For thousands, perhaps millions of readers out there, Stephen King has been, and will continue to be, a great writer. I, however, have come to the conclusion that Stephen King is perhaps not for me.
Now that that’s established, here are my 2 cents on “The Shining”.
In my (admittedly limited) experience, this is what Stephen King is all about – on the plus side, there is always an unquestionably good idea at the root of it all; on the minus side: firstly, it surprises me that he is considered the master of horror, as – beyond one or two short scenes here and there, there is absolutely no sense of terror in his works; secondly, I keep losing interest in the story because of his repetitive sentences and chapters that meander on and on; and finally, I am so put off by his terrible comedy that is always embarrassingly cheesy, consistently ill-timed, and jarringly out of character.
The central concept of the ‘shining’ – a psychic ability to see glimpses of the past, present and future – is really interesting. However “The Shining” turned out to be the soap opera story of the Torrance family – Jack, whose life is all about alcoholism, a frightful temper, and failure as a teacher and a writer; his wife Wendy, an insipid woman who continues to stay with her husband despite the fact that his rage-induced beatings have included deliberately breaking their 3-year old son’s arm when he spilt beer on his papers; and their son Danny who despite his mother’s love and his father’s shockingly poor treatment of them, shows a clear preference for his father over his mother. It is the story of this family’s move to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, an isolated resort where the hotel’s mysterious past acts upon Jack’s own alcohol withdrawal symptoms and an inherently violent nature, leading him to go insane and brutally attack his family.
The narrative for the large part is very dull, owing to the fact that the author tends to either be repetitive or say things that are unnecessary. (Yes, we get it; Jack is the alcoholic son of an alcoholic father, and the deep social significance of him beating up his son is the fact that his father used to beat him up). There are pages and chapters where nothing happens. Don’t get me wrong – it is not that I demand high action or high drama from every sentence. The majority of the reading I have done in my life is from the classic era, when writers would take their time getting to the heart of the matter. But when Charles Dickens, just to take one example, talks at length on peripheral matters, his writing is of such high calibre, one reads on just for the sheer pleasure of reading. Stephen King of course can lay claim to no such excellence, and the mind often wanders.
The author also has a mild tendency to ‘talk down’ to the reader. Any time he makes a remotely clever comment, he immediately follows it up with a detailed explanation (in parenthesis, no less), making it quite clear that there was no way the reader would have understood the subtle nuance.
For a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was a sad lack of the element of horror or even a mildly fearful tone in this story. That said, there were three interesting scenes: in the elevator, where scenes of the hotel’s opening midnight ball come to life, Danny’s experience in room 217, and the garden’s topiary animals coming to life. (This scene was unfortunately ruined by the fact that the exact same scene was narrated twice, with just Jack substituted for Danny, almost as if the author was really trying to milk the limited ideas available).
Also for a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was an overload of comedy – not witty comic relief to break the tension and keep the flow going, but pathetic attempts at being funny. Here is one example: When student George Hatfield loses a debate he had worked long and hard for, it is a moment of great loss and embarrassment for him. His stammer comes out, increasing his sense of shame at – what he considers – a painful personal weakness. He looks to his teacher Jack Torrance for help – who makes fun of him in front of all the other students. It was an intense moment, filled with drama and pathos. And this was the moment S. King decided to insert a joke about how “you really couldn’t offer a tongue an extra fifty a week and a bonus at Christmas if it would agree to stop flapping like a record needle in a defective groove.” Here’s another example: when Wendy sees Danny with a swollen lip and Danny tries his best to be brave about it, Wendy (who, by the way, is sure that it was most likely the result of another attack by her husband) says, “he is like a Timex, takes a licking and keeps on ticking”. (Ignoring for the moment the silliness of the comment) is that really something a worried mother would say at that precise moment? Or is that, once again, the voice of a behind-the-scenes comedian?
And finally a note about the characters. None of the three main characters are worth mentioning. I did like Dick Hallorann a lot – through his conversations with Danny, he explains what the ‘shining’ is, and is the one who, after receiving a telepathic call for help from Danny, rushes to the Overlook and heroically saves mother and son from the possessed Jack. It’s a pity he only appears briefly in the beginning and towards the end.
A disappointing read. It actually amazes me that the mind behind this work is the same mind behind Richard Bachmann’s truly brilliant “The Long Walk”.