Friday, October 12, 2012

Stephen King: The Shining (1977)

Here's a post I never thought I'd write.  Stephen King ain't half bad, and The Shining ought to be part of the Canon. 

Me and Stephen King go way back.  When I was in high school in the '80s he was all the shit - he was what most of my friends who read books read, when they weren't reading Tolkien.  He was also the one popular writer that educators - like my senior year AP English teacher (the same one who gave me a reader's guide to Ulysses as a graduation present) - would recommend to kids to get them "hooked on reading."  The thinking seemed to be that he was a good enough storyteller to entice even the most illiterate teen through the arduous task of turning pages and sounding out words, but that he was also - somehow, someway - "literary" enough that teachers didn't feel like they were utterly turning their backs on the Grand Tradition of Western Humanism by recommending him.

I never read him at all until this last spring.  Two reasons, I guess.  One is that Stephen King at the time always struck me as the literary equivalent of, I dunno, Foreigner?  Kiss?  Bon Jovi?  I mean, name a big dumb hard rock band of the '80s.  But the second and real reason, which I would in fact admit to if pressed, was that horror as a genre scared the shit out of me.  I once made the mistake of watching a Freddy Krueger movie and had to leave the theater;  even a few years after high school when I saw Silence of the Lambs, I had nightmares for months.  So, Stephen King?  No thanks.

My horror aversion kind of slipped away as I grew older and more phlegmatic.  After 30, anyway, I no longer got spooked by stuff like that.  But still, I never got around to reading King until this past spring, when I was teaching Yoshimoto Banana's Amrita.  I kept reading that King was one of her favorite authors, and it bothered me that I'd never read him.  I picked up this and a couple of others, and wow:  not bad.

I knew, by this time, the Kubrick film, but (like, my sense is, most Kubrick fans) I expected this to be a case of a nontranscendent genre novel getting turned into Something More.  But in fact the book is already Something More.  The horror is there - the genre requirements get satisfied, and then some - but it's also a surprisingly detailed and sensitive character sketch.  You get to know Jack and his problems well enough to understand quite easily why the Overlook Hotel found him a good target.  Which is to say, you come to believe Jack capable of great cruelty and violence without any help from supernatural forces.  And (what helps make it satisfying for those who read for depth rather than just thrills) you also come to pity him - to understand him well enough to feel sorrow as well as horror at his character.

What's more, ever since reading it I'm seeing Shining references in the most surprising places.  The one that really got me was when I realized that the last part of Murakami Haruki's Wild Sheep Chase is an obvious gloss on the ending of The Shining.  (The book version, not the film.)

Part of the value of a canon for me - why despite having come of age during the Canon Wars and despite devoting my career to the study of books that would never have been admitted to the Canon in the West when it was at its strongest - is its utility.  I like being able to get the joke.  I like being able to know what Murakami's doing when he blows up that house at the end of the book.  I like what he's doing:  I like how he's using his work as a commentary on King's, and King's work as a commentary on his own, and I like the mental exercise of comparing the two, and the aesthetic payoff that comes with appreciating the two in juxtaposition.  A canon gives writers and readers the tools to do this.  Of course writers will always make references, and will and should never be limited in those references to a predetermined set of works - that's not what I'm saying at all - and I would never advocate for a canon as a thing written in stone reflecting some sort of eternal principles.  I'm just saying that if a citizen, in the process of becoming educated, is exposed to some kind of body of works that have helped shape the culture around her, then she's that much more equipped to understand that culture - where it's coming from, what it's actually trying to say (and do) to her.  ...In the end, of course, what I'm talking about is social cohesion, right?  I believe there ought to be a way for us to learn how to talk to one another, get at least some of each other's jokes, without it necessarily meaning that we're all homogenized.

On the other hand, I still haven't read Ulysses.


Jo said...

Wow, it's been ages since I read The Shining. Maybe I'll have to go back to it. I agree that in his better books, King is using horror for a bigger and better purpose.

Also, much as people love Kubrick's adaptation I've never loved it. The visuals are great, but some of the book's storytelling got lost in the process. (I know, that happens in just about all movies but with this one I was neither scared nor moved like I was by the book.)

Matt said...

The Shining book/movie are hard to compare fairly because although they have the same basic ingredients (troubled family, haunted hotel, isolation), their universes seem to have different "rules", and things go bad for different reasons and in different ways. In particular the movie amputates Jack's humanity -- he never even seems to WANT to turn his life around. Which doesn't make it a bad story or anything (I really like the movie), but it's nothing like the story King told.

Anyway, Sarge, I don't know if you were aware of this, but you're just in time for the sequel to the Shining! King's about to release it, it stars Danny all grown up and fighting psychic vampires. Mark your calendar!

Also, if you are interested in suggestions for where to go next with King, allow me to cast a vote for Misery and Skeleton Crew.

Tanuki said...

Yeah, I certainly don't want to suggest that Kubrick's Shining isn't a worthwhile piece of art in its own right, and in some ways probably more sophisticated than King's original. He's not interested in Jack's humanity, but in something else entirely. And as is often the case in Kubrick's films, that "something else" is so intellectually abstract and dehumanized that it kind of undercuts the emotional reaction that the genre seems to be promising. Of course, I think that's what a lot of Stanley's fans like...

I didn't realize King was coming out with a sequel. I'll have to check that out. Along with Misery and Skeleton Crew. I've actually taken my second and third steps with King (Carrie and Dead Zone), and hope to have posts up about them shortly - but those can be 4 and 5.