that Jack gives himself willingly, but I don’t believe that is the case – although he does hand himself over to The Overlook (after all, “it’s me!” the hotel wants), he is able to put on one final, desperate show of love for Danny, telling him to run and leave before bludgeoning his own face into an unrecognisable pulp, with a roque mallet no less.  The grand unmasking happens then, one which has been hinted at throughout, reinforcing that here, all times truly are one, and life is an endless masked ball and we are all merely players waiting to show our true face.  That Jack’s true face dehumanises him so completely is apt.

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