Friday, December 27, 2013

The Shining: King Stretches Storyline Both Ways

Reflection on THE SHINING by Stephen King.  I read it on the Amazon Kindle.

After some iconic lines spoken by Jack Nicholson ("Do you like it?" "Honey, I'm home!" and "He-e-re's Johnny!"), my strongest memory from seeing Kubrick's THE SHINING four decades ago is the tracking shot of little "Danny" riding his Big Wheel bike through a maze of hallways in the enormous empty hotel.   Stephen King's original novel doesn't give us any of those lines or the Big Wheel, but the image of a maze does help me to describe his achievement in this novel. 

I know from his memoir that he prefers "story" to "plot," meaning that he himself doesn't know what's around the corner of any chapter in his first draft.  In that way, the progress of this novel is like a maze.

But he doesn't just blunder forward.  Like Theseus in the ancient myth, King lays down thread at each step of the way, tying end to beginning.  The threads go back, not just to earlier chapters, but to earlier years in the characters' lives. 

The technique pays off in credibility.  I don't suppose anyone needs a spoiler alert before I say that little Danny's father will be stalking the boy before the novel ends, but it would be hard to believe had we not seen incidents in Jack's life that prepare us to believe that he's a man prone to lose control.  Even the draft of a play that Jack intends to write concerns a sudden turning of father figure on youth.  Near the end, we learn that Jack's own father bludgeoned Jack's mother nearly to death.  When the adult Jack teeters on the edge of violence, an epiphany about his father makes the final slip believable: The father had done it to free himself of the wife's dead weight on his aspirations.  It makes deranged sense, and so does the climax.   We don't even need the supernatural ghosts and the hotel's satanic "manager" to believe it.

It also pays off in emotion.   If this were a video game, I suppose the action would simply move forward, and we'd never get time out to learn of the early years of the marriage, or the tortured relationship of wife Wendy to her jealous mother;  but her own feelings of self-doubt and guilt help the story along, and explain some crucial hesitations.  The entire book is warmed by the off-stage presence of Dick Hallorann, the hotel's chef who appears just long enough in the early chapters to teach little Danny about the extra-sensory "shining" they share.   I wept with a combination of pity and relief when Hallorann, down in Florida, receives Danny's mental Mayday, "COME COME DICK HURRY."

By the end of the book, I'd almost forgotten another character, "Tony," who appears only to little Danny.   He's an ambiguous "imaginary friend" who is either warning Danny away from danger or else leading him astray.  His reemergence adds another layer of emotion and excitement to the climactic scenes, as we get a sense that the good guys and bad guys have all gathered forces for their final confrontation.  It feels great.

Besides all this, even some little through-lines make the supernatural feel real.  For one example, our characters see three nuns sitting on a sofa in the lobby on the hotel's closing day.  That image becomes a touchstone for normal, and fleeting memories of it ground later fantasy in reality.  Then there's the image of "wasps."  Jack has memories of wasps; there's a wasps' nest in the attic; the snowmobile is colored and shaped like a wasp; fluorescent lights in the kitchen buzz like wasps at the moment Wendy tries to lock Jack away; and the man Dick Hallorann who attempts to rescue the family is reminded of a cloud of wasps.   The buzzing, the sting, the hidden menace, the thousand beings acting as one -- all of these give us a strong sense of how the characters experience the hotel's malevolence.

Of course, now I have to read the sequel, Dr. Sleep.  No sleep tonight, I guess. 

PS - To check the internet for spelling "Hallorann," I ran across a sampling of scenes from the movie on YouTube.  Having read so often that the movie was a disappointing departure from the novel, I'm struck by how much of the dialogue I recognize from King, and how Kubrick compresses chapters in some deft strokes -- particularly in the scene that begins with Wendy's reading Jack's "script." 

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