Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Shining by Stephen King

A bit like Jaws (qv) I came to The Shining having originally seen the film with its iconic performance by Jack Nicholson (“Here’s Johnny!”) and direction by Stanley Kubrick. A step back to the original source material is well worth the effort; The Shining is easily one of King’s best novels.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Disgraced English teacher and retired alcoholic Jack Torrance is hired to looked after The Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies during the closed winter season. Isolated there with his wife and son, whose telepathic abilities are dubbed shining, he succumbs to cabin fever and tries to kill his family, aided and abetted in no small way by the supernatural forces in the hotel itself. King sets this up in a few chapters, and then spends the next four hundred pages scaring heck out of the reader...

It’s certainly a drinker’s book. By all accounts King was shifting it a bit around the time of writing, and Jack’s struggles with the sauce are heartfelt and visceral. Sober for over a year since he broke his son’s arm, Jack has ‘white knuckled’ his withdrawal from the drink with no AA meetings or medical assistance, no help whatsoever, just his ever weakening resolve:

...a bitterly powerful wave of nostalgia swept over him, and the physical craving for a drink seemed to work itself up from his belly to his throat to his mouth and nose, shrivelling and wrinkling the tissues as it went, making them cry out for something wet and long and cold.

Having just been accused of trying to strangle his son, he has left his terrified wife locked in the staff quarters upstairs in the hotel and wandered into the deserted Colorado Lounge. Peering into the dark, he sees bottles on the empty shelves.

The shelves were totally bare. But now, lit only murkily by the light which filtered through from the dining room (which was itself only dimly lit because of the snow blocking the windows), he thought he saw ranks and ranks of bottles twinkling mutedly behind the bar, and siphons, and even beer dripping from the spigots of all three highly polished taps.

Hallucinating, play acting, reminiscing, Jack approaches the bar:

“Hi Lloyd,” he said. “A little slow tonight, isn’t it?” Lloyd said it was. Lloyd asked him what it would be. “Now, I’m really glad you asked me that,” Jack said, “Really glad. Because I happen to have two twenties and two tens in my wallet and I was afraid they’d be sitting right there until sometime next April. There isn’t a Seven-Eleven around here, would you believe it? And I thought they had Seven-Elevens on the fucking moon.” Lloyd sympathized. “So here’s what,” Jack said. “You set me up an even twenty martinis. An even twenty, just like that, kazang. One for every month I’ve been on the wagon and one to grow on. You can do that, can’t you? You aren’t too busy?”

And somewhere in Jacks mind it’s very real indeed:

Jack contemplated the twenty imaginary drinks, the martini glasses blushing droplets of condensation, each with a swizzle poked through a plump green olive. He could almost smell gin on the air.

As Jack starts his inexorable descent into madness and violence, The Shining shows itself to be a masterpiece of psychological terror.

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